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Blast From the Past

Organic, barrel-aged and herb-infused beers offer a taste of brew history.

 

Story by Joshua M. Bernstein

Photos by Kevin Fleming, Stuart Mullenberg and Scott Stewart

 

Thirty years ago, in the dark ages of American beer, adventurous drinkers would surely have sacrificed Spuds MacKenzie for a sixer of perfectly bitter India Pale Ale. Today’s beer scene is nowhere as bleak: The microbrew revolution has put chocolate porters and assertive lagers on grocery shelves from Dubuque, Iowa, to downtown Manhattan. Decent beer conquered, daring alcohol artisans are cooking up head-scratching, stomach-pleasing concoctions to take it to the next level—which, in many cases, simply means turning the clock back to the way beer was produced hundreds or even thousands of years ago. They’re scouring the globe for sublime organic ingredients, impregnating Belgian ale-filled oak casks with unruly microorganisms and even enlisting archaeologists to help create ancient-styled, herbaceous quaffs that are redefining beer as we know—and drink—it.


Back to Basic
The organic revolution is only half-complete: Sure, farmers today are increasingly opting for all-natural products over hormone-pumped cows and Frankenstein ears of corn, but what about beer? Many brewers still utilize pesticide-sprayed malts and hops, but to change that, a growing corps of brewers and farmers is thinking about sustainable consumption, rekindling a pre-preservative era in which every beer was organic. “Brewers of quality beer don’t need to use chemicals,” says Steve Parkes, head brewer at Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales, a Vermont brewery that’s defined all-natural beer for more than a decade. There’s nothing eco-radical about how Parkes crafts his toothsome oatmeal stouts and smooth, tongue-tingling IPAs, which debunk the outdated notion that organic beers taste like dirty dishwater. The difference lies in the pedigree of the wheat and hops. To be organic, 95 percent of a beer’s ingredients must be stamped organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, signaling they were grown without pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, and the brewing process must also pass USDA muster.

 

The results are brews that “show beer drinkers that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor to save the planet,” says Parkes. This strict ingredient accountability means the enthusiastic Englishman often rides what he calls the “rollercoaster of crop availability.” Organic malted wheat is frequently unavailable, he says, and hops are difficult to grow without pesticides. The plants sprout from stubs to twisting vines in two weeks, offering insects a tender, tasty treat. To ensure an ongoing organic hops supply, he buys some from New Zealand, which has few insect infestations.

 

Despite the challenges, more and more U.S. hops and wheat growers are going pesticide-free. More than 150 organic beers (and growing) are sold domestically, with sales ballooning from $9 million in 2003 to $19 million in 2005, according to the Organic Trade Association. Goschie Farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has started growing small batches of pesticide-free organic hops, and fifth-generation hops farmer Steve Carpenter in Washington state supplies organic hops to Olympia.’s Fish Brewing Co. for its certified-organic pale ale. In Berkeley, Calif., Bison Brewing crafts a certified-organic, plum-sweet Belgian ale with ingredients sourced from the Midwest and, north of California’s Bay Area, Eel River Brewing Co. makes a line of certified-organic beers, including a smooth, citrusy India Pale Ale.

 

“We just try to reinvent the wheel,” says Craig Nicholls, a father of three with a shaved head and a fist-size brown goatee, who launched the first Northwest Organic Brewers festival in 2003 (it now attracts brewers from England and Germany) and co-founded Roots Organic Brewing, Oregon’s first all-organic brewery, in 2005. “We’re not a bunch of tree-huggers, but we do our part.” Roots’ beers are oddballs. Burghead Heather Ale eschews hops for 100 percent heather tips, while the toasted-coconut porter is a tropical transplant, fashioned from hand-toasted organic coconuts.

 

This level of commitment is not always easy. “It took us months to get our beers certified organic,” Nicholls recalls. Plus, every time he conceives a bizarre new brew (like Epic Ale, which features malt smoked over cherry wood that’s been soaked in cognac and cherry juice), he files reams of paperwork proving the ingredients’ organic provenance. Tack on costly ingredients, and “it’s a lot of work for not a lot of bucks,” Nicholls says, adding that brewing organics is not about cashing in—it’s about the tradition of richer, sweeter, fuller-flavored beers. “We’re returning to the roots of brewing, the way beer is supposed to be made.”

 

Over a Barrel
When railroads ruled the land, every bracing lager and powerful pilsner was seasoned in hand-cobbled wooden barrels, similar to how wine is aged. The resulting beers were wild and rich, with earthy flavors and lush vanilla notes. Eventually, modernization and Prohibition conspired to kill labor-intensive barrel-aging; casks were replaced by stainless steel tankards that imparted as much flavor as tap water. Thankfully, in Europe, the centuries-old methods of beers like Belgian lambic—a curiously sour, fizzless, barrel-cured brew—preserved the tradition of fermenting, “and we’ve taken that inspiration and put our own American craft twist on it,” says Vinnie Cilurzo, brewmaster-owner at Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, California.

