Anthropologically speaking, it wasn’t that long ago that making beer meant using herbs instead of hops. What we call gruits today—a term for hopless beer—is an arcane style rediscovered by a scant number of breweries at a time when IPAs reign supreme. But a beer made with herbs doesn’t necessarily taste like the Middle Ages. If anything, farmhouse ales and others that look to gardens and foraged fields or forests smack of a new wave of flavorful beers. Keeping in mind that beer is the ideal accompaniment to a great meal, more brewers are turning to their herb gardens (and spice cabinets) to conjure up culinary beers with savory palates to complement various dishes.
In 2015, traditional lambic maker Lindemans Brewery and nontraditional brewer Mikkeller teamed up to create Spontanbasil, a spontaneously fermented ale that smelled and tasted deeply of a fistful of freshly picked basil. The toughest call was whether to pair the bottle with Italian or Thai food. (Both!)
Not surprisingly, sour beers marry well with these ingredients. At Portland, Oregon’s Cascade Brewing, master blender Kevin Martin has deployed a veritable produce section’s worth over the years—often in tandem with fruit—in combos such as Pear-Rosemary Ale and Raspberry-Thyme Ale. He’s also let them shine on their own, as with Shiso Sour Red Basil Ale, which allowed the leaf’s bitter, savory qualities to take center stage.
“Herbs offer something unique to beer and cuisine that few other ingredients can really match,” says Martin. “I would consider the upper register of flavor. Thinking of flavors like notes on a piano, things like chocolate and roast malt would exist on the lowest notes. Dried or dark fruits and red malts cover a mid-to-low range. Fresh stone fruits and citrus being the mid-to-high register. Finally, to reach that very highest register of flavor can be difficult—maybe lemon can get there and lactic acid brings a similar brightness, but is more of a sensation than a flavor or aroma. Then comes herbal infusions on the very highest notes and you get flavors like mint, sage, thyme, and suddenly you can reach the upper register and make the flavors really soar.”
Herbs can also “help paint a portrait,” he adds. Cascade Yarrow-Sage-Desert Honey Ale was inspired by the Oregon desert. “We find that, much like cooking, herbs are best when fresh, so we always infuse them as late in the process as possible, often just days before going to package so that we get the freshest possible flavor. Too long a contact time and the excitement of the herb can become dull or just turn green, plantlike, or vegetal.”
A major factor in popularizing herbal beers began in 2011 when Eric Steen founded Beers Made By Walking (BMBW). The concept is simple: He tells brewers to take a hike, and to not come back until they’ve found some usable flora. To date, more than 100 breweries have participated. While all manner of botanicals have potential, herbs really fare well in beer. Maybe brewers don’t look to bog myrtle that much anymore, but the annual three-way collaboration from Dogfish Head Brewery, Stone Brewing, and Victory Brewing—titled Saison du B.U.F.F.—is made with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, a nod to the Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.”
When Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project foraged wild sage on a 2013 BMBW hike, the resulting Colorado WildSage struck a chord. Its bright, Brettanomyces-led tartness, complemented with lemongrass, is herbal and earthy with a hint of lemon pepper in the finish. This beer became such a hit, it’s now available both year-round and in cans. (Incidentally, Crooked Stave brewed a batch with wild mint once, but personally, while I love mint, most minty beers I’ve found come off tasting like toothpaste.)
The same year Colorado WildSage debuted, Scratch Brewing opened in Ava, Illinois on 75 wooded acres belonging to co-owner Aaron Kleidon’s family. For five years, Scratch has imbued its beers with wild herbs and other botanicals. “Our goal has always been to create beer with a sense of place and to limit ourselves to the greatest degree possible to using ingredients we harvested locally, whether they were in our garden or in the woods around our brewery,” says co-owner Marika Josephson.
Scratch beers “come out of the tradition of gruit-making, but with a modern spin,” notes Josephson. Basil IPA is like a link from our gruit past to our hoppy present. “It's actually hard to tell in that beer where the hops end and the basil begins. They actually work perfectly to complement one another.”
From rural breweries surrounded by botanists’ dreamscapes to urban breweries with weekly farmers markets, brewers have access to both wild and cultivated herbs, some of which are more ancestrally rooted in beer’s DNA than hops. The more arrows brewers realize they have in their quivers, the better chance they have at hitting their desired flavor targets.
Top photo by Kendall Karmanian.