This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Everything Old is Brew Again, first released on May 30, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
BUTCH HEILSHORN: You definitely get some kind of gaminess in the nose. In a good way. In a good, well-cooked game type of way. And you know, you drink it, you’re kind of waiting for it, and there’s a little bit of sort of—I dunno, a bacony finish, I guess. But it’s pretty mellow. Most of the beers that we’ve done with meat, if you didn’t tell people it was in there, they wouldn’t they wouldn’t know.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Beers made with meat. It’s actually a thing.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Not only is it a thing today, but people made beer brewed with, say, chicken or wild boar hundreds of years ago.
TWILLEY: But this is not the Gastropod Extreme Beer edition. It is Gastropod, though—I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and as usual, we’re looking at food through the lens of science and history.
TWILLEY: And this week the focus is one of our favorite food groups, beer.
GRABER: Beer is a huge topic—and trust us, we’ll come back to it in the future. This week, we’re going to explore one particular aspect of the beer world—
TWILLEY: Inspired by a listener suggestion.
JASON NEWTON: So my name’s Jason and I live in Salem, Massachusetts right now. I know that you guys, the podcast is kind of mixing history and science and food and I thought you know if you did do a podcast exclusively on beers, Earth Eagle would be an awesome place to kind of visit.
GRABER: We called Jason and asked him why he wanted us to head up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to visit Earth Eagle.
NEWTON: Because their whole thing is doing gruits or these like historic all pre-hop beer recipes. And they sound—it sounds literally like a witch brewing a pot of like something—like you’d expect there to be like eye of newt in there or something. But they always taste pretty good.
TWILLEY: At first we were like, gruit? Newt? What? And then we started digging into what Earth Eagle is doing, and we got intrigued.
GRABER: So, thanks to Jason, we’ll be tasting some of the hottest new directions in brewing today—inspired by the past.
TWILLEY: So, trendspotting is kind of a fool’s game. But you know, that makes it perfect for me, so here goes: the new thing in beers is old. What I mean by that is, it seems like the cutting edge of craft brewing right now is finding inspiration in the past.
GRABER: And as it happens, the folks over at Draft Magazine agree. In an article a few weeks ago, they list a few signs that more and more people are curious about what beer used to taste like. There was a whole roundtable at the Craft Brewers Conference this year focused on historical beer styles.
TWILLEY: And another conference at Colonial Williamsburg in March, on “Ales through the Ages.” And one in London on “Recreating Old Beer Styles,”
GRABER: And the Smithsonian just announced a program in which they’ll be documenting American brewing history. One brewer thinks there’s a good reason for all this interest.
BRYAN GREENHAGEN: Well it’s also how can we like reach back and kind of get inspiration for a new beer, new things that people haven’t been drinking, which people drank for eight thousand years. For me at least, there’s sort of an attraction: Like well people drink this for eight thousand years, is really like the best thing we can do what came out of the Industrial Revolution? Probably not.
TWILLEY: That’s Bryan Greenhagen. He’s the founder of Mystic Brewery in Chelsea, Massachusetts. And he’s one of this new wave of brewers who are finding inspiration for new beers from the lost flavors of beers past.
GRABER: As Bryan points out, we humans have been drinking beer for thousands and thousands of years. In fact, just this month, archaeologists found evidence of brewing beer in China from 5000 years ago—the recipe seems to have included millet, barley, a grain called Job’s tears, and tubers such as yams. It’s the earliest physical example of brewing in China. And there are traces of these types of fermented drinks on pottery in China that date back even further.
TWILLEY: China, the Near East, South America—all over the ancient world, our ancestors were fermenting their local grains to get buzzed. Some of you might have tasted recreations of these first beers produced by the brewery Dogfish Head, in collaboration with molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern. But those? Those have been polished a little to suit modern tastes. The originals were probably a bit more of a mixed bag.
GRABER: Will Glenn and Trish Perry are actors who are currently touring a show all about the history of beer. As part of their research, they talked to an Australian chemist who recreated a version of what’s likely the very earliest Ancient Sumerian beer.
WILL GLENN: And it was essentially you know, he germinated this grain and you know let it hang out, sort of wet mash of kind of, you know, if you imagine grain that got left out in the rain, and then it kind of sat around for a few days, and the sort of natural sugars fermented kind of on their own with wild yeasts. I remember it sort of tasting a bit like how I imagine sort of wet dog might taste.
GRABER: Obviously that’s not the best advertisement for historical beer recipes.
GREENHAGEN: If you go back I mean beers were all over the place from horrendous to fantastic you know.
TWILLEY: That’s Bryan again. And the reason beer was all over the map is because it was basically anything goes. It was any grain, fermented, with any other combination of ingredients you fancied. That’s it.
GRABER: Especially in Europe, people threw in mixtures of herbs into their beer. And each brewer would have his or her own blend.
