Guided walks help brewers discover flavors of the natural Northwest.
The brewers stood under the Garry oak, looking a bit curious, a bit amused. Questions? They had a few. Is the shoot of a salmonberry edible? What does a spruce tip taste like?
Brewmasters Don Webb and Jason Yerger were game. Here comes the leaf of an Indian plum into their mouths.
They chewed on a licorice fern as if it were gum.
The needle from a Douglas fir? “It tastes like a peach, surprisingly,” said Yerger, brewer of Ghostfish Brewing Company in Seattle’s Sodo District.
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In search of inspiration, dozens of local brewers have been undertaking an exercise of a most unusual order. They’re hiking through Northwest woods to find their muse for their next beer.
At Seward Park recently, they walked for two hours to sample edible plants — both native and invasive — to see what bark or flowers might best complement the flavors of an IPA or a light summer beer.
A few weeks later, brewers from Seattle and the Eastside soldiered two miles in 92-degree heat along the Snoqualmie Valley Trail with the same purpose.
Hikes such as these are inspiring brewers across the Northwest to return to their brewhouses with plants, berries and other forest ingredients with which to augment their next batch of beer.
More hikes this summer
The concept has become so popular in Western Washington that beer makers in Bellingham, including the popular Boundary Bay Brewing, will do three hikes near the Chuckanut area this summer. Seattle and Eastside brewers are planning two August outings in the Snoqualmie area.
“Beers Made By Walking” was started by Eric Steen, of Portland, who loves craft beer and hiking. The former arts professor ditched academia to work at Hopworks Urban Brewery in Oregon a few years back and hasn’t looked back.
The idea came partly from seeing how Williams Bros. Brewing Co. brewed with seaweed, heather flowers and other ingredients from its Scotland environs, Steen said.
He recruited brewers around the West Coast to hike and create a beer that is a “landscape portrait” of the trail they hiked on. It’s a way to learn about the environment and is a good creative exercise, he said.
An IPA that Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Ore., made with juniper and sagebrush three years ago remains etched in his mind. “The beer tasted and smelled like the desert on a hot day,” he said.
Since 2011, more than 100 breweries from Oregon, Colorado, California, North Carolina and Washington have accepted his challenge, including acclaimed breweries such as Stone Brewing Co. in California.
He recruits botanists and nature groups to lead the hikes. Who says brewers are just beer-belly imbibers who only camp out on bar stools?
Over the years, more than a dozen Seattle and Eastside brewers have hiked up Cougar Mountain, around Snoqualmie Falls and on the Olympic Peninsula. They ended up making beers with salal leaves, rose hips and wild watercress. Every fall, these brewers make a keg for the public to sample. This year’s tasting will be at Seattle’s Naked City Brewery, though no date has been set.
Local tour guides
On the Seward Park walk in June, Peter Gernsheimer and Patrick Mulligan, of Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, a conservation group, guided the brewers.
But first, hikers had to sign waivers. “In case you get poison oak or something, it’s not our fault,” Mulligan quipped.
Then off they went, checking edible plants and flowers around the 300-acre park, from evergreen huckleberries to red-flowering currant.
They walked along the Lake Washington shoreline in the eye-wincing sun to check out a giant sequoia and then cut into the shade of old-growth forest. Back in the sun they searched in hopes of finding ripe berries, or at least any that wouldn’t give them sour faces.
A guide plucked a beaked hazelnut and offered it for sampling to Webb, of Naked City Brewing in Greenwood. “Not bad. It just tastes kind of grassy,” he said.
Webb has become a big proponent of these outings since participating last summer. “Typically, when you get into the brewery you get into a routine. You use just four ingredients — malt, hops, yeast, water. This gives us the ability to think outside that box … We can use edible plants that we haven’t thought of before.”
Last fall, Webb brewed with rose hips to make his Belgian-style saison after a walk around Seattle’s Discovery Park. The rose hips gave the beer tartness and floral notes, he said.
Foraging is a tricky proposition. Rules vary by state and even within the state among parks and cities. In the “Beers Made By Walking” program, some brewers pluck in the wild. Others gather from their neighborhoods and gardens, or source ingredients commercially.
Brewers hope the mainstream beer drinker will embrace plants and other ingredients from the woods much as foodies have embraced them in some of the world’s best restaurants.
In Seward Park brewers sampled salmonberries — and also tasted their shoots and petals.
“The flower is tasty,” Yerger said.
“That’s not surprising. There should be a lot of nectar in the flower,” guide Gernsheimer said.
After an hour of this, our walk resembled a stroll down the produce aisle.
Fiddlehead fern: “Great sauteed with butter and garlic.”
Horsetail plant: “They make soup with this in Ecuador.”
Wood sorrel: “Citrusy. Great in a salad.”
Stinging nettles: “Really good in a pesto”
The brewers sniffed and scrutinized the jagged licorice fern. “It has some sweetness, a bit bitter and woody,” Yerger said. It would be good in a “stout or dark winter ale,” Webb said.
If you go
Botanists and conservation groups lead brewers on free hikes to learn what plants and flowers might be used to flavor beer. Hikes are open to the public but brewers have priority. Space is limited.
Information and registration at beersmadebywalking.com. Registration opens two weeks before each hike.
Remaining Western Washington hikes this summer:
• Aug. 1: Stimpson Family Nature Reserve, Bellingham, noon-5 p.m., led by Whatcom Land Trust with Boundary Bay Brewery.
• Aug. 9: Middle Fork Snoqualmie Trail, 9 a.m.-noon, led by Mountains to Sound Greenway with Fremont Brewing and Machine House Brewery.
• Aug. 15: Little Bandera Mountain, 9 a.m.-2 p.m., led by Mountains to Sound Greenway with Two Beers Brewing, Seattle Cider Company and Lantern Brewing.