Prairie Artisan Ales, out of Krebs, Oklahoma, may be defying everything we know about terroir. Terroir is the wine (and sometimes food) based concept that ties the flavor/taste of the product to the land and environment (soil, water, air). Much has been written on terroir – including the very good The Taste of Place – and much has been debated regarding what terroir is and how it may apply to products outside of the wine world. Many in beer tsk tsk the concept of terroir for craft beer. Beer is often not based on the land it comes from – hops, grain, barley, other ingredients likely come from elsewhere (though water, filtered water, is local). I’ve long thought of beer and terroir as mostly emotional rather than logical. We can point to the specific conditions that give rise to Cantillon’s lambics (the critters living in the Belgian air), but even more than the critters, the emotional connection many of us connect to lambic and Belgium makes Cantillon’s take on the style so much more special than what other breweries do.
For this reason, San Diego and Santa Rosa might hold special terroir-like associations for those of us who love Lost Abbey or Russian River sours. The sour that makes a beer like Consecration or Cuvee de Tomme amazing may not actually be bound to San Diego or Santa Rosa, but the emotional connection may, indeed, be bound. The same may be said when we speak of concepts such as Michigan beer or Colorado beer. It’s not the land that yields the connection; it’s the emotions we attach to the breweries we love who come form these (and other) states. We create emotional categories and treat the beers and breweries as having like-minded terroir conditions. We can group Bells and Founders together as much as we group Great Divide, Odell, and New Belgium. Emotional terroir allows us to do so.
All this causes me to ask: What is our emotional connection to Krebs, Oklahoma? I was born in Oklahoma, and I have no idea where Krebs is. I Googled the city, and discovered that 13 years ago, its population was 2,051. That might have been before the Praire Artisan Ales’ brothers showed up. There might now be 2,053 people in Krebs. Or these guys were there 13 years ago as well, and the population hasn’t changed one bit. I don’t know. But this is all the information I have to go by for now when it comes to discussing Krebs, Oklahoma.
What do I mean by defying terroir? I mean everything that goes against our emotional expectations regarding the connection between land and beer. I may have first experienced this idea when I tasted the lambic beers Upstream in Nebraska was producing when it ran a coolship in Omaha. Nothing about Omaha said lambic to me. But the beers were good. I’m experiencing that feeling again as I drink this Prairie Gold. This is not a lambic. But it tastes like a lambic: tart, lambic aroma, lemon, semi-dry. Its taste and location are defying terroir. Oklahoma does not say lambic to our emotions the way Belgium might. Gold does. Gold is changing my emotional connection.
Gold is the fourth Prairie I’ve tried. And I’ve got two more new to me Prairie Artisans in my beer fridge in the basement. I have no clue what good deed we did in Kentucky to get these Shelton distributed beers so easily, but we should do more of it. Did we help some old lady cross the road, give to charity, say nice things about each other, not cheat on our taxes? Whatever it is, do more, fellow Kentuckians. These beers are good. They embody everything we love in saisons and semi-dry slightly funky beers – for those of us who love such things. We can place Praire Artisan among some of the best in the business of producing saisons and semi-dry slightly funky beers (Upright, Jolly Pumpkin, Southampton, even Hill Farmstead).
Distribution also owes something to the ways we defy terroir. If Praire Artisan did not hook up with Shelton Brothers the way some similar saison based American brewers have done (Jolly Pumpkin, Jester King, St Somewhere), would we, in a place like Lexington, Kentucky, have the opportunity to confuse and defy our sense of terroir? Shelton takes Oklahoma to Kentucky in this case – much in the way it has brought Belgium to America for some time now. Terroir is a distributed experience. It is not a place based experience. If I – and everyone else who loves saisons and semi-dry slightly funky beers – continue drinking these fine beers from Krebs, Oklahoma, our sense of terroir will be (and there is no other way to say this) completely fucked up. We’ll have to open up to Krebs, Oklahoma the way we have opened up to Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon. Because of one brewery? Yes. That’s all it takes. One brewery in some kind of obscure farmhouse situation in the middle of nowhere where a little over 2,000 people live fucking up our sense of terroir. Talk to Hill Farmstead. They have made this process a pure art form.
Much of this is to say that we need more defiance of terroir. We might claim that American craft beer has long done this – from Sierra Nevada on. But we should also recognize how much of this process continues on and continues to make us confused, but really happy, beer drinkers of semi-dry slightly funky beers.