GLENN: They had a mixture, like a secret mixture that they called gruit spelled G-R-U-I-T, as a means of kind of offsetting the sweetness of the malt. Every brewer had her own recipe for gruit and that was that. That was in a sense that was her signature as a brewster was what she would use to kind of flavor her ale with.
TWILLEY: Yes, her ale. Will is not just being politically correct here.
TRISH PERRY: Since the dawn of time really, women have pretty much, they were pretty much the brewers of beer for thousands of years.
GRABER: That’s Will’s beer history performing partner Trish.
TWILLEY: So at this point, beer is: water, grain, secret blend of herbs. And, of course, yeast, but no one really knew what that was until later on. They just knew something made their brew bubble.
GRABER: Some of you listening are probably yelling at us right now—that’s not beer! Beer has hops!
TWILLEY: Settle down, no need to yell. There’s a reason we haven’t mentioned hops yet.
GRABER: Because hops weren’t in everyone’s beer. Throughout thousands of years of history, beer did not have to have hops in it to be considered beer.
HEILSHORN: Hops basically are another herb. So it’s not like they’d never use them, but that was one of the bazillion things that you could put into a beer. And like everything, it came down to politics and money and power.
TWILLEY: This is the brewer Jason suggested we should talk to—Butch Heilshorn of Earth Eagle Brewings.
GRABER: Now we’re in medieval Europe. Everyone’s making their own beer with their own blend of herbs. Then a whole bunch of things happen kind of around the same time.
TWILLEY: And like Butch says, a lot of it is about money and power. Kings and bishops wanted to control what folks were drinking. And obviously they wanted to tax the ingredients for beer. Brewing was becoming professionalized. If you wanted to sell beer, increasingly, there were rules.
GRABER: One of those rules had to do with the grain. Because in Germany, the rulers wanted to protect wheat and rye for bread. So only cheaper barley could be used for beer.
TWILLEY: And then there’s another thing: maybe people were getting a little high off these herb mixes. I mean, some of these herbs have a long history of being used medicinally—but also for their mind-altering effects.
PERRY: It’s theorized that people drinking beer with gruit in it, that those ingredients, actually were having not only the alcoholic effects of the beer, but were also having psychedelic effects.
HEILSHORN: Another thing that I think is interesting about the history there is that hops are kind of a downer. You know they decrease the libido. People make little pillows out of them so they fall asleep, it definitely can, you know, make you drowsy and whatnot. And gruits—those herbs are completely the opposite. You know, you’re ready to rock, you’re excited, you’re stimulated.
GRABER: Hops were seen as a good, safe alternative to these crazy brews.
TWILLEY: Keep the people sleepy.
GRABER: Hops also were potent preservatives, though some of those other herbs helped preserve beer, too. And so in Germany, the use of hops to make beer? That became the law.
TWILLEY: Yes. You are talking about the Rheinheitsgebot, Cynthia.
GRABER: I’m glad you had to say that word and not me.
TWILLEY: Yes, forgive me German-speaking listeners. But I’m going to do it again! The Reinheitsgebot.
GRABER: I’m not even going to try.
TWILLEY: Shut up! I’m trying to say that this German law was enacted 500 years ago last month.
GRABER: Happy birthday, German beer purity law!
TWILLEY: It’s famous as the oldest food purity law still in existence. It was introduced in April 1516, by a couple of German Dukes in Bavaria. And it stipulated that only barley, hops, and water could be used in making beer.
GRABER: Like Nicky already said, they didn’t really know what yeast was until later.
TWILLEY: The motivation behind the law was to guarantee good quality beer, sure. And some unscrupulous brewers were throwing all kinds of crazy things in their beers, to cut corners. But there’s also all those other forces we’ve been talking about—making sure that wheat and rye went to bakers, taxing the industry, controlling what kinds of highs were legal.
GRABER: And what this meant is that all those crazy herb mixes that had been used to bitter and preserve and flavor the beer—they were now illegal. This all started in Bavaria. But the hop dogma spread.
PERRY: The thing about the Reinheitsgebot purity laws is that these days, you know, breweries love to use it as like, you know, we are abiding by the Reinheitsgebot purity laws, like we’re amazing. When basically, in a lot of cases, the these laws made it impossible to create other forms of beer. Maybe it preserved something like the purity maybe, but it actually inhibited, you know, creativity within the trade.
TWILLEY: I’d like to point out here that, back in my corner of the world, England, we held out against this foreign hop BS. We liked our traditional ales.
PERRY: And then in the UK, when they were calling it beer, it was almost a pejorative, actually. Because they thought beer was for wastrels and it made you fat.
GRABER: Wait, so the British thought hops made you fat?
TWILLEY: Not just fat but impotent. There was a thing called Brewers Droop, which… well, you get the picture.
GRABER: I do, yes.
TWILLEY: There’s obviously a grain of truth to it. But also all of this was anti-hopped beer propaganda by the English ale brewers.
