Editor’s note: Mark works for Waterford Distillery, who work with biodynamic barley growers to distil biodynamic spirit. Which we felt gave him a fascinating perspective to address this article from, but is mentioned here as a declaration of potential interest.
Where does flavour come from?
A simple enough question, with lots of correct answers. Depending on your particular drinks foible – whisky, beer, wine or indeed cider – you’ll have your thoughts. Wood for maturation? Of course. But what do you put in it? A liquid that is the result of fermentations, yeast? You bet. But what was all this acting upon and transforming from one state to another? Your raw material of choice, of course.
Now things get interesting, or nerdier, or weirder. What gives your raw material of choice more flavour – the thing that you turn into alcohol? What creates flavour in the matter – matter which cannot be destroyed of course. Genetics or variety of apple/grape/grain is one good answer. Terroir is another good answer. Combining them both is really the terroir effect, which is to say that combination of variety and terroir, genetics and environment, the interaction of them both; these are good directions for the inquisitive mind.
Nutrients! Ah, now perhaps we’re getting closer to flavour. Nutrients that that the plant takes up from its surrounding environment: which is to say the cards the plant has to play. The big complex subjects of soil microbiology or mycorrhizal fungi. The canvas, the thing in which – on which? – that interaction occurs: the soil, the earth. The substrate, the interchange; like an Amazon Prime delivery driver speeding from depot to home with your parcel, the little fellows in the soil that help shift parcels of nutrients into the root of the plant.
That, ultimately, through myriad complex and often unfathomable mechanics, is where the good stuff occurs and it’s arguably where flavour really begins. If you’re a plant – for some of you I’m asking you to stretch your imagination less than others – you get a substantial amount of your nutrition from the soil, so it makes sense that the better that soil is – the better it is as a substrate for delivering nutrition into the roots of the plant – the better you as a plant would become.
To put it crudely, much like you and I, the plant is what it eats.
Whilst I find soil health interesting (I am a former graduate of Environmental Sciences) the idea that there are so many harvests left (it ranges from 60 to 100 depending on the carelessness of the headline writer) has been shown to be fantasy, so I’m not coming at this from a soil health point of view. Good benefits, sure, but let’s keep this in perspective. As a drinker I am interested in flavour, which starts in the plant, which grows in the ground. (If I was concerned solely about soil health and the environment, then I would be more into rewilding the landscape to allow the development of sophisticated ecosystems – not denying all that by growing stuff on it!)
Surely then, if you were looking to create as much flavour as possible, once you’d finished faffing with your stills/wash tuns/presses/kit/gubbins around the ‘site of production’, and you’d rifled through all the varieties of apples/grapes/grain, you’d then be going back to where the raw materials grow to think: okay, how can I improve things there, in the earth, in the soil?
Surely that sounds reasonable? Sensible?
Good. Then let’s talk about burying cow horns.
Actually not quite yet. A spot of history.
Biodynamics – which is to say that rather esoteric framework of practices, ancient farming ways and curious mystical observations – was codified by Austrian philosopher-scientist and multi-hat-wearer Rudolf Steiner in a series of lectures around a century ago. I won’t go into all of the history, because that would take an awful lot more of your time, but suffice to say it came out of a general germanic-organic movement that at one time both appealed to (for its anti-mechanisation/pastoralism and therefore neatly anti-American vibe) and later appalled (for its religious-mystical tendencies) that rather infamous collective of nasty ruling Germans in the 1930s. Thus comes one lazy set of criticisms to biodynamics: Nazi farming. But that invokes Godwin’s Law rather sooner than I had hoped.
The idea was, in essence, Steiner’s response to what he saw going on between the two World Wars, which is to say the industrialisation, agrochemical interventions, artificial treatments of the soil and so on. It just wasn’t cricket, or the Austrian equivalent, in Steiner’s eyes and so he set about restoring a more ‘natural order’ in a series of lectures in the mid 1920s – a response to a request by others to offer possible insights, solutions, to the industrial changes. In these lectures, which were later written down, he set out his stall: ideas that channelled the ancient, natural, forgotten ways for people to explore on their own modern ways in agriculture. In short, the basis of the biodynamics movement.
I merely scratch the surface here. There are numerous rabbit holes to vanish down, countless figures involved in the past century, a huge backstory and indeed a vast amount of methodology I am skipping over for your sake, not mine. Indeed, I really scratch the surface with much of this article; biodynamics offers a bottomless pit of discussion.
I recall speaking with one of Waterford’s biodynamic growers, Trevor Harris, in Co. Kildare, back before the pandemic – a gentle, deeply thoughtful fellow – and he suggested if I remember correctly that in cultural terms Steiner merely rounded up these biodynamic ideas for folk to have a crack at. That they were starting points, rather than end points. That they were inspiration rather than dogma. This is important, as a lot of the criticisms from many angles of biodynamics surround the biodynamic playbook: the strict adherence to lunar circles and the precise application of preparations. Indeed even within the movement, such an approach has perhaps created mild schisms: some use Steiner’s words as gospel, others as approximate guides. Some lean towards the esoteric for its mildly soothing religious tones (in a complex connected age, who can blame them?); others have become methodical experimenters, pushing beyond the lectures with their own autodidactic techniques. But Steiner’s code touched on some curious subjects.
