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Beer making is both art and science. Most of us don’t think a lot about what goes into the beer we drink – it’s cold, it’s handy and that’s generally about as far as the thought process goes. For brewers, however, the balance between technical knowledge and creativity is always in play. A certain amount of “hard science” is involved, of course, and at least a practical understanding of chemistry is critical for making consistently high-quality beer. On the other hand, a technically perfect beer could also be a boring beer if every brewer produced the exact same recipe and never deviated from a prescribed formula. This is why we have well over 100 recognized beer styles to choose from, and the limits of creativity in brewing are set only by the imagination of the brewer.

Southern Illinois’ own craft brewing culture is no exception. Although there aren’t as many craft breweries in the area as there are in many other parts of the country, what we lack in quantity we more than make up for in quality and creativity by taking full advantage of our natural resources and indigenous appeal. Arguably, one of the most creative craft breweries in the entire country, much less Southern Illinois, is Scratch Brewing Company in rural Ava. Scratch is a small farmhouse brewery that grows many of the ingredients for its critically acclaimed beers on site and utilizes the bounty of the surrounding Shawnee National Forest to produce beers that are truly one of a kind.

“We personally enjoy these beers and went out on a limb that others would enjoy them as well, and they have,” co-owner and brewer Marika Josephson explains. “We wanted to create a place truly rooted in Southern Illinois that produces a real local product that is unique. “

Big Muddy Brewing in Murphysboro is a production brewery with a somewhat more conventional approach to brewing, although innovation is quickly becoming a big part of this popular craft brewery’s appeal. Owner and brew master Chuck Stuhrenberg has begun utilizing oak barrels to produce beers with unique flavor characteristics and surprising complexity.

“We use locally sourced wine barrels to produce our ‘sour’ beer (a style that has been popular in Belgium for hundreds of years) by introducing local, ambient yeast into the aging process,” Stuhrenberg says.

Likewise, Big Muddy receives fresh whiskey barrels shipped overnight from distilleries in Kentucky to use in some higher alcohol beers to “impart hints of vanilla and bourbon to create a true sippin’ beer,” he says, laughing.

Von Jakob Brewery in Alto Pass is another small brewery that sees the appeal of infusing the creative spirit into traditional beer styles. Head brewer Frank Wesseln is experimenting with ingredients you wouldn’t typically associate with beer, and customers at Von Jakob’s tasting room get the opportunity to try new recipes on draft from time to time.

“We focus mainly on classic beer styles, many being of German decent, and our patrons seem to enjoy these. However, we do like to play around with different flavors and ingredients,” Wesseln says. “Doing small trial beers helps work out what flavors go well together. Our most recent experiment is a dark beer brewed with smoked chili peppers from our garden; it may never make it to full production, but you never know until you try.”

So, for those who might have thought beer was pretty one-dimensional, a trip to one of Southern Illinois’ craft breweries will dispel that myth quickly -- almost as quickly as the craft beer industry is growing, thanks to new, creative artisan approaches to a very old science.

SHAWN CONNELLY writes for Beer Connoisseur magazine, is a craft and specialty beer retail consultant and an award-winning home brewer. Read his blog at beerphilospher.com.

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