PERRY: It was the other brewers that didn’t want hops to come into fashion in the UK when it was coming into fashion all over Europe and they wanted to keep their own traditions. So it took longer for beer with hops to come into play.
GRABER: And now, we come to America. Which, at the time, was really just an extension of England.
TAD BAKER: If you realize that England in America, if you’re drinking beer in the 17th century, actually technically ale then, right? You don’t have hops in it. And one of my favorite books on this is Gervais Markham’s English Housewife. It goes through numerous editions from like the 1580s to the early 17th century. And in there are instructions to how to brew ale. And it very specifically says, Here’s how you brew ale. And because every housewife is expected to do this and then at the end he says, Now you could add hops in it. But why would you want to ruin a perfectly good English ale by adding hops to it? You know, only the French do that, and it’s a wussy French thing to do to make beer, because stout hearted Englishmen drink ale.
TWILLEY: Plus ça change.
GRABER: Emerson Baker—he goes by Tad, so that’s what we’ll call him from now on—he’s a historian at Salem State University in Massachusetts. And he’s been researching early, pre-hop ales. We wanted to know what these early brews would have tasted like. And that brings us back to Earth Eagle.
TWILLEY: And Butch Heilshorn.
HEILSHORN: I was a high school guidance counselor.
TWILLEY: And, perhaps unsurprisingly, he turned to booze.
GRABER: First as a hobby, and then professionally.
HEILSHORN: My partner is my, also my brother-in-law Alex, and we started homebrewing together in like ‘09, and really enjoyed it. And once we started, you know, we were brewing at least once a week. You know, as homebrewers do, you give out beer to your family and your friends. And you know, you’re dying to know what people think and people are like this is great and you should sell it.
TWILLEY: So they did. And in 2012, they started Earth Eagle—which Alex told Butch was a term used by Native Americans for turkey—
HEILSHORN: I’ve never been able to verify that I don’t know if he just pulled that out of his ear or what but you know, it stuck.
GRABER: From the very beginning, they were inspired by the past.
HEILSHORN: We just weren’t interested in brewing, you know, the new IPA or the new brown ale or whatever. It was much more exciting to be looking at, looking back in history for inspiration. And really nobody was doing it or not regularly anyway. So since we started in 2012, we’ve been brewing a new gruit every week just about since then. That was kind of it, it was like, Wow there’s this whole other world of beer out there that no one is really getting into or doing anything about.
TWILLEY: One of the challenges of brewing a gruit is: How do you know if you’re doing it right if no one else is doing it? When Butch and his brother-in-law Alex got started, it really was a big experiment.
GRABER: They knew that the classic gruit—remember, gruit just refers to the herbs that were used in beer—the classic gruit is based on three herbs: sweetgale, wild rosemary, and yarrow.
TWILLEY: Rosemary I’m familiar with. But this is not the kind that I know and love. It’s a flowering rhododendron type shrub that grows wild all over northern Europe and the U.S. It kind of smells like antiseptic hops, and it was used as a moth repellent for clothes in Scandinavia.
GRABER: Sweetgale supposedly has a kind of resinous scent to it. It’s been used as a traditional insect repellant. Yarrow is a flowering plant that apparently grows everywhere—yes, it’s what we’d call a weed—it’s kind of sweet with a bitter note. And it was traditionally used to stop wounds from bleeding.
TWILLEY: So Butch gets a hold of these three herbs, and he takes a regular beer recipe, a recipe for a dark stout beer. And he just switches out the hops for herbs.
HEILSHORN: We’re at my house, we’re in the backyard on the picnic table. And we’ve got a big turkey fryer, you know, this big five gallon pot, and a propane tank and all that. And I’m telling you, when it came out of the fermenter, it was just wonderful. I’m getting goosebumps telling you about it, because it was just like, Oh my god, this tastes really really good! And then we bottled it. And then a few weeks later when it came out of the bottle it tasted like ass. It was horrible. It was horrible. LAUGHTER And what it was, is that we didn’t have our cleaning regimen down with these bottles, you know. We had a bunch of you know empties and we thought we had clean them very nice and well, and no no no no no. So that’s that’s how it started. And thank God we tasted the beer before we bottled it, otherwise who knows, we might have just said, Forget this, you know.
GRABER: Lucky for us they were too excited to wait until they finished bottling it. Here’s how Butch describes the taste of that very first gruit, before the little problem with the bottling.
HEILSHORN: It’s hard to—it’s, you know, these are all kind of cheesy adjectives but you know, earthy, herbal, slightly medicinal maybe. You know, a little a little bit more residual sweetness because that beer is such a big beer and there’s so much malt in it. But just really, really drinkable.
TWILLEY: Back in his homebrew days, Butch had met Tad, the historian we heard from earlier. Tad actually specializes in studying witchcraft in colonial New England. But it turns out there’s a surprising amount of overlap between beer and witches.
