Terroir need not affect our beer. A feature of the postmodern era is that we can easily choose to avoid that sense of place—in fact, that’s become our default position as brewers.
Does that mean that terroir is irrelevant to beer? No. It only means that terroir has become a choice. Over the years we’ve written about (and recorded podcasts with) numerous North American brewers who have made that choice to limit their choices, to make beers that somehow taste of their places—such as Jester King in Texas, Wolves & People in Oregon, Garden Path in Washington State, Wheatland Spring in Virginia, and more.
For perspective on how the whole paradigm of “farmhouse brewing” is expanding and shifting, here we spotlight three European breweries: Eik & Tid in Norway, Kemker Kultuur in Germany, and Antidoot in Belgium. Each is brewing with mixed cultures its own way, and each is inspired as much by what contemporary brewers have done as by the cultures and histories of their own places in the world.
Alverskirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
“Beer is made for drinking,” says Jan Kemker, “not for overthinking.”
This comment comes, in retrospect, after I’ve asked one too many questions about whether terroir matters.
Kemker—brewer and founder of a German farmhouse brewery that embraces local products, mixed-culture fermentation, and barrel-aging, and is strongly inspired by historical beer styles—says that beer and wine geeks spend too much time dissecting their drinks.
“Like, you have a dead body, and you open the layers—next layer, and the next layer—and you forget in the moment that you had some food on the table, and your food is getting cold. And, the vibes with your friends are getting cold.
“So, don’t think too much. Drink.”
An Agricultural (Brewing) Business
Kemker founded the brewery in 2017; his partner Nicole Marzec joined two years later to form the duo behind Kemker Kultuur. Their products go beyond beer to include cider, crusty loaves of rye bread, and other treats such as mustard made from the cider and pâté made from the beer. They sell these products online as well as at a weekly hofverkauf, or farm sale, at the brewery in the village of Alverskirchen, about 15 kilometers southeast of Münster.
At university, Kemker studied agriculture and the food business, and he knew he wanted to work in that area. Around his hometown of Münster, there were jobs in the agricultural supply chain, but they were tied to conventional farming; he wanted to be part of something he viewed as more sustainable and smaller scale. There was some distant farming background in his family, but there was no farm to take over. Also, farmland in that area is among the most expensive in Europe; simply buying land to start a farm was not an option. “We need to have a business model that kind of works for us,” he says. “It’s not possible to just do farming here, like classical farming. You need to inherit something.”
So, he knew he would have to start from scratch. He also knew that he liked beer.
That interest began as a teenager; the legal drinking age in Germany is 16. He tasted his first Belgian ale at the age of 18, and it was like an awakening. “Back in the day, that was an eye-opener,” he says. “Like, ‘Beer can taste like something!’” He wanted to drink that kind of beer at home, but it was expensive and hard to find in Germany. “And I had the smart idea: ‘Yeah, homebrewing! It’s going to be cheaper!’
“Of course, it was a fun hobby,” he says. However, spoiler alert: “It wasn’t cheaper.”
At first, he jumped from style to style, trying to brew everything from an Irish red to a Cascadian dark ale. Over the years and after more travels, he gradually narrowed down his preferences toward the dry, complex, fruit-forward character he produces and enjoys today.
In the meantime, however, he inevitably began thinking of how to combine his interests in beer and agriculture.
“What was pretty close to farming was brewing,” Kemker says, “especially the way we do things now in the brewery—like working very [closely] with farmers preserving old grain varieties, planting trees for cider, and so on.” He also knew the by-products, such as spent grains and apple pomace, could then be fed to livestock. “So that was the value stream on how we can build a farm ourselves.”
Around 2014, he explained the farm-brewery idea to a professor; she was not amused. A couple of years later, when he had further refined the idea, he pitched the idea to some bankers; they were not amused either. “‘There isn’t a market, it isn’t a proven business model,’ and whatever,” Kemker says. “Well then, fuck it. No one’s giving money for my idea to open a generic craft brewery. Well then, I could at least start small and brew beers that I like to drink.
“And that’s how the idea of Kemker Kultuur was born. … We started completely bootstrapped.”
Also, he adds, “I’m now brewing the beers that I like to drink, and that’s dry and fruity beers.” He also appreciates beers that are sour, bitter, herbal, or smoky. He generally avoids sweetness—the sweetest beer he enjoys, he says, is Schlenkerla Märzen—and there is nobody telling him to brew a sweet beer, or anything else that might sell better.
Connecting with Local History
Kemker knew that Münsterland, where he and Marzec were born and grew up, was where he wanted to be. Yet, for him, there is another attraction to the area: its brewing history, little-known to the current inhabitants. While Münster today has more than 300,000 people who drink mainly industrial pilsner and altbier, Kemker says it was once a town of just 10,000 people boasting 140 breweries making beer in a wide range of styles.
Even in Germany, few people realize the diversity of styles that the country once brewed, including many top-fermented beers in the north. There was a broad belt across the grain-growing, commercially connected regions of Europe brewing pale, acidic beers. The most famous survivors are lambic and Berliner weisse—“but if you draw a line from Brussels to Berlin, you find lots of cities,” Kemker says. Münster is in that belt, as are Düsseldorf, Köln, Leipzig, and Goslar.
Münster was a gruit-brewing city about 600 years ago, and later it was famous for brewing keut, which evolved from gruit but embraced hopping as fashions changed. By the 19th century, however, Münster’s own version of altbier had become dominant—this was an aged and acidic beer that apparently had its lovers and haters even at the time. Local brewery Pinkus Müller’s unusual Pinkus Alt is a vestige of that tradition, with its own light lactic tang.