 

Like a basement scientist, Cilurzo injects untamed Brettanomyces yeast into golden ales, then ferments them for a year in used French oak barrels that once held chardonnay. Or he ages brown ales in oak pinot noir barrels, tossing in sour cherries and three cantankerous strains of yeast. “We’re charting unknown territory and transforming beer,” says the former winemaker, who’s part of an American oak renaissance among beer makers that includes Portland, Maine’s Allagash Brewing Co., with its golden Belgian tripels aged in bourbon barrels; Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, N.H., which makes high-proof doppelbocks aged in Jack Daniels barrels; Avery Brewing in Boulder, Colo., whose potent barleywine is cured in used port barrels; and Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles, Calif., whose latest feat, a strong ale called “10,” blends barleywines, hyper-hoppy IPAs and Russian imperial stouts aged for 10 months in bourbon, brandy and fresh-oak barrels.

 

But few brewers employ oak like Ron Jeffries, owner of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Mich., who hand-crafts unpasteurized, unfiltered brews dosed with wild yeasts. Since 2004, he has staked his reputation on barrel- and bottle-aging every beer that comes out of his pirate- and island-themed brewery. “This is the only way I want to make beer,” Jeffries says. Take his La Roja: The amber ale is blended from beer aged in bourbon and red-wine barrels for up to 10 months, creating a spicy, sour-caramel flavor with nuance that rivals fine wines. Or the Perseguidor, a sour blend of La Roja and the light, citrus-sour Bam Bière farmhouse ale that’s cellared for an additional six months, creating a woodsy, incredibly drinkable beer.


Herb-ie the Love Beer
The phrase “fruity beer” conjures images of coeds guzzling sticky-sweet beverages that could induce sugar shock. Equally perplexing is the idea of beer infused with fragrant rose petals, herbs and flowers typically found in teas and perfumes. “Pass me the rosemary beer, Bob,” has somehow never entered the common vernacular. But to ignore these esoteric flavorings is to deny oneself a taste of brewing history.


In the Middle Ages, monks brewed their beers with gruit—a proprietary mix of herbs and aromatics like aniseed and pine roots—a flavoring practice that lasted until hops asserted their dominance in the 19th century. Though still beer’s central flavor, hops are being challenged by nutmeg-spiked pumpkin lagers, cinnamon-and-clover Christmas ales and other modern takes on this ancient flavoring art. Seattle’s Elysian Brewing pours floral Avatar Jasmine IPA, while in Newport, Ore., Rogue Ales flavors its Juniper Pale Ale with whole juniper berries, the piney shrub fruit that gives gin its trademark flavor.


Still, few brewers engage in aromatics like Mark Jilg, the curly-haired Californian who, in another life, was a NASA image specialist. During downtime, the home-brew enthusiast raided his spice cabinet and fruit bowl and took a big sniff. “Our palates, as humans, aren’t particular good at tasting, but our noses are good at smelling,” says Jilg, who owns the tiny Craftsman Brewing Co. in Pasadena, Calif., where he crafts dynamic, herb- and fruit-based libations like Triple White Sage, a peppery Belgian strong ale dosed with wild sage hand-picked by Jilg, and Orange Grove Ale, which smells of fresh-squeezed Tropicana ambrosia, thanks to fermentation with actual oranges. His Cabernale takes California’s plentiful cabernet sauvignon grapes and turns them into beer’s answer to wine: an amber brew that tastes like Welch’s Grape Juice’s older, bad-boy brother married to Korbel champagne.


Jilg’s potions lack mass-market appeal (who wants to tailgate with sage beer?), but he couldn’t care less about Joe Sixpack. “Being a niche player is more satisfying. We can keep our select customer base very happy, while brewing remains exciting and interesting,” says Jilg, who sometimes delivers his beer in a restored 1946 Studebaker truck.

 

Sam Calagione, on the other hand, prefers to travel in a time machine. For the boyish president of Delaware’s daring Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, relying on herbs and fruits isn’t enough. Instead, the brewer re-creates drinks last indulged during the pharaohs’ reign.


His Midas Touch is a delicate, floral beverage based on saffron, honey, white Muscat grapes and barley found in 3,000-year-old drinking vessels in King Midas’ tomb. For his Chateau Jiahu, Calagione ventured back an additional six millennia. Preserved pottery discovered in northern China’s Jiahu village revealed a tipple composed of aromatics like wildflower honey, hawthorn fruit and chrysanthemum flowers. With the aid of a molecular archaeologist, Dogfish brewed the Jiahu, a mildly carbonated elixir with a sweet fruity base.


“When you’re brewing beers out on the ledge, they’re not going to go on tap at your local Hooters and sell three kegs a week,” says Calagione, who often crisscrosses the country to educate beer drinkers about his obscure creations. “It’s outside of the normal taste profile.”


That seems to be the overriding philosophy at Dogfish Head, which stakes its rep on “off-centered ales for off-centered people,” as Calagione puts it. Since 1995, Dogfish has embarked on “a quixotic journey where no one tells us what beers should be.” Calagione and Co. rely on atypical ingredients (St. John’s wort and licorice root in Chicory Stout) and mountains of fruit (pureed raspberries in the 18 percent-alcohol Fort ale; green raisins in the wine-like Raison D’Etre) to fashion a beer portfolio that’s not easily categorized. And not always successful. The wild experimentation has seen several setbacks. Years ago, he crafted a beer with lavender buds and peppercorns, but accidentally overdosed on the lavender. The perfumey result was like “tongue-kissing Laura Ashley,” he recounts.


Still, he says, speaking for every brewer attempting to break the boundaries of beer, “We’re going to keep flying our freak flag front and center and continue trying out fun stuff. The proof, as they say, is in the pint glass.”

 

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