It was shaping up to be a rough night at Amnesia, a perennially packed bar in San Francisco’s Mission District. Amnesia is a favorite among the city’s craft-beer cognoscenti; the bar’s best-seller is Bear Republic Brewing Co.’s Racer 5 -- a classic American India pale ale, all orange zest and rich pine resin.
But on this particular night, the Racer 5 had run out, and so patrons took an unexpected U-turn -- to Moonlight Brewing Co.’s Previous Life, a bracing and herbaceous beer from nearby Santa Rosa. Its oddly warming bitterness comes not from hops but from mugwort, an herb that hasn’t seen much use in brewing since the Middle Ages.
While mugwort isn’t likely to go mainstream anytime soon, beers infused with herbs, fruits and spices are creeping from the shamanic fringes into neighborhood bars, Bloomberg Pursuits reports in its Summer 2014 issue, offering something beer drinkers haven’t seen for centuries: a taste of place.
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The most recognizable note in many beers -- that crisp, lip-smacking bitterness -- comes from pine cone-like buds called hops. Grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest, Germany and China, hops are present in almost every beer on earth. The Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law, dating from 1487, mandated their use.
But before hops rose to dominance, brewers flavored beer with whatever grew around them: seasonal fruits and medicinal and sometimes hallucinogenic herbs. Hops, a natural sedative, were difficult to come by and derided as weedy and dull.
Starting in the 16th century, however, brewers discovered that hops kept their wares fresh, thanks to antimicrobial compounds such as humulone. Mugwort, a less effective preservative, all but vanished. Now, in an age of locavore obsession, brewers are returning to the drink’s venerable roots.
The trend is centered, unsurprisingly, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Alice Waters incubated the local-and-seasonal ethos at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. “We’re heavily inspired by the farm-to-table movement,” says Jesse Friedman, owner of San Francisco’s Almanac Beer Co. “We go to the same farms that chefs go to and make beers with the same ingredients.”
At Almanac, that means pluots, a plum-apricot hybrid, from nearby Blossom Bluff Orchards; coriander from Dirty Girl Produce; and even San Francisco Bay sea salt and wild yeast. Brian Hunt, Moonlight Brewing’s founder, gathers redwood twigs in his Sonoma County front yard and gets the mugwort for Previous Life from a nearby herbalism school. Chez Panisse’s namesake pale ale, from Walnut Creek’s Calicraft Brewing Co., incorporates anise hyssop, lemon verbena and Meyer lemon leaf -- all grown locally, of course.
As this throwback brewing style takes root around the country, the beers vary greatly, even when similar ingredients are used. Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colorado, for example, makes a subtly sweet peach beer called Tree Shaker, while Almanac’s Brandy Barrel Pêche is tart and tinged with vanilla. In Durham, North Carolina, Fullsteam Brewery’s Summer Basil was inspired by an impromptu harvest from the brewer’s kitchen herb garden. “After all,” Fullsteam founder Sean Lilly Wilson says, “beer is agriculture.”
These locally inspired beers don’t always fit into predetermined styles. Fort Point Beer Co., in San Francisco’s wind-racked Presidio, brews the house beer for Tosca Cafe, an iconic restaurant across town recently revamped by star chef April Bloomfield. The beer gets its body from a fruity ale yeast; its dry finish from cold, lager-style fermentation; and its refreshing minty buzz from local yerba santa, a medicinal herb used to treat respiratory ailments. Is it a traditional German Kölsch, the Old World version of a cold-conditioned ale? Nope. Is it delicious? Absolutely.
“More than food or wine, the beer world has been bound to preconceptions,” says Fort Point founder Justin Catalana. “Stout meant Guinness. IPAs had a ton of hops. There was a heavy-handedness to it. No variety. Our approach is to start from the ground up.”
This new frontier in beer is driven not by laws or guidelines but by taste. So on your next night out, forget what you think beer is and explore what it once was and -- thanks to a new generation of brewers -- is again. “If it were up to us,” Catalana says, “we probably wouldn’t be classifying our beers at all.”
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Gentian: An überbitter root packed with antioxidants and used to flavor everything from Aperol, the Italian aperitif, to Underberg, a digestif from Germany, gentian gives an earthy edge to Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc.’s Birra Etrusca Bronze, which is made according to an ancient Italian recipe. dogfish.com
Horehound: To medieval herbalist John Gerard, it was a cure-all for everything from the common cold to rabies. For New Belgium Brewing Co., horehound brings a welcome cherry-sweet balance to the bitter bog myrtle and yarrow in its herbaceous Gruit beer. newbelgium.com
Juniper: From Viking grog to scurvyfighting sailors’ rations, coniferous needles have spiked our brews for centuries. You can taste juniper berries in Boston Beer Co.’s Samuel Adams Norse Legend, which is based on traditional Finnish sahti. samueladams.com
William Bostwick is the author of The Brewer's Tale: A History of the World According to Beer, to be published this fall by W.W. Norton. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org, @brewerstale, brewerstale.tumblr.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ted Moncreiff at email@example.com