Briars, brambles and beers: Craft brewers turn to foraged ingredients with wild results
“I almost feel like I’m prying when I ask this,” I say to Josh Regenold during our first phone conversation. “But what is in your freezer right now?”
He tells me that he prepared a list because he knew he’d blank on the specifics: Cornelian cherries, Saskatoon berries, pineapple weed, basil.
Regenold, a 41-year-old who lives in southern Wisconsin, has been brewing beer at home for the past 10 years but “ventured into the weirder side of things over the last five years or so.” Weirder for him largely means brewing gruit, which is essentially a beer that’s charged with botanicals rather than hops.
Traditionally, gruit was made with a mixture of bitter herbs (also called gruit) that included items like yarrow, sweet gale, mugwort, horehound, heather and ground ivy. The definition has expanded in the ensuing millenia. The Gruit Guild, a 2,6000-member Facebook group to which Regenold belongs, is packed with posts from brewers using ingredients like sassafras, saffron, rose petals, pine sprigs, licorice root and cacao nibs.
As is the case with Regenold, many of the members forage their ingredients. For example, the pineapple weed — also known as wild chamomile — that’s currently in his freezer grows at the edge of his driveway. A few years back, he plucked some leaves from the oak tree in his front yard, which became a key ingredient in one of his brews.
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“I guess it’s kind of like a jazz mentality,” Regenold says. “I have all these things on-hand, in my toolbox, and I just break into them as the spirit moves me. I love it.”
Foraging for wild ingredients gained both new adherents and resonance during the pandemic as supply chain issues and purchasing limits impacted the typical availability of certain supermarket items.
Simultaneously, the craft and home brewing industries faced shifts as growers attempted to balance changing demand for hops amid bar and brewpub closures, as well as a steady increase in the number of American homebrewers. As the Milwaukee Business Journal reported in June 2020, the city’s Spike Brewing, a home brewing equipment company, actually saw a marked increase in sales in the early months of the pandemic.
For many craft breweries and homebrewers across the country, the supply chain disruptions combined with the increased interest in foraging — on the part of both creators and customers — are leading to a swell of new beers made with wild ingredients and a rise in what can be described as “ground to growler” brewing.
As a homebrewer, Regenold says he didn’t feel the impact of the pandemic in the same way that commercial brewers likely did as they navigated things like shortages of aluminum cans and glass bottles. What he did notice, though, was the increased amount of time he had to simply be outside.
“I had time to go out and look for different ingredients,” he says. “It definitely opened my eyes, and now I’ve got that freezer full of stuff.”
Amelia Pillow, the owner of Louisville’s newly-opened Shippingport Brewing Company and Sally Forth Taproom, feels similarly.
“I quit my old brewery job after being in the industry for almost 13 years in December 2019,” she says. “I hadn’t brewed any beer for 18 months, but I did have a job as a groundskeeper for a historic home. And that definitely made me much more aware of what’s around and what you can find cropping up during different seasons because I was outside the whole time.”
Pillow’s time outdoors — in combination with inspiration from storied back-to-the-land breweries like Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, Ill. — solidified the concept that foraged, seasonal ingredients will be a throughline in Shippingport’s offerings, including a recent collaboration with another local brewery, Monnik Beer Company.
“It’s basically a saison, where we decided to use lemon verbena and creeping Charlie, which goes by a lot of names, but it’s native to the area,” she says. “Oh, and strawberries.”
“There’s a lot of flavors that you can find that give an impression of a place,” she adds. “And I really like the idea that when you are going foraging, you can find those ingredients to make beers that feel more typical to that place. I really want to be doing more of that.”
Scott Hand, the lead brewer at Monnik with whom Pillow made that strawberry saison, is in the middle of a different kind of collaboration. Just a few days before we met at the brewery, he published a Facebook post:
Attention Monnik community! We need your help! Do you have a mulberry tree in your yard? We need your help in amassing a large amount of mulberries for our kettle sour!
By the time we sit down, Hand says some customers had stopped by with buckets and plastic containers they’d foraged from nearby parks and even their own yards.
“We just put out a call to see if people would show up,” Hand says. “And people have. We got a few bags sitting in the freezer now. It’s not quite enough yet, but it’s really cool. It’s appreciated that someone would take time out of their day to do that.”
Hand’s plan is to use the mulberries to make a beer that’s slightly tart with a hint of sweetness, though the end result isn’t certain.
“With foraging, it’s all experimental,” Hand says. “I’d say the biggest challenge is that you have to just adjust your mindset to be open to whatever happens or that it might be a disaster. Brewing is highly technical, right? Brewers get very anal about things. And if you just go into your yard and pick a bunch of stuff, you don’t have the lab analysis that typically comes with our ingredients, our malt and our hops.”
But the experimentation is worth it, especially since the call for foraged ingredients is spurring community involvement, as is similarly the case at People’s Pint Brewing Company in Toronto. The brewery has a special emphasis on highlighting the work of small-batch local brewers — its motto is “Beer by the People for the People” — including Mark Solomon, who is a member of the Indigenous Brew Crew.
“The Indigenous Brew Crew is a group of homebrewers that brews just north of Toronto,” Doug Appledoorn, the owner of People’s Pint, says. “They’re all indigenous, and their whole thing is that they want to use foraged ingredients.”
People’s Pint had wanted to collaborate with Solomon for a while and even discussed several options, including a spruce tip beer. They finally landed on wild sumac, a vibrant, tart red berry with a light bitterness that’s almost akin to the pith of a lemon.
“So, sumac just grows wild on the side of the road here,” Appledoorn says. “We went out and harvested as much as we possibly could.”
They froze all 13 pounds until they were finally ready to brew on June 16.
“We weren’t sure exactly what we were going to do in terms of what kind of a beer to put it in,” Appledorn says. “What we finally settled on was a farmhouse-style so that if there were any kind of funky characteristics to the sumac, the style would lend itself well to that.”
What they mostly desired from the sumac was its color. The Indigenous Brew Crew really wanted to put out a red beer in honor of the missing and murdered indigenous women of Canada.
“One of the things they do is put red dresses in the wilderness to signify these women,” Abbledorn says. “Drawing along those lines, they wanted to do a red beer.”
The end result, he says, is currently looking a bit more “pink lemonade” than they had hoped, but the intention was there.
“It’s still fermenting. We’re not releasing it for another week or two,” Abbledorn says. “So we’re very excited about it, and a portion of the proceeds is going to be donated to an indigenous charity. The whole process has made us really excited to look into our backyards — and beyond — for ingredients as interesting as our collaborations.”
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