Beers Made By Walking will once again return to the World Beer Festival Raleigh, held on Saturday, April 2 at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. Festival attendees can sample from a variety of North Carolina beers inspired by nature walks and local ingredients.
Brewing is a global industry. While that brewery down the street produces “local beer,” it probably sources barley and hops grown many miles away. That’s necessary, due to how well these primary beer components grow in certain states or countries. But through a program called Beers Made By Walking, many brewers are discovering that some of the most unusual ingredients are in their backyards.
Eric Steen founded the program in 2011 after a canoeing trip on the Yukon River in Canada. More than an excuse to get out on the water, the trip also taught him about the local herbs that grew near the river and how they were used in teas. He was fascinated that all of this—the landscape, the teas, the plants from which they were made—could be encompassed in a single word: place.
“Place is one of the only things we really have to connect with the world,” says Steen. “It’s not just a location; it’s a mindset. I think beer that echoes that mindset is beautiful, because you can feel an attachment to it in a way that is different than a beer that doesn’t have a sense of place.”
To create beers with a sense of place, Beers Made By Walking invites brewers to journey out into nature in search of inspiration or ingredients. Brewers are well familiar with countless varieties of hops, malt and yeast—but not as accustomed to the myriad herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables they might encounter along the trail. That’s why these hikes are often guided by naturalists, botanists and conservationists from local groups who can tell the brewers more about their potential ingredients. Later, once the beers are finished, Beers Made By Walking taps them at public events, with the proceeds often going back to the local conservation groups that led the hikes.
The program has yielded about 90 place-based beers. Some of Steen’s highlights over the years include Pikes Peak Brewing’s Kriekenstein, a sour-mash kriek brewed with chokecherries in the steinbier style; Worthy Brewing’s Walk on the Wild Side, a “Badlands indigenous ale” brewed with sage, fescue, juniper, wheatgrass and wild Indian ricegrass; and Deschutes Brewery’s Sagefight IPA, brewed with sage and juniper from Oregon’s Flatiron Trail. This last one garnered a silver medal in the Indigenous/Regional Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013 and a bronze in the same category in 2014.
Not all ingredients need be so obscurely tucked away in nature, nor must all of the walks take place in arid deserts or dense wood. Beers Made By Walking held a public urban walk in Portland, OR, with brewers from Coalition Brewing and Upright Brewing joining about 25 others in walking the city. They found sprigs shooting from sidewalk cracks, just beneath their feet. Seemingly vacant lots ended up being home to a variety of herbs. From this walk, Coalition was inspired to brew a beer with rosemary and lemon balm. Its friends at Upright brewed a farmhouse ale with elderberry and elderflower.
Bess Dougherty at Wynkoop Brewing took a stroll through downtown Denver looking for inspiration and found it in the form of a 40-foot-tall blue bear. If you have ever visited the Colorado Convention Center for the Great American Beer Festival, you have no doubt seen this ursine sculpture: paws pressed against the glass, peering in almost enviously at the hordes of beer drinkers.
Of course, bears don’t actually drink beer. Dougherty learned, though, that Rocky Mountain black bears do eat berries. She brewed a lager with raspberries and thyme, and then she threw in an ingredient that is most definitely not found in nature: blue gummy bears.
Last year, as so many were walking past that big blue bear on their way into Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, Beers Made By Walking held a festival of its own just down the road at Wynkoop Brewing, with members of the All About Beer Magazine team in attendance. Most of the more than 40 beers served at this event were directly inspired by hikes the brewers had taken.
In addition to these, though, Steen also invited a handful of other breweries to pour beers that would fall into the Indigenous/Regional category of the Great American Beer Festival. Though these beers were not inspired by walks, they are defined by their regional heritage and use of locally grown ingredients.
The brewers from two of the breweries—Scratch Brewing of Ava, IL, and Fonta Flora Brewery of Morganton, NC—hit it off immediately. For both, place-based beers are not something brewed just for a festival—they are a reflection of their brewing philosophies.
Before becoming the brewer at Fonta Flora, Todd Boera studied sustainable agriculture at Warren Wilson College. So it’s perhaps not surprising that he has worked with farms across North Carolina to find a bounty of fruits and vegetables with which to brew, and we’re not talking your run-of-the-mill offerings.
In a state once known for its cotton and tobacco crops, Boera has brewed with locally grown kiwi fruit, sorghum juice and seed, beets, carrots, fennel bulb, Bloody Butcher corn and more. He has also foraged for ingredients, picking apples, pears, dandelion, honeysuckle and ramps. But the guys at Scratch, he says, take foraging to a whole new level.
So it was that Boera and the brewers at Scratch decided to collaborate. When the crew from Scratch visited North Carolina in January, none of the brewers had an idea as to what they would brew. Yet after hiking through the nearby Linville Gorge, they came together to create La Loblolly, a red saison brewed with cherrywood shavings and two types of pine needles.
At last year’s Great American Beer Festival—where Boera first met the guys from Scratch—Fonta Flora won gold. It wasn’t for one of their many beers that use local grain from Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House, or herbs, fruits or vegetables from farms in the region. No, it was for the brewery’s Irish Table, a dry stout that is about as traditional as they come.
Was Boera any less proud? Of course not. But the beers Boera most wants to be known for are the ones that convey and celebrate a sense of place.
“Everyone in the world has access to the ingredients that go into Irish Table,” says Boera. “But this is where I live, and this is the community I’m a part of. I’ve lived in a lot of different places, but I’ve never found a place like the Appalachian mountains.”
And through the Beers Made By Walking program, brewers like Boera will continue brewing place-based beers—one step at a time.