New horizons: Local brewers redefine beer ingredients

KEEPING IT INTERESTING: Burial Beer Co. is among local breweries that are constantly experimenting with ingredients. Burial's Keeper's Veil honey saison is made with seven types of wildflowers. Photo by Tanya Birch

These days, the slogan “Keep Asheville Weird” applies to beer as well.

Like their counterparts at many of the over 4,000 craft breweries in the United States, local brewers are ranging far beyond the obvious styles in their continuing search for something distinctive and flavorful, and Asheville-area imbibers are eagerly embracing sweet, sour, spicy, rich and even nutty beers.

All this creativity is a far cry from the limited recipe prescribed by the Reinheitsgebot, the 1516 German purity law stipulating that only water, hops and barley could be used to make beer (yeast hadn’t been discovered yet). And five centuries later, some traditionalists may still be disturbed by all these seemingly strange new additives.

Showcasing nature

In fact, however, many of these ingredients date to ancient times. Before hops were ever used in brewing, other herbs, fruits and spices had long been employed. In his book Tasting Beer, author Randy Mosher cites such examples as “ancient northern beer,” which used juniper, honey, cranberries and an herb called meadowsweet.

Todd Boera, head brewer at Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, experiments with a wide variety of foraged ingredients to “take things back to where brewing once was,” he says. The Brutus, a tart farmhouse saison, is aged on fresh dandelion flowers.

Burial Beer Co. similarly integrates wildflowers in creations such as Keeper’s Veil, a honey saison that’s now available in 750 milliliter bottles. Doug Reiser, the head of brewing operations, says it uses “North Carolina-grown barley and wheat, honey malt, North Carolina wildflower honey, and seven different wildflowers: chamomile, hibiscus, rose, passionflower, heather, elderflower and lavender.”

Fiery flavors

Those who hanker for a harsher, spicier beverage should sample the pepper beers. Asheville Brewing Co.’s Fire Escape Pale Ale uses jalapeños roasted in the on-site pizza ovens.

After countless experiments, co-owner and head brewer Pete Langheinrich found that 40-50 pounds of both roasted and fresh jalapeños is the ideal amount for a 30-barrel batch, though he cautions, “Jalapeños aren’t a predictable thing.”

Matthew Norman, head brewer at Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville, and owner/brewer Clark Williams agree. In determining which pepper to use, the Frog Level team discovered that the farmer who collects their spent grain to use for animal feed also happened to grow the world’s two hottest pepper varieties: the Carolina Reaper and Moruga Scorpion. Frog Level adds these peppers during secondary fermentation of its Smoke on the Water beer.

Perfect for a cold winter’s day

Enjoying a hot chocolate by the fire is a classic way to pass a cold winter’s day, but you can also get that warm, cozy feeling while enjoying an ice-cold beer.

Green Man Brewery uses cocoa nibs from Asheville’s French Broad Chocolates to make La Mas Negra, an imperial black ale that’s now available at the taproom and in 750 milliliter bottles. To achieve this bold flavor, notes brewer and lead cellarman Kyle McKenzie, “Panela sugar, peppers and cinnamon are added to the whirlpool addition during the boiling process.” For added flavor and boldness, those ingredients are reintroduced in the brite tank.

Hollie Stephenson, head brewer at Highland Brewing Co., had a Mexican hot chocolate in mind when she retooled the brewery’s Black Mocha Stout, adding 50 pounds of Nicaraguan cocoa nibs from French Broad Chocolates, 15 pounds of hand-cut, dried chipotle peppers, plus vanilla and cinnamon. The new version is the first fruit of Highland’s Kinsman project, which aims to blend selected all-natural ingredients into the recipes for its flagship beers.

Feel like a kid again

Many Americans remember brown-bag school lunches that included a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Catawba Brewing Co.’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time, slated for a March 4 release in the Asheville and Morganton tasting rooms, re-creates that flavor using whole roasted, unsalted peanuts. Head brewer Kevin Sondey explains that while they’d hoped they could get by with peanut extract, the Catawba crew found they got better results doing it the hard way.

Bursting with citrus

Several citrus-flavored brews are also on the local horizon. John Garcia, co-owner of Lookout Brewing Co. in Black Mountain, uses organic fruit in his Key Lime Pie Saison, released last month.

Innovation Brewing in Sylva recently made a Soulvation IPA with citrus-flavored hops and 2 pounds of papaya-and-pineapple green tea. And Ben Baker, founder and head brewer at Boojum Brewing Co. in Waynesville, says a 15-barrel batch of a spring seasonal, a fruity saison, uses 50-70 pounds of raspberries.

It gets messy

This kind of creativity isn’t all fun and games. The worst part of making Burial’s popular Bolo Coconut Brown Ale, notes Reiser, is “cleaning 200 pounds of flaked coconut out of the tank.” Tim Gormley, Burial’s head brewer, came up with the recipe for this beloved beer and “hates himself for inventing it every day,” Reiser reports. At the end of the brewing process, he continues, the tank resembles a “pond scum village.”

The various kinds of berries and fruits used in many local brews also make for messy preparation and cleanup. Boojum Brewing’s Blueberry Coffee Porter and Asheville Brewing’s Pomegranate Blood Orange IPA, for example, both pose similar challenges.

Risks and rewards

Despite the added hassles, however, for many Asheville brewers, the excitement an original beer flavor can generate makes using nontraditional adjuncts worth the risk.

“They’re so much more desirable, because they will fetch new customers, invigorate existing customers and bring a higher price margin,” says Reiser, who shows no sign of turning his back on these once-forbidden fruits.

Editor’s note: Tanya Birch is employed part-time as a tour guide at Green Man Brewery, and her husband, Jim, works at Catawba Brewing Co. in operations and sales.

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About Tanya Birch
Tanya is a freelance writer specializing in travel and beer-focused stories, and she is the author of two guidebooks, Discovering Vintage Philadelphia and Beer Lover's Virginia. Follow me @barleylinks

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