EMERSON: In the 17th century making beer was a household activity. Everybody did it. In fact, probably every woman who was accused of witchcraft in Salem in the seventeenth century probably also knew how to make beer. Because you know witchcraft is a gendered crime, about three quarters of the people accused are witches. And as women, they would have been responsible for their household, for doing not just the cooking but also the brewing.
TWILLEY: Like Trish and Will said, it was mostly women making these gruits. And, you know, there they are with these bubbling pots of mysterious herbal concoctions that might have made you imagine things…
GRABER: So in a weird way, Tad’s research on witchcraft is sort of connected back to gruits. What Tad is really good at is looking back through all sorts of historical documents and finding any mention of beer or ale. These aren’t just cookbooks. He finds recipes hidden in all sorts of weird documents from the time: diaries, travelogues, newspapers…
EMERSON: And so I’m able to go back and look at historic cookbooks and accounts of natural history and things like this that provide just the range of different activities from the standard sort of: Okay, English housewife, here’s how you make beer, to sort of travel accounts of: Well here’s you know, we didn’t have the ingredients we needed, so here is what we made.
TWILLEY: Tad and Butch’s first collaboration for Earth Eagle was called Jocelyn 1666. And Tad found the recipe for that in a book called New England’s Rarities Discovered.
EMERSON: The book was actually published in 1672, but we thought 1666 had a better ring. He was actually… would have been making it here. So it was a fellow who was an English settler who came over and lived here in Scarborough, Maine for 20 or 30 years and in 1672 he published, well he’d gone back to England, and he published a book on his experiences. And he just—it’s a throw-off line in the book almost. And he’s talking about how they make beer. Or ale. And the ingredients are just—it’s a really short, strange list of ingredients. It’s essentially, he says, a bran which was essentially malt. Molasses, sassafras, and wormwood. So this is, as far as we know, is the first you know, written down recipe used in New England. And again, notice it doesn’t include hops. They’re using the wormwood as a bittering agent.
TWILLEY: So Tad and Butch follow the recipe, they make the gruit, and they taste it.
HEILSHORN: And of course it’s an opportunity to really go back into time and to really experience something that is not anywhere near the norm now. So it is a little time travel in a sense.
GRABER: Time travel sounds awesome—I’ve always been kind of obsessed with the idea, personally—but it doesn’t necessarily taste fantastic.
EMERSON: When Butch and I first tried it, frankly, we were we were a little disappointed. Everyone else really liked it though, that was the good news. And my initial reaction was, Wow. I bet we made it, I bet the problem is it’s too authentic. Because I think, and this is the thing, and this is where I think you know, it takes someone like Butch to really—I say, you know, I kind of provide the historic recipe and then that’s his inspiration.
TWILLEY: Tad’s point is, yeah he’s a historian, and both he and Butch love finding inspiration in these old recipes, but Earth Eagle is not is the business of historic reconstruction. This is not some Colonial Williamsburg project.
GRABER: And so they don’t worry too much about making the exact beer you’d have tasted if you wandered into a New England tavern in the late 1600s.
EMERSON: Right. First off pretty much every beer here in the 17th century would’ve been a rauch beer. Because by definition you know, they’re using wood to cook with and so you’re going to have there, by definition, it’s all going to be smoked beers. So if we’re making a beer nowadays, not everybody loves a rauch beer and so in that sense are we being genuinely authentic? Do we take out the cauldron and heat it you know with it with the charcoal in the wood? Well, not exactly, because modern-day tastes are a little bit different than that.
HEILSHORN: You know, these historical recipes are kind of jumping off points for us. It’s only you know, once or once or twice a year that we grab one of these recipes and really try and faithfully reproduce it. But in the process of brewing those, you start to get familiar with these herbs and familiar with these other processes that they used back in the day. And we’ve gone off—way off, you know, the book if you want to say that, and have got all sorts of recipes that are completely and 100 percent ours.
TWILLEY: In fact, one of the things that has sort of happened is that as they’ve tried to source all these crazy herbs and plants—you know, many of which we think of as weeds today — they’ve ended up building a really intimate connection to the landscape around them.
HEILSHORN: And from April to roughly October we try and source those ingredients around here. We have a forager who goes out for us each week, and whatever’s in season and in bloom or whatever, she brings back to us and we brew with.
GRABER: This is one of the things that sets Earth Eagle apart. And it means that they have flavors from all over New England to play with.
HEILSHORN: And the idea of representing your local terroir through your beer, I think, is another big thing. We just went through brewing three batches of beer that have no water in it. All maple sap. So that’s a pretty unique you know, thing that we’ve got going in New England I think/
TWILLEY: We each bought a bottle of this maple sap beer to take home. We kind of had to—it’s made with maple sap and a weird tree fungus called chaga, and we just did episodes all about the maple boom and the weird world of mushrooms. But I haven’t tasted it yet.