Does the mention of lunar cycles sound bonkers?
Possibly, for those of us staring behind computer screens; but to seafarers who depend upon the lunar influence of tides? What about the academically researched subject of sleep cycles being affected by the lunar cycle? Madness you say? There’s plenty of research out there to denote the old ways are simply old ways, not necessarily old wives tales. Yet in our digitised world, where we even rationalise our own health in app format, we mistrust primitive knowledge.
Bonkers enough to be seriously adopted decades later by the likes of world-class wine producers: Latour, Zind-Humbrecht. Louis Roederer?
It’s useful to advance with an open mind.
Round the Horn
If organics can be said to be the absence of things going on the land, biodynamics goes far beyond that. Indeed it is addition, rather than omission. The farm becomes a self-contained, living system, compost becomes the engine, the position of the moon the guide for agricultural practices and a few esoteric treatments are the little sparks to ignite – turbocharge – the soil itself. For that is the ultimate aim – to stimulate what is in the soil, microbial activity, to allow that mysterious interchange between soil and root to thrive.
At the crux of his methodology are the famous 500 horn manure and 501 horn silica preparations to treat the soil, or others such as 508 horsetail (a good use for that terrible weed if ever there was one).
These include packing mineral-rich cow horns with manure, burying them underground for half the year, and allowing a sort of subterranean microbial fermentation to take place on the manure. Then, when dug up, what’s inside is scooped out and diluted; and that dilution is applied – not quite sprayed, not quite watered on, but small doses scattered about as a mist – to the soil. What’s more, the science suggests there might be something in it.
Summarising haphazardly here, but the hope becomes that microbial activity is stimulated; seed germination and root development are dialled up and, as a result, there’s a good balance of nutrients in the soil, which texturally, visually, becomes like chocolate sponge cake. The dice are loaded in favour of the plant, but from totally natural means. Plenty more on the biodynamic preparations here.
Back when I visited Trevor, I was impressed with much of the kit he used used – indeed, biodynamic farming can be surprisingly technological. Quad bikes instead of tractors – Trevor’s light-footed equivalent of horse rather than machines to avoid compaction of the soil; specialist machinery such as stirrers to create a vortex in order to mix preparations; air blast sprayers to create a particular mist effect when scattering diluted preparations on the land. Even sowing seed using disc-based machinery rather than conventional methods so as to not disturb the soil too much.
What of the moon? If you nip into a super-specialist bookstore or even garden centre you might find a copy of a biodynamic calendar, so ‘general’ has it become these days. But stick with me: as opposed to just being purely about lunar cycles, the calendar also taps into constellations and carves up the year into elemental days related to various aspects of the plant: root, leaf, flower and fruit days. What this basically does is guide the farmer or gardener as to when to sow, harvest, prune, according to optimal times – and always informed by the moon.
Nothing new here, however: Pliny the Elder, in his History of Nature, documented how the Ancient Romans used the moon to guide agricultural practices such as pruning. But what have the Romans ever done for us? The scientific literature seems notably scarce on this in general, though absence of evidence is not evidence of absence on this matter. The jury isn’t so much out, but they’ve not even been summoned to trial. Yet the lunar influence has been shown in peer-reviewed studies elsewhere, notably human physiology and behaviour.
I suppose my own feeling about the nuts and bolts of biodynamic agriculture is just how seriously involved it is. My grandparents were farmers; I’ve done my stint, albeit in a non-committal, my livelihood wasn’t on the line kind of way. So I can tell what total investment of mind, body and soul farming is anyway, let alone biodynamic farming. Adherence to strict calendars, sourcing the kit, the time, effort, blood, sweat, tears to bypass conventional systems; all the while being slightly apprehensive about others thinking you’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic. It’s all in. There’s no going back. The attention to detail is huge. And from what I can see, those who get into biodynamics, it is often a gradual move. They try organic, that seems to work. What’s next?
Biodynamics is an endless obsession: experimentation, improvement, evolution, a deeper immersion in the methodology, with the aim of furthering the activity within the soil, to turbocharge. To enliven the life within: the very birth of flavour perhaps.
Organics and biodynamics and blurred lines
In practical terms both conventional growing, organics and biodynamics, they share a lot. Which is to say, we shouldn’t look at conventional farming in a negative light: it’s merely, well, conventional. Cover crops over the winter, for example, to improve soil structure and to keep it active – conventional growers are using many of these practices, and think about soil health, as the norm (just don’t mention Steiner).
All of which is to briefly touch on the fact that there is ‘doing stuff’ and there is ‘paperwork’. There is the rigorous Demeter certification – overseen by the international Biodynamics Federation, the ‘brand’ if you will that protects all producers. One thing I want to mention though is that biodynamic certification is simply that: certification. Growers can still apply the practices, but they can’t add the logo on their products or make any claims without the certification.
