From seaweed to oysters to smoked pig heads, daring brewers are using offbeat edibles to deliciously break down the boundaries of beer.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
Beer is built upon the power of four: water, hops, barley, and yeast. Cooked up, cooled down, and allowed to relax, that quartet of ingredients creates America’s favorite mood brightening beverage.
But if four ingredients are great, what about five? Or six? Or perhaps oysters, wild yeast that creates stinky-cheese aromas, and coffee beans digested by a weasel-like creature? These days, maverick brewers are riding a streak of unbridled—and, occasionally, unhinged—creativity to construct beers that, at first taste, seem like a double-dog dare gone awry.
For example, last fall at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, I was drawn to Right Brain Brewery, a humble outfit in Traverse City, Michigan, that was pouring the Mangalitsa Pig Porter. Each batch contained four cold-smoked Mangalitsa pig heads—brains removed—and assorted bones. While the brew was a vegetarian’s darkest nightmare, the result was a dry, subtly smoky delight.
Other brewers utilize oysters by dumping shucked bivalves and their salty broth directly into the brew kettle. Sip Porterhouse Brewing Company’s Oyster Stout or Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout, and you may not immediately discern the oceanic flavor. But drink the brew, then down an oyster, and the beer’s sweetness will draw out the bivalve’s corresponding flavor, while the stout’s briny component will be accentuated.
In addition to creatures, some brewers tinker with unlikely spices, vegetables, and fruit. In the United Kingdom, Wells and Young’s manufactures the Banana Bread Beer, while Michigan’s Short’s Brewing Company uses dill, Roma tomatoes, celery seeds, peppercorns, and fresh horseradish to make its A.M.-appropriate Bloody Beer. Rogue Ales relies on peppers to create its Chipotle Ale, and San Antonio’s Freetail Brewing employs algae for its green-tinted Spirulina Wit. While these ingredients may be odd, they’re not a danger to a brewery—unlike Brettanomyces.
Carefully controlled, that wild yeast imparts complex flavors, such as stinky cheese eaten in a musty basement—trust me, it works. The drawback is that the wild yeast has a savage appetite. If it infiltrates unintended beers, the hard-to-kill fungus will devour carbohydrates till it deep-sixes the desired flavor. Using “Brett,” as it’s sometimes known, is a bit like playing with fire. San Diego’s Green Flash brewery gladly entered the inferno.
“When we challenged ourselves to create the Green Flash version of a flagship Belgian, we were uncertain as to how the process would unfold,” says Mike Hinkley, cofounder of Green Flash, which is renowned for its IPAs and potent Belgian-style ales. “We started by asking ourselves, ‘What would Green Flash be if we were brewing in Belgium 80 years ago?’ ” The crew surmised that pre–World War II beers were likely infected with Brett. Thus, the team spent four years perfecting Brett-infected Rayon Vert—that is, Green Flash—a bone-dry, riotously bubbly elixir that faintly recalls a barnyard frolic.
Take a walk on the wild side with these sublime, mad-scientist brews.