This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.
"You've got a bug in your hair," was a gross understatement. Scratch Brewing Company's co-founder Aaron Kleidon was describing a golf-ball-sized fly nestled into one of my curls. We were watching 60 gallons of wort boil in a copper vat heated by a crackling fire, and abnormally large insects were the least of our worries.
Scratch is located in Ava, Illinois, a rural town with a population of 650. The brewery can attract nearly that many people to sip its basil pale ale and eat wood-fired pizza on a busy weekend. There, Kleidon and co-founder Marika Josephson tend to a different type of farm—a farm that brings the locavore movement to the beer industry. They took over the five-acre property three-and-a-half years ago. Then, it was little more than a single building overrun with brush. Its feral nature still exists, with wildflowers lining a stone pathway that leads to the tasting room/brewery. The duo, along with their former partner Ryan Tockstein, developed the property, from laying the brickwork on the patio to rehabilitating a log cabin that sits on the edge of the forest.
True to its name, Scratch's brews are small-batch and often feature ingredients grown, picked, and prepared by hand. You will find no flagship beers here. Any fool naïve enough to get attached to the Strawberry Sour or Tree Leaf IPA is out of luck, because Scratch rarely repeats recipes. This is in part due to the team's commitment to sourcing almost all—98 percent, to be specific—of its ingredients locally. Everything except for grains, which Scratch is working with local farmers and maltsters to rectify, is farmed or foraged at Scratch. Even its yeast strain is cultivated from a sourdough starter that is also used to make hearth-baked bread and beer pretzels. "We wanted to make everything taste like the place where it's from," Kleidon said.
It also has a lot to do with the availability and variability of the fresh lemon balm, foraged nettles, black trumpet mushrooms, and other edibles that give their beers flavors unlike anything else on the market. "If you're making a lot of beer […] people have an expectation of what it's going to taste like," Josephson said, explaining that the pressure of mass production can lead brewers down a rabbit hole to sourcing ingredients outside of their region or even country in order to meet demand. "For us, we never wanted to make beer that way. We just wanted to use what we had and it didn't matter if we could brew it again."
The philosophy led to creations such as Arugula-Rye Sasion, Sweet Clover Coffee Ale, and Chanterelle Biere de Garde. However, the brewery's most imaginative beers might be its single-origin tree beers.
Yes, you read that correctly. In the same vein of your neighborhood barista pushing single-origin coffee or bartender insisting on pouring single-barrel whiskey, these guys have a line of beers made entirely out of trees. It all started when the team decided they wanted to make a gruit, or beer brewed without hops. The adjacent farm grows about 100 hops plants, including four domestic varieties and one wild variety, but this experiment relied on native plants to act as the bittering agent. That project evolved into maple beer that uses sap instead of water, oak beer flavored with fermented acorns, and hickory beer made with bark.
"Using all the different part of the tree taught us a lot about the tree and the flavors that make the tree what it is," Josephson said. "You realize you get tannins out of certain leaves or interesting flavors when you toast the bark."
On this particular Thursday (in 90-degree heat plus Midwest humidity that makes you question whether you are in fact inhaling air or the steamy breath of Satan) wood was being used for a different purpose. The team was testing the process that would be used to make a collaborative Stein beer with Jester King Brewery. The method was similar to that used by the Finns to make sahti: A hollowed-out log, or kuurna, is fitted with juniper branches to filter the wort from the mash. The test batch was heated over a live fire, while the collaboration used blisteringly hot stones thrown into a barrel to bring it to a boil. The method would have been lost—thanks to the industry's stainless steel fetish—if not for a select group of beer nerds committed to preserving ancient brewing styles.
While Scratch's tree-log mash tun is still in the works, an empty barrel does the trick just fine. A net of spruce branches that looked like a dream catcher was placed in the bottom and the mash was poured over it. After the starch in the mash converted to sugar—a phenomenon that attracted every nearby wasp, bee, and thing with a stinger—the liquid was drained and transferred to a nearby copper kettle. Kleidon lit a pile of firewood, insulated by a curved piece of corrugated metal, and the temperature in the courtyard quickly climbed from sticky to sweltering. This batch fermented in the two-barrel brewhouse, while the batch made with Jester King aged in a wine barrel. The latter, Josephson proclaimed, will only have touched wood during the brewing process, from start to finish.
It's all part of the quest to capture the taste of walking through the woods, eating a strawberry fresh off the vine, or driving hours without seeing a single sign of human life for the promise of beer that taste like trees. It's also why the brewery itself is one of the only places where you can experience these brews. Scratch recently began bottling. Its first release was the Chanterelle Biere de Garde, followed by a Spring Tonic. A couple of these bottles made the 300-mile trip to Chicago, but most were sold at the tasting room. "The beer always tastes better in the place where it's made," Kleidon said.
As long as that philosophy—and the mushroom supply—thrives, Scratch will stay small. And that's just the way they like it, bugs and all.