But to collect the paperwork, a significant amount of effort involved – proof that one is adhering to the criteria. It’s a necessary evil of course, as slap the word biodynamic on a product and there is an extra desirability to those in the know; so a Demeter is there to prove producers are not trying to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. At Waterford the distillery is biodynamically certified by Demeter – we have to prove the distillery is as clean as a whistle before we begin the biodynamic distillation cycle. Our growers have the credentials. Our labels have to meet criteria too; indeed a curious thing I found this year was that biodynamic in the USA is a registered trademark! We have to add a little symbol on the label of our forthcoming whisky made from biodynamic barley for that market specifically.
Which rather seems a bit of stretch for a happy holistic movement, but we live in the age of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop – a lifestyle brand so nuts it has marketed wearable stickers that “re-balance the energy frequency in our bodies” and some sort of “infrared and mugwort steam” to cleanse one’s uterus, I fully concede the need to protect the biodynamic brand out in that part of the world.
A minor stop-off at Goop to raise some serious points: such a dollar-printing successful brand can market itself on seemingly batshit claims based on no science, or worse some totally debunked claims; whereas there is an increasingly and surprisingly robust set of sensible academic work building around biodynamics; and it was born out of a good intent to capture knowledge before it was totally forgotten. From the cow horn preparations in agriculture, through to the lunar influences themselves, the research builds. This is important: we mistrust unusual claims about the old ways for the most part – and in given the success of Goop one can see why it is important to keep a level head. Open-minded, sure, but experimental, methodical, engaged, serious, practical. Yet a key difference is that a biodynamic grower puts all their money where their mouth is, whilst Paltrow has the money coming out of her mouth, the other way around. What are the intentions behind each?
I want to suggest here that in terms of quality food and drinks, organics, biodynamics and more could be considered as a broad philosophy and a moveable feast at that. There is not necessarily a beginning or end to biodynamics. It’s not even black and white. Cult champagne grower, Anselme Selosse, goes beyond all of this entirely; indeed like many rebel grower champagne producers preferring to eschew the dogma – or perhaps being French, avoiding the paperwork – he adopts a blurred lines approach, integrating Masanobu Fukuoka’s methodology. It is a very Selosse thing to do: going his own way, doing his own thing. That he is still focused on the soil itself, I rather think, speaks volumes in the champagne. Because it tastes amazing.
Taste, then – for that’s what it’s about when it comes to drinks.
In my own experiences at Waterford, we have lined up biodynamic spirit alongside organic and spirit conventionally grown barley, and people have come into taste it all, and whether consciously or otherwise – usually otherwise – they are drawn to the biodynamic samples. Sure it’s all Waterford distillate; but there’s just something… extra. More. It’s hard to say what. More definition? More intensity of flavour? Certainly more. Visitors are encouraged to do the same – nose this, nose that, oh and try this one… yep, they agree the biodynamic spirit just seems to have something extra.
I shall be fascinated to follow the journey in cask, and each year’s distillation; and what the growers do each new season. This year the growers – we have a trio – sowing a heritage barley variety, Hunter, for its longer roots, because modern barley varieties have too short root growth; the longer roots on the old varieties can make the most of the turbocharged soil.
I think what we’re doing, and indeed what any other biodynamic producer might ultimately be doing, is asking a question: how can we get more out of the raw materials? How can we make it more expressive. How can we make it sing?
Say what you will about the philosophy, the important thing to remember in my view is this: care for the soil, and you load the dice in favour of the plants you’re growing. Improve your plants, you improve flavours. Improve flavours, one is more likely to pay close attention to what happens through the production process – you’re not exactly going to bang it through are you? – and therefore any given producer is trying their very best from seed to bottle to create the most flavoursome drink possible.
We live in the age of the individual – and individualism. We re-engineer what we see and feel around us to create our own world, with our own world view. The internet has exacerbated this massively. Which is to say, I probably haven’t changed the minds of any doubters: those keyboard judges who would place biodynamics somewhere alongside Gwyneth Paltrow. These people probably claim like Science, with a capital S – though those same people might happily disregard the peer-reviewed studies into biodynamic agriculture because they’ve already got their own worldview.
I would, however, conclude with this: if I see ‘biodynamic’ on a bottle label, or know the producer adopts these practices, it holds my attention. Does it mean that everything with ‘biodynamic’ on the label ultimately a good product? Probably not, no. But it usually means something good is going on; that there is a dedication to maximising flavour, to getting the most out of a terroir, to express the very best, the most true, real, honest, natural, pure drink imaginable; and at the same time wildlife benefits, the soil benefits, the farm benefits, and potentially it is more rewarding – head and heart – for the grower.
Do I understand it all? No. Am I open minded about its practices? Yes. Am I caught up in the esoteric romance? Quite possibly. But these are not mutually exclusive positions.
I do know this: those who have adhered to biodynamic principles in the field aren’t exactly going to cock it up during production by rushing things or by corner cutting. They’ll want their arduous efforts to be revealed in the fullest possible way: to produce the most natural, flavoursome drink they can manage.
And I suspect that even the most sceptical keyboard warrior out there would find it very hard to take umbrage with that sentiment.