This is a book about brewing beer with American-grown ingredients, only a few of which were used in making beer during much of the Twentieth century. That’s a big enough subject. Many of the plants and trees here are not native to the United States but have become naturalized, like most of us. However, there is still a bookful of exotic ingredients from beyond the US borders that are not included.
There is also a vast history of indigenous beers around the world waiting to be written. I look forward to reading one that explores the culture and science behind chicha beer from South America and Lithuanian farmhouse ales; one that includes details about New Nordic Beer and interest elsewhere in brewing beers that taste of the places they come from. This book should be just one of many. It is focused on the United States not because of some monopoly on such beers but for logistical reasons.
Many of the ingredients in this book may be used as alternatives to hops, but this is a very different book than For the Love of Hops. The latter was much more about science. This one is more about exploration—what brewers across the country are doing. Interest in hop aroma exploded in the last half dozen years and has changed the hop industry and had a major impact on the brewing industry. These alternative ingredients may not have the same obvious impact, but they can be as intriguing. Less is known about them in absolute terms. Fifty years after Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing and changed the direction of American beer, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interview in which he talked about the first years after he took charge in 1965. “There wasn’t a sense of what makes beer happen,” he said. You wouldn’t say that today, but how much we don’t know can still be a surprise.
This is the fourth book I have written for Brewers Publications and it comes with the same disclaimer as the first three: It will be of little use for making beer if you don’t already know how, or if it is the only one about brewing you own. If you have always wanted to brew a beer with those pawpaws growing beside a nearby river you’ll need more than the recipe that Fullsteam Brewery provides on page 292. You will certainly want a basic brewing text, and perhaps a specialty one or two. Suggestions are included in the Appendix. Before getting to how this book is organized, here are four things to remember throughout:
You’re still brewing beer, dammit. The same rules apply for both the brewing process—that is, wort production and fermentation—and the end
result. As Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch said several years ago, “We’re not trying to make a pet rock of beer.”
Less is more. Bee balm and cow parsnip and toasted burdock root, oh my! Hundreds of potential ingredients are available, and many are free. They don’t all belong in the same beer. And just because you used ginseng, and foragers earn silly amounts collecting it in the wild, doesn’t mean a drinker should be able to smell it from forty paces.
If you kill your neighbor, you won’t be able to borrow her lawnmower. Before you toss mistletoe and holly in that Christmas beer and serve it
to friends, make sure you have checked to see what toxic compounds they may contain. In fact, the entire mistletoe plant is toxic. Holly berries contain theobromine, and just a few would make a child or dog quite sick.
Throw away science, embrace science. An inconsistent philosophy? Sure, but I’m comfortable with that. Writing this book would have been easier if I could provide a concise scientific answer to every question or just the right formula, but there’s always a chance we’re never going to understand the variables we don’t already understand.
The book begins where science and art meet, and considers why some beers taste of a specific place. Consider the broader view Amy Trubek suggests
in The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir: “Unlike the narrow view of terroir, this humanist point of view is not really quantifiable. Terroir speaks of nature and nature’s influence on flavor and quality, but here the human attributes we bring to nature are cultural and sensual rather than objective and scientific.” Or as Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery put it in his keynote speech at the 2006 Craft Brewers Conference: “The wine world has wrapped this one word with mighty voodoo powers and created a cult of exclusivity around it. Breweries have terroirs, as well. But instead of revolving around a patch of land, ours are centered on a group of people.” Some of the beers in this book might also be described as art.
The second chapter looks back at what we know about the beginning of beer in America. There was beer before the first colonists showed up and setout to make their own with what the New World had to offer. Brewing became a significant commercial endeavor in the Nineteenth century, which is when the styles most often described as indigenous emerged. Were steam, cream ale, and common beer styles uniquely American or simply Americanized versions of beers born elsewhere?
The goal here is not to offer a complete history of American brewing, but to examine specific beers, ingredients, and processes that influenced where beer is today. One Nineteenth century beer, Choc, provides a reminder that some of the stories left behind may be too good to be true. As D. Gay Wilson, an academic at the University of Cambridge, observed back in 1970, “Beer is a popular subject, and the literature abounds in unsupported statements, misleading or inaccurate quotations, and inadequate reference.”
