Wine lovers have long known that the terroir, or soil and climate conditions in which grapes are grown, has a powerful effect on the final taste of the wine. Terroir gives wines produced in different places unique attributes, even if the same type of grapes and winemaking processes are used.

People may not know it, but geology affects the taste and attributes of beer too – maybe even more than it effects the taste of wine.

Consider the IPA: Historically, India Pale Ales were exported to India because, for some reason, they were one of the few beers that didn’t go bad during shipping from Britain. The beer was originally made at Burton-upon-Trent, a town about 40 km northeast of Birmingham.

We know know that the beer brewed at Burton is made using well water rich in gypsum, a mineral that contains sulfates. The sulfates prevented the beer from spoiling during transit. To this day, brewers all over the world use a process called “Burtonisation”, which involves adding gypsum to source water to make beer that is similar to the IPAs brewed in Burton.

The character of a beer depends largely on the character of the water used to make it. This isn’t really surprising, given that water is over 90% water by volume.

One of the biggest distinctions between water sources is the presence of dissolved minerals. Hard water, containing high concentrations of calcium, sulfates, and bicarbonates, tends to make good hoppy, light colored beers. Soft water, in contrast, produces good dark beers.

In an industry dominated by large breweries, there is something to be said for beer that is produced in one place, using one source of water.

But we’ve left something out:

Although the water certainly has a major impact on the chemistry of beer, the character of the hops and the grain certainly has an influence too.

The conditions in which the hops and grains are grown is the biggest contributor to their flavor. Soil type, temperature, precipitation, and sunlight, all effect how the genes of a species are expressed, a process known as epigenetics. Epigenetic processes allow one species of hops tp produce many different flavors, depending on which genes are “switched on” by the environmental and soil conditions.

As the popularity of microbreweries and beer tasting continues to rise, wine may have a new rival in the world of specialty beverages – especially among geologists, who may be just as interested in discussing the mineral content of well water as in the beer itself.

On second thought, maybe they’ll still prefer to drink the beer.

To learn more about the relationship between geology and beer, check out these interesting articles:

Beer’s Secret Ingredient: Geology

The Dirt on Terroir

With Great Beer, It’s All in the Rocks (and That Doesn’t Mean Ice)