Imagine if every single bottle of red wine was sourced from the same vine—a world without natural differences between, say, an earthy Oregon pinot noir and a tannic cab franc from the Loire Valley. Say goodbye to the nuances of varietals, region, terroir, the very pillars of wine geekdom.
Believe it or not, this is the world in which brewers have been working for a long time. Barley, the grain that, once malted, makes up the key ingredient in most beers, is largely produced as a commodity (think big production plants churning out a uniform product). Brewers may add ingredients such as hops for a more distinct flavor, but the barley is often the same, particularly in American beers.
Pike Brewing Co.'s Skagit Valley Alba, the first of its planned Locale line of beers, pretty much says to hell with all of that nonsense.
The product of a wild, multidisciplined collaboration, Skagit Valley Alba barley landed on Pike's radar via tasting experiments with WSU's Bread Lab (which has cataloged over 15,000 types of barley). Sourced directly from Knutzen Farms in Skagit Valley—the wetter Western Washington climate makes a perfect home for the low-protein, high-flavor grain—the harvested grains stop at Skagit Valley Malting where they are specially processed using patented machines.
Throw in a trio of hops from Yakima Valley and honey from Snoqualmie County, and voila: the first beer sourced completely from Washington state, crisp and nutty with the gentlest bite of hops. A perfect summer bev.
It might seem strange that brewers are just now attempting to introduce terroir into the beer world, but it's always come down to logistics. Different barley grain requires special treatment from the farmer, the malter, and the brewer. It takes a multifaceted relationship, like the one among the Pike, the Bread Lab, Knutzen Farms, and Skagit Valley Malting to even make small production possible.
Naming the beer for its varietal instead of cheeky branding (looking at you, Kilt Lifter) places the focus on characteristics unique to the grain. Future Locale beers will feature other heritage and varietal malts with recipes unique to each. The hope is that discerning palates will be able to pick up on the nuances of different barley grains, helping to usher in a culture of regional and varietal appreciation similar to that in wine and coffee.
Attention: Beer nerds. Prepare to step up your game.