GRABER: I haven’t either—it’s in my fridge, chilling!
TWILLEY: I’m a tiny bit scared, to be honest. The way Butch described the fungus*, I don’t know
HEILSHORN: It looks like this tumor, it looks like a big… a burnt tumor is what it looks like.
TWILLEY: I don’t know.
GRABER: But Butch, we trust you, really! We did taste a number of their beers when we visited Portsmouth. And just like they’re not being super orthodox about the original historical recipes, they’re also not limiting themselves to New England foraged plants. These are all launching points for their creativity. When we were there, they had a gruit called Sweepy McGee on tap—it’s made with Scotch Broom.
HEILSHORN: Which unfortunately is not a local herb, that’s something that’s like, it’s an invasive that’s just wreaking havoc on the West Coast.
TWILLEY: It’s a “Class B Noxious Weed” in Washington State apparently—but in its native home, which is Western Europe, Scotch Broom was traditionally used in place of hops, for its bittering effect. It was supposed to induce amorousness as well, according to medieval herbalists.
GRABER: We might not have had quite enough of it to find out. But there are some local herbs in Sweepy McGee as well—Butch used poplar buds from New England trees, and sweet fern. Sweet fern has a waxy leaf that Butch says looks a little like pot. It grows everywhere and was used by Native Americans in a tea for all sorts of aches and pains.
GRABER: Ok. CLINK Oh!
TWILLEY: I wasn’t expecting this. It’s more refreshing than I thought.
GRABER: Well, so I’m not a big hops person. But I feel like I love kind of the… I love the sour notes in it. That are like the herbal and the kind of floral and almost fruity that comes through.
TWILLEY: And the poplar at the end is like that last taste for me. You start getting that resiny under-taste. Yeah.
GRABER: I really like it.
HEILSHORN: I love to hear that.
TWILLEY: Sweet fern, poplar buds, even wormwood—all these herbs sound maybe a little crazy. But not nearly crazy enough for Butch, apparently. His ingredient palette goes well beyond herbs.
HEILSHORN: The beans, we’re still not clear on. The eggs initially we were like, This sounds like what is it, sepsis or whatever. Like this sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen if we’re going to pour this.
GRABER: That’s Earth Eagle’s most recent historical experiment. It’s an English knock-off of a German beer.
EMERSON: I found this in a book published in 1695 called Every Man His Own Gauger, which is actually a book on how to make barrels and judge what size they are. You know, what is a hogshead versus a double hogshead. And so all these, all these antiquated terms for sizes of different barrels and different uses. So in addition to writing this book about how to gauge the size of your barrels: Oh by the way, here’s a couple of recipes you might want to try.
GRABER: And one of them was a recipe for something called mumme.
TWILLEY: So what’s interesting about this is that the original German version is the first official beer “style” that was never brewed with herbs. German mumme always used hops. It’s really the first post-gruit beer. It was invented in Brunswick in 1492, and it became really popular, even internationally, almost immediately.
GRABER: But the English knock-off didn’t have hops. And it was weird.
TWILLEY: The German recipe is super tight—barley, water, hops. Over in England, we basically threw the kitchen sink at it.
GRABER: Tad read us a list of the ingredients. Those eggs? They think the calcium in the shells altered the pH of the brew to help preserve it. But it had beans—they have no idea why. And it had about 20 ingredients total. One was pennyroyal, which has a kind of minty flavor. Butch and Emerson weren’t crazy about the result.
HEILSHORN: You know, we followed the proportions and whatever very, you know, fastidiously, but to our taste that pennyroyal just dominated the whole thing. So people were like, Well you know, this would be a great beer if I liked drinking, you know, Vicks vapor rub. But some people were like—oh, this is awesome, I love this!
TWILLEY: Mmm. That sounds horrendous. In my humble opinion, based on a very unpleasant encounter with a limited edition holiday peppermint-flavored stout, beer and mint should never go together.
GRABER: I’m not sad there wasn’t any around for us to try.
TWILLEY: But beans and eggs in a minty flavored beer—that’s far from the craziest thing Earth Eagle have brewed
EMERSON: Of the ones that we made together, I have a particular fondness for the cock ale. Which again, is one of those ones that people don’t normally think about. But this was like the favorite beverage of William the Third, King William of Orange in the late 17th century. And it essentially is like when you take a beer and basically add fortified wine to it and fermented pieces of chicken.
GRABER: We warned you. Meat in beer.
HEILSHORN: I gotta tell you, that was a really frightening beer to make. Mainly because the recipe called for the meat to be added post-fermentation. So you’d think, Oh that’s lovely. Like what kind of funk are we going to throw in there. But the other part of it is that, that those chicken carcasses are being soaked in sack, what is that, a sort of a brandy or… Yep, sherry. So of course the booze kills off anything. So that was like, we had to keep reminding ourselves that. Like, are you sure we want to put it in now? Yeah, no it’s going to be good.
