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Meet the Growing Crop of Foraged “Botanical Beers”

Some of the country’s most progressive brewers are striving to convey terroir by incorporating everything from local tree bark to wild mushrooms into their beers.

For Dan Suarez, of Hudson, New York’s Suarez Family Brewery, making his Call to Mind botanical beer is a laborious, time-sensitive process.

It all starts with an early morning mash—the process of combining hot water or “liquor” and malted grain—before Suarez and his assistant brewer, Matt Moon, jump in the car and drive nine miles north to Letterbox Farm Collective in New York’s upper Hudson Valley. While the mash steeps at the brewery, Suarez and Moon harvest fresh chamomile from the fields. After they’ve picked enough, the pair hop back in the car to make another stop at the nearby Sparrowbush Farm to source lemon balm and lemon thyme. Finally, they return to the brewery and infuse the hot wort (unfermented beer) with the herbs and flowers they’ve just plucked, catching them at their absolute freshest. The beer, which starts as a dead-simple dry pale ale before the botanicals are added, is then aged in French oak barrels before bottling.

In modern times, we tend to think of botanicals as the primary flavorings in gin or herbal liqueurs. But there’s a long history of using plants and plant-derived substances in beer as well. The very earliest examples were gruits, ancient witch’s brews full of medicinal botanicals, herbs and spices. (Notably absent were hops, which weren’t widely used in beer until the late Middle Ages.)

Still, too often, today’s mainstream botanical beers come across as gussied-up hard sodas, given that many commercial breweries use dried, juiced or powdered ingredients sourced from around the world, without an anchor to a specific time or locale. These ingredients could just as easily be made in Chicago or Cleveland or Seattle, at any time of year and without absorbing influence from local flora, much less displaying terroir.

That’s why breweries like Suarez stand in such stark contrast. “You never want to be making something that smells like dish soap or cologne,” says Suarez.

Suarez isn’t alone. Brewing with fresh botanicals is an growing trend among breweries like North Carolina’s Fonta Flora Brewery and Texas’ Jester King Brewery, both of which source and incorporate fresh—often foraged or locally farmed—ingredients like sassafras, marigold flowers, tree bark and even mushrooms right into their beer. The base styles are usually mixed fermentation “farmhouse”-style ales (think funky saisons), spiked with one or two stand-out botanical ingredients.

On an especially extreme end of the spectrum is Scratch Brewing in Ava, IL. Their Single Tree series includes beers called Birch, Cedar, Hickory, Maple and Oak, each one incorporating leaves, nuts, branches, berries, hulls and bark from their respective trees. Meanwhile, their Spring Tonic, a 4.4-percent-ABV gruit brewed without hops, gets its bitterness from dandelion, carrot tops and clover, all grown in the brewery’s garden; it’s then spiked with fresh ginger from a nearby farm for a bracing, almost spicy finish. This approach to brewing could come across as gimmicky, even trolling, but the results are evidence of a brewery pushing the envelope.

A kindred spirit is found at Vermont’s Wunderkammer Bier, one of the newest entries into this expanding canon of breweries experimenting with fresh, local botanicals. Owner Vasili Gletsos is a brewer at Hill Farmstead Brewery by day and, since late 2016, has made botanical beers infused with foraged botanicals from Vermont’s Green Mountains on the side, periodically releasing tiny batches at Hill Farmstead and a few other Vermont bars and bottle shops. The Wunderkammer name is a nod to Renaissance-era “cabinet of curiosities,” which collectors used to display archaeological, geological and, in particular, natural history artifacts.

So far, Gletsos has made a series of beers evocative of these natural history collections, like Del Arboles, which incorporates cedar and pine tree, and Bufo Americanus, which is made with lichen, mushrooms and “forest by-catch,” a term Gletsos uses to describe “the lichen matrix, star moss, sticks, leaves and other forest items.”

“I definitely pick over and rinse,” says Gletsos, “but some of that stuff is still there. It might seem crude to use materials like this, but they’re all from the field, like hops and barley, which also have this by-catch.” Upcoming iterations in the series, which are scheduled to be released beginning at Thanksgiving, include Volume Seven: Scientific Method, a wheat beer brewed with sumac and citrus; and Volume Eight: Traditional Headdress, a spelt beer with goldenrod and honey.

“My focus is the use of a different palette of flavors,” concludes Gletsos, “and the subtle interplay of yeast, malt, hops and other materials to dive deep into earthy, floral, umami and other characteristics that stretch the understanding of beer flavor and taste.”

Suarez might not be as hardcore as Scratch and Wunderkammer when it comes to terroir, but he says his aim is more modest. “[It’s] about adding local things to make our beer a little more special and regional,” he explains.

Though he now works with handful of farms within spitting distance of the brewery, knowing where to source ingredients wasn’t always so obvious. Early on, he recalls making a collaboration botanical beer with another local brewery: “They had just ordered all the stuff from, like, Atlantic Spice Company,” he says. “The lemongrass we got basically smelled like hay. So, who knows how old it ways or how long it had just been sitting in the warehouse.”

Now, when Suarez brews his own Whistlin’ Lemongrass Country Beer, he drives seven miles up Route 9 to Whistledown Farm in Claverack, NY, where he’s worked with the farmers to grow a particular Indonesian variety of the plant that’s especially heady and aromatic. The resulting 5.6-percent-ABV pale-yellow country beer—a term Suarez prefers to “saison” or “farmhouse ale”—has big aromas of lemon, stone fruit and fresh-cut grass, with zesty acidity and bright funk from the mixed culture fermentation.

“It’s fun seeing it in the dirt and then being like, ‘Let’s pull these up right now and make a beer with them,'” he says. “That’s a quality product.”

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