Local ingredients are a fertile source of inspiration, even if the materials never had much of a role in beer. Many brewers in the Southeast are brewing beers using sorghum syrup pressed from the stalks of a type of millet. Maple is popular in northern regions. I was recently told of an Alaskan brewer who uses $600 worth of birch syrup in a brew each spring. This particular form of liquid gold has to be boiled down to one percent of its original volume, which explains the shockingly high price.
Other Alaskans are looking at the local fruit such as salmonberries and unique varieties of blueberries to create new beers, and there are a number of herbs found there—sweet gale and juniper, for example—that have an ancient brewing heritage. In other parts of the country, brewers are seeking out both indigenous and locally cultivated products. Some are even growing rare varieties of fruit and other products.
In California and elsewhere, brewers are working with the many parts and pieces of Belgian brewing, looking to rearrange them into something new and uniquely American. Pro brewers such as Tomme Arthur, Tom Nichols and Vinnie Cilurzo are leading the charge, but homebrewers are pursuing similar paths. Dark saisons, sour strong ales, 100% Brettanomyces-fermented beers and caramelized raisins are all in their toolkit. At last fall’s Great American Beer Fest, I judged a beer described as a “strong brown ale with dark candi sugar and brown raisins, fermented with American and Belgian yeast, racked to a Bourbon cask, then refermented with Brettanomyces, sherry yeast, sour cherry, dates and honey, aged on American oak, then blended with a barley wine.” Is this overkill? Probably. But who cares? And besides, the beer took second place.
Today, I present you with a recent effort of mine, a subtler effort that borrows from some of the extreme monsters described above. It’s a winter saison, an idea that originated with Dany Prignon, brewer of the eccentric Belgian Fantome beers, but quickly naturalized here by Tomme Arthur and a number of homebrewers. My own recipe is a big city version, inspired by the global stew that is Chicago, and takes advantage of our abundance of ethnic ingredients. As usual, you can slavishly recreate my version, but I sincerely hope you would put your own spin on it. There’s plenty of great ideas whirring around, and we really are at the beginning of this new kind of American beer.
The frontier is still open for business. Let’s get brewing.