What is important to know about our brewing history is that America became a lager-drinking nation in the Nineteenth century, and by the beginning
of the next century those lagers were almost all brewed with adjuncts. The third chapter begins and ends in the Twenty-first century in New Ulm, Minnesota, where corn is an essential ingredient in most of the beer August Schell Brewing Company makes. New Ulm is a good place to learn why Nineteenth century American beer drinkers chose beers “lighter” in just about every way over all malt lagers, and also to celebrate the return of diversity to the beer landscape. Something Mark Davis of the New England Culinary Institute said rings true in Schell’s museum on the brewery grounds or looking at the Turner Hall murals painted in 1873. “Terroir is character,” Davis said. “It is the triumph of diversity over homogeneity.”
The second section of the book is about where beer’s ingredients originate, including on farms and in forests. Chapter Four focuses on breweries on farms and farming itself. “With a critical mass of breweries purchasing local grains, hops, and seasonal harvests, we have the potential to generate significant economic opportunity for farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs in a post-tobacco North Carolina,” said Fullsteam Brewery founder Sean Lilly Wilson. While he would like to build a farm brewery one day, in the first five years of operation he has focused on building that critical mass. Elsewhere, the limitations are sometimes evident. Crossroads Farms in Oregon received considerable attention when the Tilley family planted hops and decided to start a brewery. “I look around and I am only going to have these hops,” brewer Tobias Schock said. “None of the Eugene drinkers can understand why we don’t have an IPA. We’re on a hop farm. We pick them by hand. No way could I manage an IPA.” However, he does use many of the chiles Crossroads specializes in growing, along with other ingredients grown only yards from the brewhouse.
Scratch Brewing Company in Southern Illinois has a garden and a few hop poles, but received outsized attention after serving a beer made with 105
different plants and fungi from the woods surrounding the brewery at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. In 2015 the three founders poured only
“tree beers” at the GABF. Chapter Five focuses on Scratch and other brewers who collect flavors in the wild. Hunting for beer ingredients is different from foraging for food. “They may be bitter, they may have hair on them,” said Scratch co-founder Aaron Kleidon. “But you can use them to make beer.” The act of collecting might be as important as what is collected.
In the sixth chapter, brewers go foraging for yeast. “When you want to work with local yeast you need to start from scratch,” said Jasper Akerboom, who oversees quality control at Lost Rhino in Virginia. “You have a better understanding of what yeast is, what it wants to do. It is good to see how it behaves in its own environment.” Jeff Mello at Bootleg Biology would like to collect a yeast sample from each of the 43,000 ZIP codes in the United States. “It gives us a sense of place, especially working with wild or ambient cultures,” he said. “When you think of a place you are fond of you think of a place in time, a full-bodied experience. That place never exists again when you move past it. It’s always evolving.”
The third section, Chapters seven through 12, is devoted to ingredients. Some plants, trees, and fungi are indigenous to the United States, some were naturalized long ago, and others are not easy to find. An alphabetical list is available at the beginning of the seventh chapter, because it is not always obvious where you might look to find something (for instance, dandelions). These chapters could merit a book by themselves given the more than 900 varieties of sage, 350 of thyme, and 100 of parsley. At a glance you can see if the ingredients might be fermentable, if they are cultivated or can be found in the wild (many are both), and if they add spiciness or bitterness. Some parts of a plant may be used in brewing, while others should be avoided. Those are flagged as well.
Finally, there are 23 recipes in chapter 13. They illustrate how brewers who have stepped outside the Reinheitsgebot, the famous Bavarian brewing law that once held that malted barley, water, hops, and (later) yeast were the only proper components in beer, use a dizzying number of ingredients. Surprisingly, three of them chose to contribute recipes that include beets—and one of the resulting beers won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. The intention is not to imply beet beers will be the new IPA. Or even that beers brewed with native plants outside of barley, wheat, and hops will occupy more than a niche. But beers made with such ingredients, ones that somehow became labeled as nontraditional, expand our understanding of what beer can be.
– Stan Hieronymus