Monday, March 12, 2012

Bogs, Booze, and Climate Change, part 1

Tscaz olkrus ubt
Beer: Perhaps the world's most audible source of C02 emissions (*belch*)

At first glance, it might be difficult to see how a frosty pint of beer could relate to climate change. Believe me, when I find myself discouraged by the daunting future of our changing planet, I expect an icy libation to help me forget about these problems. Beer, however, has a rich history that is tied quite intimately with the environment.

In Europe, there's a distinctive "line" separating areas with a beer-drinking heritage and those of a wine-drinking heritage. Not surprisingly, this line divides the Mediterranean areas of thriving grape production from the temperate areas of diverse herbs and plants that have been used throughout the history of beer-making. The only one of these herbs still widely used today is hops, which can be about as finicky as grapes when it comes to climatic requirements. It thrives around the 45th parallel, which corresponds to Oregon in the U.S. and Germany in Europe, both of which produce many of the world's best-known hop varieties.

Before hops, a proprietary blend of preservative and flavoring herbs known as gruit was used in brewing beer (read a little more about gruit and brewing in my latest post on gruit ale here). The selection of herbs used in gruit varied widely ("I'll bet these berries are only a little poisonous..."). But in general, one of the most commonly used ingredients was a small shrub known as bog myrtle. Like grapes and hops, bog myrtle prefers a specific environment (though it's not quite as picky as grapes and hops...). Bog myrtle likes peaty soils, high in acidity and organic matter. As its name suggests, it grows in bogs.

You may wonder: why do we digress into bogs when we should be discussing beer and astrology? Have I had one beer too many? The boggy peatlands, as it turns out, are a big factor in European history, in the development of beer, and in climate change (to be discussed in part 2). Here's a map showing some of Europe's libation geography:

Though perhaps not 100% exact, you can see the general range of plant habitats. Wine doesn't do terribly well in Lithuania, and bog myrtle doesn't have much luck on the Sicilian coast. Hops falls in the middle, and sure enough parties with everybody. Germany, a country in which hops and wine overlap, is known for both outstanding hops and world-renowned wine production. England, where hops and bog myrtle's peat-bog home overlap, was an area of intense conflict when hops began to compete with gruit herbs back in the middle ages. Stephen Harrod Buhner, in an article here about the fall of gruit ale, quotes a complaint made by a distraught medieval brewer to the mayor of London:

"a deceivable and unholesome fete in bruying of ale within the said citee nowe of late [that] is founde in puttyng of hoppes and other things in the said ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruynge of Ale of old tyme used. . . . Pleas it therfore your saide good lordshyppe to forbid the putting into ale of any hops, herbs, or other like thing, but only licour, malte, and yeste."

Although hops had become standard in Germany and the Netherlands, the brewers of medieval England stayed loyal to their gruit heritage (for a short time, anyway. Southern England eventually embraced hops with beer styles such as the India Pale Ale). Scotland and Scandinavia, too far north for hops to venture, are home to some really interesting pre-hop brews (including heather ale and a gruit brewed with juniper berries). To this day, Scottish-style beer is characterized by very toned-down hops. Bog myrtle is used in Scandinavia in modern times as an ingredient in home-made liquor infusions. It's inescapable- the effects of climate and environment on drinking culture endure.

That drinking heritage may be facing changes, though. Climate transformation, rising temperatures and freak weather are affecting grapes and hops alike, and the vast peat bogs around the world's northern latitudes are a ticking timebomb of carbon emissions. Read more about these changes and what the future may hold in part 2!

Readers: what do you think about climate change? Do you ever consider the history of your favorite libations? Leave a comment!


Anonymous said...

Idiotic map. You have no knowledge about winemaking in Europe. Another ignorant and idiot for usa. Learn a little bit, american morons.

Beau said...

What a kind, mild-mannered response that was, anonymous. I was hoping my map would just give a general idea-
"Though perhaps not 100% exact, you can see the general range of plant habitats."
I apologize, readers, for any inaccuracy, and hope it did not detract from my main points.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a late post, but would like to thank you for your map, rather than take issue with it like the anonymous weirdo.

I was using Google Images to look up Bog Myrtle Beer and your map came up as one of the options. Loved it.

The use of lines that resembled colored markers was an obvious indication that it was approximate and for casual discussion only.

It lead me to the article and gave me good information. Thanks for your work and your lovely map.