Cloudy
69°
Cloudy
Hi 72° | Lo 54°

Experimentation And Fermentation Go Well Together

Both conventional and unconventional ingredients were used in a Tunbridge homebrew project: hops, in front, and rum soaked in oak chips, in back. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

Both conventional and unconventional ingredients were used in a Tunbridge homebrew project: hops, in front, and rum soaked in oak chips, in back. (Valley News - Chris Fleisher)

One recent Friday morning, I visited Rick Scully and Scott Russell in Tunbridge and found them messing around with toasted hemp hearts. On a table beside them was a bottle of Jamaican rum.

Hemp?

“It’s a nutritional supplement,” Rick told me.

And the rum? Is that to take the edge off ... Friday morning?

Not so much. Rick and Scott, two fine upstanding citizens, would be using the hemp and rum in a batch of beer they were homebrewing. The beer, which they’d dubbed “Marleywine,” was a tribute to the late Rastafarian and reggae legend Bob Marley. The ingredients — “Liberty” hops, the hemp, the rum and even a London ale yeast — were homages to the man’s life that Rick and Scott had decided might work well together in a beer, even if they were a touch unorthodox.

But it was the gesho that most intrigued me.

Before I get into what exactly gesho is, what these guys were doing is both new and, in a way, ancient to the brewing of beer. Long before the German purity law Reinheitsgebot was passed — which stipulates that beer must be made only with water, barley and hops — brewers were experimenting with all kinds of spices, plants and herbs, to varying degrees of success. I’ve had spruce tip ales that were like a mop bucket of Pine Sol and chili pepper pilsners that were like a glass of lighter fluid. But when brewers move outside the confines of malt and hops, I’m often pleasantly surprised.

Beer brewing has deeper roots in Egypt than England, and the ingredients from those ancient beers were starkly different from what we know. If you were to install a flux capacitor in your Subaru and go back in time to sample a Pharaoh’s homebrew, it would taste nothing like the sixer you picked up from Hannaford last weekend.

Years ago Otter Creek in Middlebury, Vt., did a really neat “World Tour” series that explored beer styles from Egypt to Japan and featured flavors indigenous to those countries. Unfortunately, the series ended, but there are other breweries that continue to explore non-European concepts.

Delaware’s Dogfish Head has been a leader in ingredient experimentation, as well as turning to the ancient past as it develops forward-thinking brews. Its Theobroma ale looked back to 1200 B.C. to develop a beer that celebrates chocolate, “the food of the gods,” accompanied by honey, chilies and annatto, a fragrant tree seed. It was based on chemical analysis of pottery fragments found in Honduras.

Dogfish Head has produced some interesting formulations in its Ancient Ales series, such as Chateau Jiahu, inspired by a 9,000-year-old Chinese beverage that incorporates hawthorn fruit, sake rice and honey. Another, called Ta Henket, is an Egyptian-influenced beer with chamomile, doum palm fruit and Middle Eastern herbs.

Dogfish Head even influenced the Marleywine recipe that Rick and Scott designed.

The brewery’s Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is made with honey and gesho root, a plant native to Ethiopia that is used similarly to hops in beer. It is boiled and the extract mixed with honey to ferment a mead called tej. Scott was intrigued enough by Dogfish Head’s experiment to try mixing up his own tej and will include a few drops in each bottle of Marleywine.

Gesho isn’t readily available in your local health food store, however, and Scott had to pull some strings to score the small amount that he needed. I’m a bit unclear on the details, but it involved an impressive series of fortunate events including a friend-of-a-friend, a trip to Ethiopia and relaxed customs agents.

Scott acknowledged that he was kind of throwing ideas against a wall with this one. But he didn’t seem to much care. Scott brews a lot of beer and says he sometimes gets bored making traditional stuff.

“I feel like I’m in a rut sometimes because I’m always brewing the same thing,” he said. “So I have to change things up.”

I have no idea how this Marleywine will turn out and my impression is that neither do they.

Even if it’s horrid, I appreciate what Rick and Scott were doing. The growth of craft beer in the U.S. began with homebrewers’ kitchen experiments.

As evidence, go to the nearest grocery store or pub. Take a look at the options available and ask yourself, would this kind of variety have been available to me before 1978, the year homebrewing was federally legalized?

You know the answer. And we have curious, small-batch brewers to thank.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-272-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.