12 December 2023

From saison to subculture

The rural movement | Experimenting with mixed fermentation, working local, brewing with foraged or home-grown ingredients – this is all typical of what are known as farmhouse breweries. This approach has given rise to a scene that brews authentic, independent, high-quality beers on a small scale well away from the big urban centres and irrespective of all trends. BRAUWELT International author Sylvia Kopp reports on two protagonists of this movement whom she met in the USA and Belgium.

In the taproom at the Half Acre Beer Company on Chicago’s North Side, 30 minutes’ drive from Downtown but still in the middle of the metropolis: I’m sitting at the bar and enjoying a Daisy Cutter Pale Ale, the first beer made by this brewery founded in 2007. I like the hoppy flavour of blended pine, citrus, tropical fruit, a good portion of dankness (reminiscent of marijuana) and the polished, dry structure. This beer has class. No surprise, then, that this Half Acre flagship has become a fixed feature on the Chicago scene.

One of the most beautiful places to drink one or more beers: Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, Illinois

However, Daisy Cutter pales somewhat in comparison with what I’m served next: “The Art of Holding Space” placed in front of me in an elegant goblet is a bright gold, wispily veiled beauty crowned with foam. The table saison (3 % ABV) has a gentle fragrance of yellow fruit with a hint of hay and pepper. It runs smoothly over the palate with a noble bitterness, medium body and fresh, lemony acidity in the finish – complex yet simple. This beer, also a debut, is by “Keeping Together”, the name of the project run by Averie Swanson. She’s been brewing her saisons at the Half Acre brewery since 2019. I’m impressed. So’s the waiter. He tells me that he only (!) works at this taproom because of Swanson’s beers. This really means something: after all, there are around 250 breweries in the metropolitan area!

Plenty of scope for creative expression

Averie Swanson is one of the most noticed new entrepreneurs of the last few years. I don’t manage to catch her in Chicago. It’s said she’s leaving town and heading for New Mexico. I only get to make her acquaintance three months later at the BXL Beer Fest in Brussels – for breakfast which, following the first highly successful day of the festival, for both of us consists of a black coffee. “Saison is my favourite beer style,” she says. It’s not just that she prefers the taste of saisons; from a technical and philosophical point of view, this style provides plenty of scope for creative brewing expression. “It’s remarkable,” Swanson continues, “how through us this Belgian beer variety has evolved to become a veritable subculture.” By “us” she means farmhouse breweries such as Scratch Brewing Company from Illinois, Jester King in Texas or Fonta Flora from North Carolina.

Marika Josephson and  Aaron Kleidon, owners of and brewers at Scratch Brewing Company, behind their mash tuns

Swanson knows what she’s talking about as she was one of those largely responsible for the birth of this subculture. Following an unpaid internship, she quickly rose to become production manager at cult brewery Jester King and was even made head brewer and co-owner in 2017. She still holds her shares in the company. As head brewer, among other things she was responsible for blending and barrel management: a task that not only trained up her sense of taste but also defined the company’s style. Four years ago, she left the Texan brewery. Back then she was part of the management team and had reached the zenith of her career at Jester King. “I wanted to develop further as a creator,” is the reason she gives for her departure.

Taste exploration

With “Keeping Together”, Swanson produces mixed-fermented saisons with varying ingredients. She stresses that she doesn’t ferment in a foeder but in stainless steel tanks. “Wood is a taste element, not an obligatory technique for mixed fermentation.” All of her beers are subtle and complex, such as “Human Attention is Sacred” (5.1 % ABV) with hibiscus, cinnamon and ginger salt, “The Earth is What We All Have in Common” (7.1 % ABV) with chestnuts, oranges and rosemary or “The Illusion of Finality” (8.4 % ABV) with cherries, chamomile and black pepper. Her beer names read like titles of Beat Generation poems because Swanson likes to consciously work with this. “I love it when people say the names out loud,” she smiles. They provide food for thought and inspiration for many a conversation.