TWILLEY: I mean, it was super popular in the seventeenth century, and those guys can’t all have been wrong. Right?
EMERSON: Even in the seventeenth century they couldn’t keep it in stock, because the name “cock ale” has a double entendre then as now. And all the women in London would grab it off the shelves and take it home and give it to their husbands to… “Here, drink some of this honey!” Because it would have the sort of the desired effect, supposedly, on male fortitude, right.
GRABER: No word on whether Butch’s version had that particular effect. But apparently it didn’t taste half bad.
HEILSHORN: And you know what that beer was marvelous. It was really wonderful and it didn’t taste like chicken soup at all.
TWILLEY: But, as with the gruits, so with the meat ales. Give Butch a little bit of historical inspiration, and he goes nuts. Before you know it, he’s making beers with bear and wild boar.
GRABER: And even moose. They’d skin the head of an animal and smoke it and then toss it into the brew.
HEILSHORN: We like to say placed.
TWILLEY: None of these meat ales were on tap when we visited. But Butch promised they tasted great.
HEILSHORN: You think you’re going to have a roast beef sandwich in a glass—it’s not like that at all.
GRABER: We weren’t sure that we wanted to just take Butch’s word for it, when it came the taste of his own beer. So we asked Jason Newton—that’s the listener who suggested we visit Earth Eagle in the first place—
NEWTON: And I specifically drove from Portland down there to try the one with the moose head in it… I mean this is—like with a lot of beers at Earth Eagle, it’s not like, Oh my god, this is my favorite beer of all time. But it’s always like, Wow, this is really interesting and it’s not like anything I’ve ever tried before.
TWILLEY: All of this sounds a little like, Woo, look how crazy I am, brewing all these extreme beers. But Butch isn’t doing it for the shock value. He wants to make beers that taste good. And we tried a bunch of them.
GRABER: It’s all research!
TWILLEY: And they are good. I mean, if what you’re used to is industrial lager, or even the heavily-hopped craft brews that are super popular.
GRABER: They do make those, too, actually—they have an equal number of hopped beers on tap, and even, you know, the typical IPA.
TWILLEY: But obviously, these historically-inspired gruits and meat ales—they do taste a little weird and different if that’s your baseline.
HEILSHORN: Some of these beers are a challenge, you know. We always say, it’s a three sip rule. If at first sip, you don’t think you like it, hang in there for two more. And generally speaking people are like, You know what? I really like that! You know, or, That’s beer? I hate beer. I love this! What’s going on here? You know.
GRABER: I really enjoyed his gruits. As I said, I’m not a huge fan of the super hoppy beers, so I am a fan of this kind of experimentation.
TWILLEY: And I like hops, but I like variety too. It’s fun to see what herbs bring to the party.
HEILSHORN: Yeah I mean, I think the palette that the brewer is using has expanded like geometrically.
GRABER: One thing that’s going to disappoint some of you beer lovers out there—Earth Eagle doesn’t ship. Sometimes there’s one on draft available at Boston bars, and they occasionally show up at festivals, but basically, you have to go to their brewery in Portsmouth to taste their beer. But now you know, if you see a gruit on a menu, give it a try and see what you think.
TWILLEY: And there’s actually something called International Gruit Day. It’s every Feb 1st, and lots of breweries participate in that, so you can probably find a gruit to taste close to home, at least once a year. We have links on our website, at gastropod.com.
GRABER: So one of the things that’s interesting about gruits is that they can actually be local. You can really create a sense of place by using local herbs instead of hops. But that’s not the only way to make a beer taste like its home—
TWILLEY: Wait, is it time to talk about microbes again?
GRABER: I can only hope so! Does that mean everyone takes a shot?
TWILLEY: Oh yeah. That’s right. Of beer, in this case, Or whatever is handy. But yeah, this is another way that the historical way of making beers—the way everyone made beers until a couple hundred years ago—ends up creating really unique local flavors. Because you had to use your local yeast.
GRABER: Of course, they didn’t always know that’s what they were doing. That’s why the German purity laws from 500 years ago didn’t refer to yeast—nobody knew what yeast was until Louis Pasteur came along in the 1860s.
TWILLEY: Archaeologists and beer historians think that ancient ancient beers got their yeast from the air. People let the grains sprout to make their sugars available to airborne yeast. And then that sugary mash would get all yeasty.
GRABER: Over time, people realized that reusing barrels of particularly good batches of beer was a good idea—because the yeast stayed in the wood and helped make the next batch taste good, too. By the 1300s, monastic records show that Flemish monks had figured out that they should save the remains of one beer to inoculate the new brew.
TWILLEY: In other words, even though they didn’t know what yeast was and had never seen a microbe, they had cultured a house yeast—a subspecies that lived in their barrels and gave their beer a different flavor from the one brewed next door.