“The beers that were brewed here were also sour or herbal beers, and also some table beers, spelt beers,” Kemker says.
Though the brewers’ understanding of them would have been different from our own, those all would have been mixed-culture beers, enjoyed either fresh or with a more vinous character that developed over time. Thus, the local history isn’t only compatible with Kemker’s relatively austere tastes. It’s also compatible with his own mixed culture of yeast and bacteria.
Kemker began developing his house culture during his homebrewing days. It began by pitching in bottle dregs and yeast strains of beers that he liked, but now it’s evolved and taken on a life of its own. Lactobacillus and Pediococcus are in the mix, as are “all three families” of Brettanomyces, according to an analysis that Richard Preiss of Escarpment Labs did for him.
One of Kemker’s signature beers is Aoltbeer, a barrel-aged, mixed-culture riff on the old Münsterisch altbier, sometimes with grapes, other fruit, or additional hops added. His recipe includes barley and spelt because he believes that’s what they were mostly growing in the area back then. He also uses whole-cone hops, somewhat aged, just as they would have before electric refrigeration. (There were no T-90 pellets or walk-in coolers back then. There were burlap sacks, and there were dry attics.)
The beer itself, however, would have matured underground. The Münster brewers had their own cellars below the city where they could store and age the beer, and this would have meant a longer, cooler, slower maturation, and possibly a softer acidic bite. “We had less acetic acid in the beers, compared to lambic,” Kemker says. “And that’s what we tried to mimic with our current location.”
The current location is a former cattle barn that Kemker renovated in 2018. It stays relatively cool, even in summer. Kemker says this inhibits the acetic-acid production—though he wouldn’t mind just a touch more of that vinegar-like sharpness. “Because you need a little bit, like a spice in cooking,” he says. “You need to have a little bit of acetic acid to make a barrel-aged beer interesting.” Some beers that they have aged longer, for two years, have developed that spice, he says.
Kemker also occasionally brews an interpretation of gruit, in collaboration with local beer historian Phillip Overberg and his Gruthaus brand. The red-brown beer, called Dubbel Porse, is flavored with what they believe to be the original gruit mixture of Münster: bog myrtle, caraway, juniper, and just a bit of hops.
About 85 percent of Kemker’s production is aged in various types of wine barrels. The current oak-aging capacity is about 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons). “We experimented a bit with other barrels. Rum was very disappointing. We threw away the beer; it didn’t taste good.”
He tends to age the beer for a long time, and he says he thinks in terms of summers instead of years. “I think most of the beers are ready when they have seen two summers,” he says. “But sometimes you also have a pretty good beer after one summer. So, it’s between 10 months and 20 months.”
Kemker Abides, Establishing Roots
Without some kind of validation, it’s not the German way to appreciate unusual things that appear in your own backyard.
Outside of a few aficionados and a couple of Münster restaurants with artisanal interests, the locals overlook Kemker’s beers; they don’t fit the prevailing understanding of what “beer” is supposed to be. The villagers, he says, privately predict the imminent failure of the “sour-beer brewer” any day now. Somehow, he’s still there. (Occasionally, a local will take a business trip to Berlin and encounter a Kemker beer, and then some measure of local pride must emerge. “Oh, it actually tastes good!” they’ll report.)
For the most part, Kemker’s customers are farther abroad. Kemker Kultuur sells beer via their website—often for less than €10 a bottle—and that direct-to-consumer shipping within Europe has been helpful during the pandemic, while making those beers accessible to those who appreciate them.
They don’t own the farm, but they rent. In cooperation with the landlord, they’ve grown older heirloom varieties of oats and barley and planted apple trees for cider. They also planted more apple trees on his uncle’s land. They partner with another farmer nearby in growing spelt for the brewery, as well as schwarze pfauengerste, or black peacock, a dark-husked heirloom barley.
Embracing those historic grains is one way that Kemker’s beers are developing their own local strut. “It was used for brewing 150 years ago,” he says of the black barley. “And it was a bit neglected because the yields weren’t that good, and it was also tough to grow it. But the malting process was quite good, and the end-product was quite good. And it’s also looking quite nice.”
When asked about terroir, Kemker responds by explaining that he can’t taste the difference between barley grown on loamy soil versus that grown on sandy soil. Instead, what interests him and Marzec is “a local value chain.” They like that the grains are grown locally (and wish there were a small maltster nearby). They like that the by-products of their beer and cider help to feed nearby livestock.
Why brew beer this way? “Why not?” he asks. “The brewery started bootstrapped, so it’s not investor-driven. So basically, we can do what we want [as long as] we still make turnover, or profit. There are not lots of people who can talk—it’s Nicole and me, we are making the decisions, and we decided that we wanted to go this route.”
They know there are easier ways—and cheaper ways. “I could buy conventional grain and save some thousands of bucks per year, but then I don’t have anything to tell,” Kemker says. “Finding stories is also challenging. So, if you do something good, then you have something to talk about.”
There is something else, too: never quite knowing the next plot twist, whether tragic or sublime. Either way, it will be something new.
“It’s a very repetitive process, what we do, but the outcomes are often very different,” Kemker says. “Because the organic grains, they are inconsistent, they change all the time. Then the climate in the brewery changes all the time. Barrels behave differently. The yeast culture behaves differently [during] the year.
“I don’t know if we need to call it terroir,” he says. “It’s liquid storytelling, I think.”