Aaron Kleidon builds practically everything himself at Scratch Brewing, including the brick oven used to make pizza and sour dough bread and to dry or roast the brewing ingredients

Name, label, flavour profile – Swanson wants to create a holistic experience. She collects inspiring ideas in a notebook, also writing down flavour combinations she likes. “Taking conscious note of what I smell and taste makes me a more aware person. I want to apply this experience to my beers,” Swanson tells me. Recipes sometimes start with a flavour combination, sometimes with a name, or “very often also with what’s available in the brewery – the malts, the hop varieties,” she explains. “I then see what the yeast makes of this and take the recipe from there.” Swanson especially enjoys this concentrated, process-oriented approach. Her debut beer “The Art of Holding Space” certainly started with the name. Noble, clear and light – an unobtrusive drink that draws its delicious aromatic variety from the fermentation alone and gives the taster plenty of room. This beer is exemplary of Swanson’s line: beyond provocative hop bombs and overfruity sour beers, “Keeping Together” creations are an invitation to explore your taste buds and take time for inner reflection.

Brewing beer with the seasons

The beers of Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon, founders and owners of Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, Illinois, are similarly stylish in their composition. Their beers don’t submit to the trends of the social media generation: Josephson and Kleidon simply brew local. “I’m not bothered about yet another Juicy and Hazy IPA,” says Kleidon. “I’m far more interested in what a chanterelle beer from Europe would taste like compared to ours.” Indeed, their Chanterelle Bière de Garde (6.5 % ABV), an amber-coloured farmhouse ale brewed with foraged chanterelles, is a sensation of caramel malty tones, floral and apricot-like aromas that come from the chanterelles and a gentle hint of the cellar reminiscent of mushrooms in the finish. This is a recurring classic in the portfolio and not just my favourite. Scratch has specialised in brewing with foraged plants and home-grown ingredients. “We bring terroir to the glass, the taste of the Mid-West,” says Marika Josephson. The aim is for good drinkability. “This is why we keep the botanical ingredients and alcohol content at a moderate level,” Josephson explains.

The log cabin still under construction will feature a cosy fireplace bar that will also make winter visits a real experience

Scratch Brewing Company’s microbrewery and farm are located in the southern tip of Illinois in the middle of nowhere, one-and-a-half hours away from St. Louis by car. They’re well off the beaten track, tucked away at the edge of a lush deciduous forest, with visitors passing only the occasional isolated farmhouse en route to their destination. The woods and meadows that gently open out onto hilly countryside, complete with streams, clearings, a pond and a chalet, belong to Aaron’s family and are also used for hunting. “Setting ourselves up on private ground saves us a lot of bureaucracy and rent. Here, we can determine how we develop and do so at our own speed,” he says. And this is at a relaxed tempo. In 2012 the two friends and business partners founded and first built the main building with its kitchen, taproom and beer garden – all by themselves and mostly using recycled building materials. At the same time, they experimented as to how their botanicals could be matched to their beer in countless trials before finally opening in 2013. A brick oven was later constructed and the beer garden extended. Once enough money had come in, they invested in a second building that’s used for barrel storage, tasting sessions and a number of other events. At Scratch, guests feel really at home. This is not least thanks to the organic architecture that invitingly hugs a dell in the forest.  Everything is made to measure, everything seems genuine. You can sense the ease and strength flowing to this location.

In the brewery garden carrots, rhubarb, tomatoes, figs, herbs, rocket and other plants are grown – plus hops that are added to the beer in the green in the summer

The brewing plant is also genuine – and artisan: mash-in takes place in a single infusion in two bulbous oak wine barrels with a false bottom and runoff. The wort is boiled in a 1000-liter copper kettle insulated with a ceramic fibre mat and heated by a wood fire lit directly underneath it. To keep the temperature up, one person does nothing else but look after the fire, says Josephson. “Thanks to the copper, the heat goes straight into the wort,” adds Kleidon, “ensuring quick caramelisation.” The beer is fermented using the brewery’s house yeast. As Josephson tells me, this is a mixed culture that can be used in many different ways: for pizza and bread dough as well as beer. Used in the beer with a small quantity of hops, the lactic acid bacteria take a step back and let the saison-like components seize centre stage: mild fruit esters and gentle, spicy phenols.

