Loosely translating as a sense of place, terroir refers to the effect a region has had on the production of agricultural products. In the past such a thing was not possible in beer since brewery consolidation and expansion as well as environmental factors (like downy mildew) caused the closure of many malt and hop producers across the country. In fact, most malt used to brew some of your favorite beer is not made from grain grown in the United States. In recent years however there has been a shift, as in many things culinary, toward local ingredients. Large scale craft breweries like Rogue Ales in Oregon and Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in California cultivate their own hops and malt from which they craft beers expressing a sense of place. On a smaller scale, Greenport Harbor Brewing Company has taken the steps toward bringing terroir to the North Fork of Long Island.
Terroir is not a term which normally rolls off the tongue when discussing beer but NYS Farm Brewers, like Greenport Harbor Brewing Company are trying to change that. Each year GHBC uses grape juice and fruit from a local vineyard to brew their Cuvaison, bringing a local quality to the beer. As a NYS Farm Brewery, a license which requires the use of 20% of ingredients produced in NY with the percentage increasing as the years go on, Greenport Harbor not only includes local wine grapes and juice in their Cuvaison but also New York state hops and malt too.
“There are not a ton of all NY beers out there,” said head brewer DJ Swanson when we talked with him about Cuvaison. Each version of this Belgian Strong Ale is unique. It’s a beer which, “captures the whole North Fork thing,” according to Swanson. Co-owner John Liegey commented, “The thing I like about this series is that we do it with a different vineyard every year and it really kinda takes it’s own personality on with the vineyard that we choose.” The 2014 iteration of Cuvaison is a beer that definitely drinks with lots of personality.
This year Cuvaison was made with sauvignon blanc and chardonnay grapes as well as juice from Jamesport Vineyards. “We’re not the smartest guys, you know. It’s you look next door and, ‘Oh, a vineyard. Let’s do something with that,’ ” noted Liegey while contemplating their creation. This is a beer the affable Liegey “sees” on each drive to the brewery months before it is brewed. “There’s the grapes like hanging from the vines when it’s nearly harvest.” Thinking back to those trips he continues, “they are asking for us to brew with them,” something that comes through in the beer.
Cuvaison 2014 meets the drinker with it’s distinct Belgian yeast character as one approaches the glass. Upon sipping it express the white wine grapes used in it’s creation marrying them to the fruity and ester rich yeast characteristics. The experience of tasting this beer closes with a dry, bracing finish which leaves the taster refreshed. Liegey was really happy with the 2014 version remarking, “It kinda finishes with this good vinous thing at the end where you do kinda get the grapes pretty nicely and strongly but it’s super clean.” We share his view points as this Cuvaison appealed not only to us but our non beer drinking friends and family as well. With a lower ABV and overall lighter body than the 2013 version, which was brewed with Merlot grapes and juice from McCall Ranch, this year’s edition is one that could easily pair with food.
Cuvaison is linked to the local harvest as much as any wet/fresh hop ale. It is a beer which is brewed when the year’s grapes are ready to be brought in. Like the wine they are used to produce, variation will be seen based on weather and climate conditions in the finished ale. Cuvaison appears in the market place in limited quantities then is gone until next year but has, so far, never come back exactly the same. Could 2015 be the start of a new trend? “I actually think, ‘wow this is maybe what we should look at next year to try and hit somewhere in this space’ because I see myself having that beer and enjoying something to eat with it,” Liegey said echoing our enjoyment of his brewery’s beer. Look for Cuvaison 2014 at finer eating and drinking establishments over the next several months. This is a versatile and engaging brew which for us captures a sense of Long Island and a bit of brewing terroir.