GRABER: That house yeast was one of the things that gave each beer its characteristic flavor. But some people’s yeasts just worked better. They worked faster, they had a more pleasing taste, they were basically more reliable.
TWILLEY: And so people started sharing them. And then, once people understood what yeast was, it sort of became standardized. And industrialized.
GREENHAGEN: I mean, most of where people get yeast for craft beer is from catalogs, like you know yeast banks, basically, that do culturing for you and then then send it to you.
TWILLEY: That’s Bryan Greenhagen again, from Mystic Brewery in Chelsea. And his point is, ever since people figured out what yeast was and how to culture it, the diversity of yeast used in brewing has tanked. Most commercial yeast houses today offer about 50 different varieties. And that’s how 99.9% of beer gets brewed. With the same varieties of yeast as everyone else is using.
GRABER: Bryan originally studied the science of how flavors are generated in plants.
GREENHAGEN: Well that ended up playing around with flavors and fragrances in yeast and I did that for a career for a while and that’s what my wife still does. And it was kind of like those jobs are few and far between and I wanted to live in the Boston area and settle down.
GRABER: But there are not many flavor and fragrance jobs in Boston. So Bryan turned to beer.
TWILLEY: He’s already a yeast guy. So why not focus on the yeast? When Bryan got started—back in 2009—beer people were getting all excited about new varieties of hops. And pretty much no one was paying attention to the microbes. So, for one thing, focusing on yeast seemed like it could the thing that would help set his new brewery apart.
GREENHAGEN: And the question was like: What, you know, how does America have like their own beers? Like we can come up with styles, obviously, there’s been a big contribution from new types of hops from Oregon and to some extent Washington, so. The question was, Like well what other things can you get that are sort of like—sort of like terroir. Like how can you make beer that’s like very regional.
GRABER: As we said, nearly all beer is made from the same yeasts—these are strains you can buy online. And they’re all European yeasts originally. There aren’t any commercial strains of truly indigenous American yeasts. So Bryan went prospecting—at a local farmers market.
GREENHAGEN: There was an organic farmer and they had fruit and it was a plum and I was looking at the plum and I was like… all the dark fruit you can see the yeast because it has that gray thing. Blueberries and plums. So I was looking at the plum and I was like, Here it is. this is like a local yeast. This is where it is right here.
TWILLEY: Bryan called the beer brewed with this truly indigenous Massachusetts yeast “Vinland,” because when the Vikings are supposed to have come over and explored North America, back around 1000 AD, that’s the name they give to this land that was filled with wild berries and grapes, which they used to make wine.
GRABER: Bryan didn’t stop at that first Vinland beer—which he called Vinland One, that’s the one made from the plum yeast.
GREENHAGEN: And then two, we got blueberries from Maine from our first brewers’ backyard where he had grown up, that were growing just wild in the backyard. So that got even more interesting and that one, that strain actually was the beer that we won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest, which to our knowledge is the first one that was used an American yeast at all.
TWILLEY: You might be thinking, awesome! I’m going to go out and pick some local raspberries and use that yeast to make beer. But it’s not quite that easy.
GRABER: This is where Bryan’s training, working with yeast in the lab, comes in handy. He brings the fruits home and grows the yeast up in what beer makers call wort—it’s the sprouted sweet sugary liquid made from wet grain.
GREENHAGEN: With the ones that we isolated, what we would do is take a few of… samples from that and then isolate many many many many yeasts off a Petri plate and then make little beers. And we would make like 100 and then try to find like a single strain that tasted good. And we would get about two out of a hundred.
TWILLEY: A lot of bad beer went down the drain. And this is even after Bryan has looked at the yeast through a microscope and picked the ones that look most like regular brewing yeast.
GREENHAGEN: It takes about six months. LAUGHS
GRABER: As opposed to just buying the yeast from a list in a catalogue.
TWILLEY: It’s not surprising that most breweries don’t bother. But to Bryan it seemed reasonable.
GREENHAGEN: We thought we could commit to that because like the timeline of getting a product out in the world we used to work in, research science and biotech companies and whatnot, where you know it’s 12 years. So we’re like, Six months is not a big deal we can—we can wait that long to put out products.
GRABER: Bryan’s taken these yeasts he’s found in the wild and stabilized them in a Petri dish. Now he can grow the ones he wants, whenever he wants them.
TWILLEY: It’s like his own version of that commercial yeast catalog, except all the yeasts are native New England varieties. He’s got one from Massachusetts, one from Maine, and one from Vermont, isolated from some raspberries.
GRABER: As he said, Bryan won an award with one of these local yeasts. But he’s not setting himself up to sell yeast commercially.
