At its most basic level, beer is composed of four ingredients: malt, water, hops, and yeast. From that quartet have emerged dozens of distinct beer styles, such as creamy, banana-scented hefeweizens, stouts as dark and roasty as a double espresso, and sour brews that recall carbonated lemonade. Check out this excerpt from Joshua Bernstein's book Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World's Craft Brewing Revolution.
But for many beer makers, using four ingredients is just too limiting. Thus, many brewers have begun acting like Middle Ages monks, who flavored their beers with gruit. This was a proprietary blend of bitter and astringent yarrow (a flowering plant), wild rosemary, and resinous, eucalyptus-like wild gale, along with various spices such as cinnamon or caraway seeds. In large quantities, gruit was considered a euphoric stimulant and an aphrodisiac, and brewers often incorporated psychotropics such as henbane to enhance the effects. Whether due to public-health or religious reasons (those inebriated heathens!), gruit was largely phased out by the 1700s in favor of hops.
This is not to diss hops. I love those pungent, floral cones something fierce. I’ve just come to admire how brewers today are relying less on hops to drive beers’ flavors and are dipping their fingers into the fridge, spice rack, and apothecary’s cabinet and conceiving beers as kooky as they are quaffable. In Italy, Birrificio Le Baladin’s brewer, Teo Musso, makes his Egyptian-style ale Nora with ginger, myrrh, orange peel, and the ancient grain Kamut, which has a nutty character. (A tiny amount of hops is used as a preservative.) Wisconsin’s Furthermore Beer hardly uses any hops to create the tart, fall-friendly Fallen Apple, which is a blend of fresh-pressed cider and cream ale, and pairs hops with an unlikely flavor by cold-infusing its Knot Stock pale ale with cracked black pepper, resulting in a zingy curiosity.
Instead of an orchard, Michigan’s New Holland Brewing Company takes its cues from Mexican cuisine in creating its malty El Mole Ocho, which is redolent of cocoa, chiles, and coffee. State-mates Short’s Brewing Company are inspired by dessert, turning out sweet seasonal post-dinner treats such as Strawberry Short’s Cake (made with milk sugar fermented with fresh strawberries) and S’Mores Stout, which receives its campfire-ready kick from graham cracker crumbs, marshmallows, and milk chocolate.
Are these beers with mass-market appeal? Maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t matter. “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,” explains Sam Calagione, the president of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, whose offbeat beers include Raison D’Etre, made with green raisins, and Chicory Stout, incorporating roasted chicory, St. John’s wort and licorice root.
“We brew for our own palates first and what excites us, in the hopes of exciting some consumers out there,” Calagione says. “We’re going to keep flying our freak flag front and center and continue trying out fun stuff.” Consider it a rallying cry for craft brewing.
FIVE UNUSUAL BEERS WORTH SAMPLING
Short’s Brewing Company
In order to re-create a bloody Mary in a bottle, Short’s Brewing ferments the beer with Roma tomatoes and spices it with celery seeds, peppercorns, fresh horseradish, and dill. Clay-red Bloody smells garden-fresh, with dill the standout scent. As it warms, it releases its spicy, peppery bouquet. This beer won a silver medal in the experimental category at the 2009 GABF.
Wells Banana Bread Beer
Wells & Young’s Brewing Company
A bunch of bananas gives the copper British brew a nose of Chiquita and nuts and a flavor that, most certainly, brings to mind banana bread. Though I normally hate a thin, fizzy body, it works well here. Sweetness would’ve ruined this sipper.
Birrificio Le Baladin
Named after Italian brewer Teo Musso’s wife, the Egyptian ale spiced with myrrh, ginger, and orange peel is a complex stunner. Its perfume is floral and herbal, mildly reminiscent of incense, while orange steers the tint and delicate, semi-dry flavor.
BFM Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes
Don’t bother chilling this Swiss winter warmer that is, well, best served warm—like tea, not cask ale. The carbonation-less ale is spiced with everything from cloves to anise to cardamom, forging a sweet, thick sipper that tastes like Christmas with a bitter finish.
Lemon Tea Ale
Mill St. Brew Pub
The Toronto brewery turns out this unfiltered amber-hued ale by adding lemon and black tea leaves to the aging tank. This imparts a dry, slightly tannic finish to the smooth and malty tipple. It’s good and quenching.