Is there anything more fetishized in foodie culture than foraging?
It hits all the requirements inherent in the social media-happy culinary cognoscenti: it’s highly inconvenient, wildly impractical, looks better on little screens than in real life, is susceptible to the vagaries of Mother Nature, requires an incredibly nerdy and detailed skill-and-tool-set and requires (or wastes, depending on your perspective) an extraordinary time investment for a Lilliputian return. (Really? Six hours of fumbling through tick-infested overgrowth for six ounces of honeysuckle?)
Participation may not be mandatory, but the fruits of foraging are probably going to be showing up on haute farm-to-table plates for the time being. The movement even seems to be trickling down to the taproom.
Who’s to blame?
Visionary chefs like Rene Redzepi of the soon-to-be late, great Noma (the Copenhagen restaurant is considered by many to be the best in the world, and will serve its last meal on New Year’s Eve) paved the way for this impending trendlet with his New Nordic cuisine, his obsession with seasonality and the culinary flair and imagination (not to mention brass balls) that allows him to serve live ants in crème fraiche at a $306 lunch in London, and leave everyone begging for more.
Whether for reasons of flavor, political bent or just their bottom line, chefs who aim to serve the swankier subset of the locavore populace, invariably have a forager on speed dial. Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller and even the White House chef Cristeta Comerford not only employ foragers, but can sometimes be found scrounging through some of the thornier tangles of their necks of woods for scraps of the forest on which to impale their foraged morels and wild carrots.
That’s great if prodigiously expensive found-fungus is your thing. But our beer? Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. Draw up a stool for a hot second. There’s actually an argument to be made for foraged alcohol.
“The more I brewed beer myself, educated myself on the history of it, traveled and tried beers around the world and talked to other brewers, the more I realized that most beer we drink has been shaped primarily by politics and wars,” Todd Boera, founder of Fonta Flora in Morganton, N.C., tells VinePair. “Factors completely separated from considerations like taste and tradition shaped beer so that now, when someone thinks beer, they generally think a yellow, carbonated beverage.”
In Todd’s mind, when breweries left the farm, they blundered down a road that inevitably led to globalized, normcore beer. Even if you’re guzzling brewery-made “farmhouse” suds, chances are the grains, which serve as beer’s backbone, have been flown in from across the country or globe, as have the hops, yeasts and, sometimes, the other ingredients. The move to include a smattering of local ingredients – berries in the summer, pumpkin in the fall – is on, but the carbon footprint of even smaller-batch beer is significant. (Steps are being made in the industry to counteract that with Heineken recently opening the world’s first carbon-neutral brewery in Austria, but it’s slow going).
In April, Fonta Flora brewed a beer with morels, and before that, mulberries. In the hopper now is a beer made with dandelion leaves, flowers and roots.
“No one thinks twice when they see a brewery in a city,” says Todd. “Brewers for the most part are working with the same basic recipe and ingredients, distinguishing themselves with just the water they use and their technique. But how often do you see a winery in an urban space? It’s rare for a reason. I was really lucky to attend Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, which has a strong ag focus. I got special permission to grow my own hops and barley on a farm at the school and brew beer there. I fell in love with the raw feel and taste of the grains I grew, which aren’t as refined as commercial varieties. I started experimenting with using rarely grown grains, and adding other farm and seasonal ingredients, and I’ve never looked back.”
While many critics and observers casually classify Fonta Flora as one of the flagship foraged beers on the market, Todd says his focus is more general.
“Yes, we use foraged ingredients,” he says, with a hint of weariness. “But for me, it’s more about our general agricultural focus. It’s about creating beers outside of a homogenized food and beverage culture that doesn’t take seasonality or place into account, and also creating beers that will offer people something truly unique that they couldn’t try anywhere else. Most of our beer has a strong fruit or vegetable component.”
Right now, he says, he’s hunting for chanterelle mushrooms in the forest because they’re not frequently available in stores and few people know that they taste and smell like apricots. In April, Fonta Flora brewed a beer with morels, and before that, mulberries. In the hopper now is a beer made with dandelion leaves, flowers and roots. He also works with local farmers to purchase heritage grains not frequently used in beer these days, including sun gold spelt and turkey red wheat.
Has he created a style of beer using grains, locally grown hyper-seasonal farm-fresh produce accented by foraged flora that can’t be found elsewhere? In a word: yep. It’s a North Carolina/ Appalachian style of beer that tastes, smells and looks like the fields it was pulled from – in the best possible way. It’s not always yellow. It’s not always carbonated. Hell, it’s not even always tasty. But it’s always spectacular. (And it’s only available at the brewery in rotation, and when that wee little 150-gallon batch of apricot-y chanterelle beer is gone, it’s gone, baby).
As far as Todd’s concerned though, there’s only one brewery in the country making hardcore foraged beer: the teeny Scratch Brewery in Ava, Illinois, five miles from the Shawnee National Forest.
“They can make truly profound beers with ripped off bark,” Todd explains, without a trace of irony.
