Rethinking Local Beer
As the number of breweries erupts across the country, it seems every town has a local brewery. What makes it a local beer besides the address? The hops come from Washington, the malt is imported from Germany, the yeast is grown in a lab in California. The only thing that makes it local is the zip code and the local kids slinging samples.
There are a number of breweries trying to create truly local beer. Here in Oregon, De Garde ferment all their beers with yeast and bacteria floating on the breeze, and Upright Brewing adds loads of local fruit and the occasional flower to their barrel aged beers. But out in Illinois, Scratch Brewing goes one step further by foraging in the woods around the brewery for novel ingredients.
I was fascinated when I read about Scratch in Brewing Local. The brewery is located near Ava, Illinois a town with a population in the triple digits. It’s the middle of nowhere, but that’s sort of the point. On the land around the brewery, they grow ingredients for beer and food for the pub. Beyond the cultivated land they forage for wild ingredients, and push the limits of what can go into a beer.
For example, two years ago, Scratch went to the Great American Beer Festival with beers made using all the parts of a tree. Single Tree: Hickory features, hickory nuts and hulls, and toasted hickory bark in place of hops. They brewed beers with birch sap instead of water. They’ve brewed with grape leaves and burdock roots and sassafras.
Reading about Scratch got me so excited to make my own beer. So often, the homebrewing literature focuses on making beer the right way, the way professionals do it, but on a smaller scale. I have no interest in that. If I wanted to drink a perfectly clean Pilsner, I could find a myriad examples at the grocery store. If I want to drink a beer made with basil from my own garden, I’m the only one who can make it.
I absorbed these lessons but figured, unless I find myself in southern Illinois, I’ll never actually taste a Scratch made beer. But lo and behold, on the bottom shelf at Belmont Station was a small trove of these idiosyncratic beers. The prices were steep, which I should have guessed, a lot of work goes into making a beer with wild cherry bark. But I could swing ten dollars for a little bottle of Spring Tonic, a beer made with dandelion, ginger, carrot tops, and clover in place of hops and fermented with a wild yeast blend, the same blend they use for their sourdough bread.
So what does this wild beer taste like? Sarah says it smells like chinese food. She’s not wrong, the combination of ginger and the sourdough yeast smell like vinaigrette, throw in the dandelion greens and you have a salad. The flavor is balanced. The sourness is tempered, bringing a lactic brightness without the sour tang. It tastes, oddly enough, like kombucha. It tastes like those ginger and carrot drinks they sell at Whole Foods or whatever. Something your weird aunt would swear by to fight off a cold. Spring Tonic tastes really healthy, but really good.
Is Scratch’s Spring Tonic going to be the next IPA? Nope. Is it going to start a trend of breweries making beer with carrots? God, I hope not. But it represents a new way of brewing: look closely at what is already growing around you and make beer with it.
It doesn’t have to be made from foraged roots and stems. Highland Park Brewing in Los Angeles makes beer from guavas grown in their parking lot and lemons grown in locals’ backyards. The beers may taste indistinguishable from one made with canned fruit grown in Peru, but the taste of the neighborhood will be obvious to those who donated their extra persimmons.