“I love it. I don’t give a shit what everybody else says,” strong words coming from Forbidden Root’s head brewer BJ Pichman. He’s not talking about beer, though. He’s talking about Fernet Branca, the bitter Italian amaro made with a guarded blend of botanicals, which acted as the inspiration for a limited-release beer.
In February, bottles of the Fernetic, an “Imperial Black Ale” made with 20 herbs, roots and spices – only a handful fewer than Fernet Branca’s recipe – debuted and disappeared within hours. Luckily for curious drinkers, the brewery recently released a second batch, and hopefully they'll soon be available to the Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Florida markets.
While finding this beer might not be easy, making it was even more difficult.
It started in June. A regular day at the Chicago brewpub until Edoardo Branca walked in. The sixth generation Branca family member and current manager of the Fratelli Branca business in the U.S. didn’t exactly blend into the crowd, especially not to longtime Fernet fanatic Pichman. He took the visitor through the lineup of house beers and then asked him to collaborate on a beer that channeled the spirit of the visitor's flagship liquor. It would be a first for both Forbidden Root and Fratelli Branca. But Branca agreed.
It is the most complicated beer Forbidden Root makes by far.”
“It was a logical progression for us, especially with the older spirits, the things that are based in roots and crazy, weird ingredients,” Pichman says as we sip the complex beer affectionately called Fernetic.
The initial aroma is like sticking your nose into a handful of fresh mint. It’s not until after the first sip that all of the complexities unfold. Spiced fruit and hints of sweetness wrapped up in one curious beer, complete with a bitter finish. It tastes, as one would expect, a lot like Fernet Branca, but has the medium body and drinkability of a stout.
“The main contributors are things like peppermint, wormwood, rhubarb, star anise, and cinnamon,” Pichman explains. It also contains gentian and galangal root for bitterness, angelica root and angelica seed for flavor, among other difficult-to-find ingredients. “There are just so many things that add to it, but some things are more impactful than others. We had a good jumping off point as far as what was in it, and they guided us through in terms of flavor profiles.”
It is the most complicated beer Forbidden Root makes by far. The only one that comes close, in both process and ingredient list, is its namesake beer: an alcoholic take on root beer made with 20 plants and botanicals. Rather than mimic the syrupy soft drink that many grew up on, Forbidden Root created a light beer rich with spice and wintergreen notes. The beer was released in 2014, but has not remained in the brewery’s lineup.
Fernetic, on the other hand, is scheduled to be an annual release. The brewing process involves a custom base beer that was inspired by a blend of three existing beers. Then, careful addition of ingredients in various forms and during various stages of the brewing process bring the full range of flavors through. Some flavors are added as oils or extracts, while others remain in their natural form. Some are incorporated during the boil, others during fermentation.
One thing is certain: Mint is the prominent flavor. It’s a trait that sets Fernet Branca apart from other Fernet blends, yet can be problematic if used incorrectly. “If it tasted like toothpaste and had no residual sweetness or body or anything complimenting the mintiness, that would be a fail,” Pichman explains.
The roots present another set of problems.
“Typical beers are bittered by hops. We did use hops in this – very little – knowing that we were having a big contribution of bitterness coming from the roots,” Pichman says. Unlike hops, however, roots are a bit one-note. No fruity essence or piney freshness here, folks. It’s just punch-in-the-palate, dry bitterness. In the case of Fernetic, the harshness works, in moderation, to balance the overpowering qualities of peppermint.
After two trials on Forbidden Root’s half-barrel pilot system, a test batch was sent to Branca for the nod of approval. It got that nod and, less than a year later, the world’s first Fernet beer hit the market.
It joins a growing wave of spirit-inspired beers – drinks that think beyond the barrel when blurring the lines between beer and liquor. For drinkers of Fernet, the beer comes as a pleasant surprise, with all the spice and bitterness they learned to love by drinking the spirit. For Fernet newbies, the beer might strike an odd chord – an unfamiliar combination of flavors that has intrigued amaro lovers since 1845.
Either way, there is no denying it is a one-of-a-kind beer.
“My favorite things in life are always those things that have a bit of familiar and a bit of challenge. There’s something anchored in familiarity, yet there’s something a little different,” Pichman says as he tops off his snifter with the dark chocolate-colored brew. “Those things tend to be things that are fleeting. Things that have a little bit of challenge to them have staying power.”