GREENHAGEN: Partly because I don’t—I don’t want them to call me up and go like this I—just lost $5000 with this culture you gave me. LAUGHS
TWILLEY: So you might think the fourth one in Bryan’s Vinland series would use a yeast from Connecticut, or New Hampshire. But no. Instead, Bryan let go of a little control, and tried something called spontaneous fermentation.
GRABER: Before we taste that beer—yes, we actually do get to taste it—we have to explain something about sour beers. Back in the day almost all beer would have been at least somewhat sour, because wild yeast would have started growing in the brew during the fermentation process. Brewers didn’t have the refrigeration and modern sanitation to keep those yeasts out.
TWILLEY: Once people figured out how to control fermentation and keep those wild yeasts and other bacteria out, they did. And sour beers almost disappeared, at least in America. Now, if you’re into craft beer, you’ll know that sour beers are getting popular again today. But they’re made a little differently than they used to be.
GRABER: Most breweries actually buy the same yeasts that would have randomly infected the beer hundreds of years ago. They’re strains that can give beer funky, puckery flavors.
TWILLEY: So, whereas in the past, those funky strains would have been floating around in the air, and infected the beer that way, today, brewers mostly keep their brewing set up super clean, and they carefully inoculate beers that they want to taste sour with specially ordered quote unquote wild yeast.
GRABER: Before all you beer lovers cry out examples of breweries that are going all wild, we do know they’re out there. A small—a really small—handful of breweries in the U.S. are experimenting with going totally wild and native. They’re just letting their beer brew with whatever’s out there. But there aren’t many of them.
TWILLEY: At all. Because it’s really risky. And it can get expensive, if you have to dump a bunch of beer. But Bryan was up for the challenge. So Vinland 4 was made without inoculating any yeast at all. It was a spontaneous fermentation.
GREENHAGEN: We actually started this by using our local maltsters grain and we figured, Well they malted it so anything on it that can make a beer has to be from Massachusetts, so we just used that itself to start a spontaneous culture. And then kept developing that culture to make this beer. So this has literally had no no microbes added to it.
POP, POURING SOUNDS
TWILLEY: What are you thinking?
GREENHAGEN: I’m thinking it’s, it’s crazy. LAUGHS
GRABER: It is crazy.
TWILLEY: That’s nuts.
GRABER: LAUGHS I think that’s just our general reaction. It’s totally nuts.
TWILLEY: Vinland 4 has been in the bottle for about 6 months at this point. And it was still changing as the microbes continued to re-ferment it.
GREENHAGEN: There’s just different—there’s a big pineapple note like early on that’s gone now and different things are coming around. It’s definitely more tart.
GRABER: Tart and funky.
GRABER: Just like at Earth Eagle, Bryan—and Mystic Brewery—aren’t trying to recreate the past. But it is a sort of time travel. It’s almost like a time warp back hundreds of years when brewers were kind of playing the yeast lottery, experimenting with their local microbes, without even realizing it. Just in this case, Bryan’s a scientist. He knows what he’s doing.
TWILLEY: Right. It’s not about reconstruction—like using historic yeasts from shipwrecks or whatever. Instead, it’s about reclaiming some of that creative freedom that early brewers had, before the rules got laid down and the yeast got optimized.
GRABER: Like we said at the beginning of the show, historic beers are hot right now. But even so, brewers experimenting the way Butch and Bryan are—they’re in the minority. It’s a tiny tiny sliver of the whole beer market.
TWILLEY: But who knows, maybe it will take off. Craft beer lovers are an adventurous group, and this is a way to get new flavors into our pint glasses. There are lots of interesting new hops being bred and lots of new local grains being malted, but looking outside the box for yeasts and bittering agents is an amazing way to bring the crazy back into brewing.
GRABER: And of course we are not done with beer forever! We’ll come back to hops and grains and who knows what in the future. It’s too tasty to cover in just one episode.
TWILLEY: First of all, huge thanks to listener Jason Newton. We’ve been wanting to do a story on beer, and he sent us a delicious and intriguing tip. If you have ideas for future shows or questions you’d like us to address, let us know! Send us an email to contact at gastropod.com.
GRABER: And here’s another way to help us out—you can donate! One-time or monthly donations at gastropod.com, or you can support us per episode at our Patreon page. If you donate at least $5 per episode or $9 a month, you can get our special supporters-only newsletter filled with goodies we couldn’t squeeze into the show.
TWILLEY: And actually, we need your help for a forthcoming episode all about packaging. If you want to get involved, check out our Twitter feed or Facebook page @gastropodcast or email us for all the details. Special thanks for this episode go to Butch Heilshorn of Earth Eagle Brewings and Emerson Baker at Salem State, and Bryan Greenhagen at Mystic Brewery.
GRABER: And of course, Trish Perry and Will Glenn of Wish Experience. Their show, A Brief History of Beer, is touring the East Coast of the U.S. right now. Links on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: We’re back in two weeks with a mystery. Involving tomatoes. All will be revealed—you won’t want to miss it.