If modern craft beer were a 1980s pop-rock band on a European tour, hops — the flamboyant, attention-grabbing lead vocalist — would fly from city to city on a private jet, as water, barley, and yeast traversed the continent on an overcrowded tour bus in dutiful support.
Things haven’t always been this way. The history of brewing dates back thousands of years, and not until the Medieval period did hops become the star of the beer show. Prior to this, early commercial brewers based in continental Europe used a combination of roots, flowers, and herbs, called gruit, to provide the bitter balance and aromatic qualities now offered by hops.
While numerous modern-day craft brewers have sought to recreate this Middle Ages style, their beers are esoteric by design and fall some way short of offering widespread appeal. Meanwhile, other breweries are instead blending past and present by including botanicals (often foraged) alongside hops in their brews. The upside of this century-spanning fusion, they say, is providing a sense of place — or terroir — while simultaneously building upon the aroma and flavor profiles suffused by hops, with layers of botanical complexity.
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“Think of it as 5G, or thousands of colors on an artist’s pallet,” Robert Finkel, founder and “rootmaster” at Chicago’s Forbidden Root brewery, explains. “There are so many interesting herbs, roots, flowers, seeds, fruits, leaves, stems, and honeys, that it gives us so much more to work with to integrate with beautiful hops.”
Founded in 2016, Chicago’s “first botanic brewery” does offer the double dry-hopped New England IPAs that have haze bros clamoring to check in on Untappd. But it also serves rotating seasonal releases that blend barley, water, hops, and yeast with meticulously sourced botanical ingredients.
In the case of Sublime Ginger, an “herb and spice beer,” according to Beer Advocate, Forbidden Root tested 30 different citrus fruits before settling on pre-zested key lime juice. (It didn’t like the character added by the natural oil of the fruit’s skins.) The brewery then experimented with 20 varieties of ginger to provide the perfect “aromatic and back palate zing,” Finkel says.
The aim of the beer, he explains, was to transport drinkers to a faraway place. “If you close your eyes, you can hear the waves, feel the wind, and smell the clean breeze of Key West,” Finkel says.
For other brewers, the “destination” provided by their botanical beers is the very place in which they were brewed.
Located on a 127-acre farm in the heart of New York’s Catskill Mountains, West Kill Brewing’s Patrick Allen creates hyper-local beers using ingredients foraged on the property. “It’s about letting people taste that local terroir,” he says.
(An abstract concept that’s much more commonly associated with wine than beer, the French define terroir as, “the earth considered from the point of view of agriculture.”)
For West Kills’ Forsaken Fields, a mixed-culture saison, Allen turned to the abundance of creeping thyme that grows wild in the region like a patchy, unkempt beard. “Now when I drink that beer, it’s like I’m driving around while people are cutting the grass in their fields,” he says.
To discover the local ingredients that will complement traditional styles of beer, Allen works alongside Elodie Eid, West Kill’s agriculture and foraging manager. Among last year’s bounty, the duo harvested chanterelles and reishi mushrooms. The “light and fruity” chanterelles provided the perfect seasoning for a dry-hopped modern American pilsner called Doodlebug, he says. Meanwhile, the earthy, smoky, chocolatey profile of the reishi mushrooms made their way into a black lager.
Not everything on the property grows in small quantities. Last summer, Allen used knotweed, “an invasive species that grows like bamboo,” in a farmhouse saison fermented with brett. Mashed and steeped in warm water, the plant presents a character similar to a “lemon meets artichoke meets olive,” he says. When added to the fermented saison, it provided an extra layer of complexity to the beer, which was already rich in floral, lemony notes.
“The best examples end up being harmonious,” Allen says.
West Kill isn’t alone in using fresh, local botanicals in traditional styles such as pilsners and “farmhouse” ales. New York’s Suarez Family Brewery, North Carolina’s Fonta Flora Brewery, Illinois’ Scratch Brewing, and Vermont’s Wunderkammer Bier are also among the American brewers embracing the quietly trending practice.
For others, the use of botanical ingredients provides the ability to transport drinkers not to a physical location, but to a place in time.
In January 2019, Amsterdam-based Lowlander Beer collected discarded Christmas trees in the Dutch capital and used them, along with juniper, to infuse its first batch of Winter White IPA. The result: “a resinous and refreshing taste of Christmas past,” according to Lowlander.
The sustainable aspect of upcycling Christmas trees or invasive plant species is certainly appealing. But the reality of brewing with local ingredients, especially foraged ones, is that most of these beers can only be made in tiny quantities. If drinkers want to taste them, they almost always have to travel to the breweries — or at least to the states — in which they’re made.
No amount of experimenting on the part of brewers like Allen will ever change that; nor is that the point. If anything, scarcity likely adds further appeal to these beers.
These days, craft beer enthusiasts are used to traversing the country (or sending a willing “beer mule”) to stand in line for an ultra-limited one-time release. But does it really make sense to travel such a distance to taste “terroir”? Surely it’s more appealing when the beer waiting at the destination was brewed using ingredients grown on that very spot.