At Scratch Brewing, local beer takes on new meaning.
Marika Josephson often treks into the woods surrounding Scratch’s brewery in Ava, Illinois. She does so to forage for wild ingredients like maple bark, spicebush branches, sassafras leaves, black trumpet mushrooms and dandelions. These will serve as inspiration for beers like Sassafras Pale Ale, Tree Leaf IPA, Black Trumpet Sahti and Autumn Olive Wit.
“These ingredients have flavors and aromas that are unique to this region,” says Josephson, brewer/co-owner of Scratch Brewing. “Foraging lets us make beer that is distinctly representative of Southern Illinois.”
This desire to capture a specific time and place has a growing number of craft breweries following suit.
“With some foraged ingredients, we are totally flying blind. There is not a whole lot of information out there about how to use much other than grain and hops [in beer].” —Marika Josephson.
In Port Townsend, Washington, Propolis Brewing has been using wild nettle, elderflower, serviceberry and yarrow to make “wild-crafted” beers since the brewery’s inception in 2012. The approach is not about capitalizing on a trend, according to co-owner and brewer Piper Corbett.
“Beer used to be brewed with herbs, not hops,” explains Corbett. “We’re going back to these ancient traditions and tapping into what is happening in nature to make beer that is about our town, our home.
When Josephson began to make beers from foraged ingredients, she turned to historical recipes.
“With some foraged ingredients, we are totally flying blind,” says Josephson. “There is not a whole lot of information out there about how to use much other than grain and hops [in beer].”
Experimentation is part of the process, and also part of the intrigue.
“You have to go all-in and make a batch to see what happens,” says Sean Lilly Wilson, founder and “chief executive optimist” at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina.
Fullsteam’s Forager series is sourced from ingredients that grow wild, including First Frost, a winter persimmon ale. To procure the fruit, Wilson turns to the community.
“The biggest challenge with some of these ingredients is sourcing,” says Wilson.
It takes up to 2,000 pounds of persimmon to produce 4,000 gallons of First Frost. There are a few persimmon orchards in North Carolina, but most cultivate Asian varieties, not the teardrop-shaped varieties native to the South. So Wilson turns to families who have native trees on their properties, who are paid market rate for their harvest.
Fullsteam also puts out a call for figs, pears, pawpaws and chestnuts. In 2015, the brewery spent $6,600 to purchase 2,200 pounds of foraged ingredients.
Wilson used to barter fruit for beer, but the expectations about an acceptable amount of suds for the fruit varied between contributors.
As the Forager series became more popular, Fullsteam received offers of other wild ingredients like honeysuckle flowers, hardy orange and sassafras. So far, no one has provided anything that proved inedible, but that doesn’t mean Wilson knows what to do with some of the offerings.
“We are constantly learning because of what people bring us,” he says.
Chad Krusell, head brewer at Desert Edge Brewery in Salt Lake City, harvests wild hops for Radius, a seasonal beer made with ingredients that originate from a 150-mile radius of the brewery.
The hops grow in an area of the Uinta Mountains not accessible by cars or trucks. To harvest the hops, Krusell rides a tandem bike outfitted with a bucket and trailer. In August, he made multiple trips to fill a waiting cargo van with enough hops to make an eight-barrel batch of Radius.
“It’s such a cool story,” says Krusell. “You can’t get this beer, or even these hops, anywhere else.”
Brewers want to preserve such sources to ensure they can continue to make beers that tell the story of a region. Corbett replants the seeds from foraged ingredients. Krusell brews in small batches, while Josephson avoids harvesting too much from a single area.
“We forage with great care and respect,” says Corbett.
Even when wild ingredients are thoughtfully sourced, availability varies. The foraged brew on tap that you love this fall might not be on the menu next year. Flavors will also vary from season to season.
“No two batches of Radius are the same,” says Krusell. “The fact that the beer is [a] limited-release that can never be replicated is one of the things that gets people really excited about it. When you forage for ingredients, you never know what you’re going to get.”