Botanicals: observe, experiment and taste

More often than not, for Marika and Aaron a day at the brewery starts with a walk through the woods.  Armed with a pick, knife and small bucket, they collect the plants Nature provides. This takes beer to the next dimension. Scratch not only brews local but also in keeping with the times of year. This has the added bonus that guests to the taproom can always rely on a different beer experience each and every time. “Our beer menu is never the same,” Josephson emphasises. In the winter, they brew with tree bark from fallen branches that adds a decidedly woody note to the beer, such as that of their reddish brown Bark Wild Ale (5.6 % ABV) with hickory and oak rind roasted in the brick oven and the raw bark of wild cherry added during boiling. In spring, blossom is dosed into the beer, such as dandelion whose petals make for a fine floral aroma while the calyx adds a bitter component – as in Scratch’s Dandelion Ginger Tonic (4.4 % ABV), a bright orange, sour ale conditioned in the bottle. In summer, fresh herbs are in season, used in golden orange Basil Ale (6.8 % ABV), for example, brewed with different varieties of basil from the brewery garden. Autumn is the time for wild roots such as the burdock root. Roasted, this introduces a flavour of coffee and cocoa that goes well with dark beers such as Scratch’s Burdock & Oak dark lager (6.7 % ABV).

Scratch Sycamore is a golden orange lager (7 % ABV) made with toasted sycamore bark that surprises with its note of apple and cinnamon

As tranquil as making beer out of foraged and harvested botanicals may appear, the actual brewing process is quite complex. Some of Scratch’s knowledge of plants, techniques and recipes has been passed down through the family: Aaron learned a lot about gardens and wild plants from his grandmother – yet most of his knowledge is gleaned from years of practice and experience. “You have to study your natural surroundings with care: observe them, experiment with them and taste them. There’s no other way of doing it,” says Josephson. The two experts share their expertise in their book entitled “The Homebrewer’s Almanac”. They’re also much-sought-after collab brew partners – Scratch has worked with all of the big names: Jester King, Fonta Flora, Perennial, Fullsteam … This has earned the microbrewery and farm nationwide recognition: In 2020 they were even semi-finalists in the renowned James Beard Award in the Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Producer category. In Europe they’ve taken part in several festivals such as the 2017 Hof ten Dormaal Innovation Festival in Belgium and the Mikkeller Beer Celebration 2019 in Copenhagen. In the same year they also took up my invitation to a brewing workshop as part of Berlin Beer Week.

Scratch Brewing brews around 350 hectolitres of beer a year. This can be easily managed in the small company with three full-time and three part-time employees (including Josephson and Kleidon). “This gives us maximum flexibility and allows to draw up our brewing plans at short notice, depending on what we’ve just harvested or foraged,” states Kleidon. Higher volumes would significantly alter the procedures to date and call for a fair amount of investment. The biggest challenge, however, is getting enough guests. After the various lockdowns during the corona pandemic, Scratch’s spring business only picked up again very slowly. There’s not much going on during the winter, either. “We need to become more of an attraction,” Josephson believes. This may soon be the case, as Kleidon is already building a new log cabin where they want to install a cosy bar with a log fire.

Running a farmhouse brewery is a complex business; planning one can be overwhelming, as Averie Swanson also knows. She’ll be settling in Santa Fe and is looking forward to becoming part of the legendary artists’ community there with her microbrewery. In the long term she also wants to grow her own ingredients and raw materials, yet she hardly dares publicise the fact. “This is something that has to evolve organically,” she states. She is convinced that the farmhouse brewery culture will attract greater attention in future, “because it makes authentic, unique and sustainable products that reach out to people.”

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