The microbrewery and farm, run by Markika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon, uses foraged ingredients obviously, but also conducts experiments with grain production and is attempting to grow the first malted grain in southern Illinois since Prohibition. Like Todd, Aaron says he favors esoteric heirloom varieties of wheat, rye and corn – some of which go into their beer, some of which go into Scatch’s hearth bread and pizza dough recipes.
Where else could you get arugula rye saison brewed with its wild house yeast, or ginger filé sour, fermented with its in-house wild culture, and bittered with ginger and dried sassafras forest leaves?
“I traveled the world in my twenties, but I came back here, because I figured out that this place is pretty magical, and I wanted to be near my family again,” Aaron tells VinePair. “Scratch is adjacent to my parent’s property, which is basically 900 acres of forest that we have access to. It’s always been too hilly to farm, but I grew up and know the creek valley, the bluffs and cliffs, where to find the mushrooms and the best herbs and spices, all of the tree species.”
Trees, as Todd mentioned, play a huge part in Scratch beer’s flavor profile.
“We gather herbs, leaves and bark from the forest and grow maybe 50 different things in our garden, a lot of it experimental,” Aaron says. “We dry herbs and spices year-round so we can layer flavors. A typical beer of ours will have more than 100 foraged or locally grown components. Our beers change constantly, and we’re always trying to push the boundaries. If an invasive species starts cropping up, we find a way to use it. We’ve brewed maybe three basil beers so far this summer, all of them different, and we’ll do a few more. My favorite is the tree component, though. You can tease out so much flavor from sassafras, hickory, oak and cider leaves. Seasons change them too: in the winter, pine needles taste like orange citrus, almost like Chinook hops. In the summer, they taste like what they smell like – piney.”
Scratch has also carved out a unique style of foraged-farmhouse ale: where else could you get arugula rye saison brewed with its wild house yeast, or ginger filé sour, fermented with its in-house wild culture, and bittered with ginger and dried sassafras forest leaves?
Scratch Brewery’s hardcore foraged ethos stretches far beyond its nine rotating beers on tap. Its bread and pizza oven is powered by scrap wood, and the food is predictably hipster-lumberjack (lots of pickles, hearth loafs, cave-aged local cheese and seasonal wood-wired oven pizza). There’s even have homemade soda (currently Thai basil-strawberry and blackberry soda) on tap. Weekend visitors frequently camp in the nearby state forest.
Like Fonta Flora, Scratch’s output is micro, consumed in-house.
But it’s not just brewers getting in on the feverish foraging activity: Urban Forage Winery & Cider House, run by husband-wife team Jeff and Gita Zeitler in Minneapolis, has managed to create a line of products based entirely on “crowd-sourced” foraged fruit, flowers and honey.
“All of our ingredients are local, and all of them would have gone to waste had we not utilized them for our wines, cider and mead,” Jeff explains. “It’s very small-batch and seasonal and we basically get it by driving our minivan around town and shaking trees. We don’t have to contact them, people reach out to us. Between Minneapolis and Saint Paul where we source our ingredients, we have more than enough organic fruit trees to choose from.”
The Zeitlers only use fruit from trees and fields that haven’t been treated with pesticides in three or more years, and where dogs don’t reside. They also don’t use chemicals in the aging or bottling process. Like Scratch, Urban Forage believes in the beauty of wild yeast.
“The richness, funkiness and complexity imparted with wild yeast is just incredible,” Jeff says. “For consistency and to soften any rough edges, we finish it with a commercial version. Also, the wild yeast isn’t always strong enough to complete the process.” Those who get their trees or fields (they make dandelion wine too) picked clean get a free bottle. Other than that, no commercial transaction occurs.
“Everyone thinks, ‘oh, you get free fruit!’” Jeff says. “But it’s actually really time-consuming and physically demanding. After a day spent shaking trees and picking, I’m drained. But then we have to get up and grind and process it all ourselves.”
Their dry apple cider, semisweet sparkling, sparkling pear cider, honey mead, dandelion wine and rhubarb wine are all available seasonally, in small batches, to the local populace alone. “It’s not legal to ship,” Jeff explains.
For those who have had enough of the feel-good, earnest farm-to-table food and beverage movement, dread the notion of a foraged mushroom saison and crave a return to obscenely expensive, global menus and wine lists, don’t despair. As Todd of Fonta Flora himself pointed out, there’s no way to truly scale up. “If a chef has a few ounces of something foraged, they can stretch the texture, scent and flavor a long way. For brewers, it’s not so simple. Throw in a few ounces of wild carrots to a 150-gallon brew and the consumer won’t be able to taste it. And we won’t ever be able to produce enough to ship around the country – and we wouldn’t want to anyway.”
If you really want foraged beer and wine, you’ll have to forage for who’s producing it in your neck of the woods. You may be lucky enough to find something that embodies the terroir of your ‘hood, celebrates the current season and explodes the commonly accepted definition of beer itself. No matter what, it’ll totally be Instagram-worthy.