Odd as it may sound, fruits, vegetables and spices jazz up beer
Whether sourcing passion fruit and loquats from local farms or importing vanilla beans and loose-leaf teas from around the world, San Diego brewers discover innovative ways to craft beer blends using exotic ingredients.
It is a uniquely human trait to take a raw ingredient and transform it into something enjoyable. Take the bitter cas-sava root, a shrubby, perennial plant containing cyanide. T ribal headhunters in the Amazon create their choice beer from this highly toxic root — boiling, mashing, chewing and even spitting it into a clay pot, where it ferments for days, before using it for spiritual rituals to appease the beer gods.
Fortunately for us, local brewmasters up the ante by crafting beer through more innocuous methods. Typically, the more unusual the ingredient, the more limited the release. You have to catch these beers during the right time of year, when a particular seasonal crop is fresh and abundant or before the brewery runs out.
Such beers are usually sold in-house or at special celebra-tions, such as the Museum of Man’s Exotic Ingredients in Beer event in March, during which a swarm of beer lovers united, including Paul Tchir, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Diego. Paul, who moved here from Canada, enjoys trying all sorts of fun and experimental beers. His favorite is Ballast Point’s Grapefruit Sculpin.
“It takes all the flavors of a regular IPA and enhances them,” he says. “There’s just something about the way they blend the grapefruit into the beer that brings out the best in hops in a way that is not overbearing, yet remains incredibly flavorful.
“Paul’s friend, Ben-e Romero, gets straight to the point: “I am a beer snob. I will not drink commercial beer anymore, only craft beer,” he says.
Stone Brewing Co. has successfully turned beer drinkers into devotees with its many beer gardens, including Stone Farms, a 19-acre farm in Escondido where both fresh ingredients and ideas germinate.
“I work very closely with Stone Farms and get to play with all kinds of ingredients,” says Steve Gonzalez, research and small batch manager for Stone Brewing. “For example, the farm planted lots and lots of passion fruit. It grows incred-ibly well in San Diego County, so we had quite a surplus of it. The farm asked me if there was anything I could do with it, so I took a barrel-aged beer called Reason Be Damned and we put in two pounds of passion fruit per barrel. It was just magic; it was so good.”
Even so, you can’t compare apples and oranges — some fruits just don’t go well with beer. “Raspberries are pretty easy; with raspberries, the flavor comes through nice and strong,” Steve explains. “But blueberries can be very delicate, and mango is kind of a challenge. I would probably hesitate before I used it again.”
Stone may be the granddaddy of brewing companies in San Diego, but it’s not the first. The true progenitor is Aztec Brewing Co., started in Mexicali by three San Diego businessmen in 1921during Prohibition. It’s a natural fit for the new owners to experi-ment with Mexican ingredients that harken back to its roots.
“I’m a Southern California native, so these are just ingredients that I take for granted,” says Claudia Faulk, partner and CFO. “It seemed like nobody was trying to appeal to that Southern California/Latino flavor palate, so we were thinking,
‘We can do that.’” Aztec’s Soul Sacrifice beer is a perfect example. The special-edition red IPA is barrel aged about eight months with a spicy essence of ghost peppers, jala-peños, lime peel and cilantro.
“It’s a beer that is an experi-ence,” Claudia says. “The ghost peppers are a really hot pepper. They only put one gram in it, which is a very tiny amount. Then they put in a little jala-peño, fresh lime peel and fresh cilantro that’s all chopped up. You put it in a bag and suspend it [in the tank] to get the flavors into the beer.”
Aztec’s origins across the border also inspired its Hibiscus Wheat beer made from hibiscus leaves, ginger and allspice.
“There’s a Jamaica tea they make in Mexico, so we designed the beer to be sort of similar to that,” Claudia says. “It gives it a fruitiness right off the bat. You can smell the hibiscus leaves, but you also get tartness from them. And when you add ginger and allspice, it gives it a little sparkle in your mouth.”
Ben-e likes Belching Beaver Brewery’s Horchata Imperial Stout.
“I’m Hispanic, so I’ve had horchata my whole life,” he says. “I was really skeptical at first about it being used in beer, but I’ve been raving about it. It tastes like horchata but in beer form. It’s really sweet and cinnamony with roasty creaminess. It reminds me of the horchata my grandmother would make me as a child.”
Latin ingredients aren’t the only ethnic flavors with whichlocal breweries are experiment-ing. Stone collaborated with Ishii Brewing Co. in Guam and Baird Brewing Co. in Japan to create a Japanese Green Tea IPA made with imported sencha green tea and a Japanese hop called sorachi ace. It was brewed first in 2011 to raise funds for tsunami relief, but fans loved it so much that Stone rebrewed it this year as a special release.
Whether traditional or exotic, “Ingredients should definitely enhance the taste of beer,” says Shawn DeWitt, co-founder and director of brewery operations for Coronado Brewing Co. “We don’t want to hide or mask any-thing; we want everything to shine.”
Neutral yeast serves as the base for the brewery’s best-selling beer on draft: Orange Avenue Wit, made with orange
honey, coriander and orange zest. “It has a little taste of honey and a hint of coriander, so you get a little sweetness up front and a little spice at the end,” Shawn says.
Not that it’s easy to perfect. “Spices are hard to get dialed in,” Shawn continues. “It took us a long time to dial in the Orange Avenue. And, even still, I can go from one bottle to another batch and notice this one tastes a little sweeter or this one tastes more like coriander. That’s just the nature of using spices and unique ingredients. We are real cautious when we use unique ingredients; we stick to the ones that we know how to manage.”
Shawn is more partial to Limelight, a special-edition beer made with mint, lime peel, fresh lemongrass and chamomile. “It’s refreshing — just nice, light and easy to drink,” he says.
Like creating any new recipe, much of the delight comes from experimenting with combinations of ingredients.
“It’s like cooking. It is cooking,” Claudia says. “You want to have things that blend together well so that your final product is a pleasure to eat or drink.”
Just as any great chef would tire of making the same meal every night, Shawn points out that it gets old for brewers to make the same core beers every day or even weekly.
“Brewing the fun beers — the specialty, one-off, unique beers — really keeps the excite-ment going for the brewers,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s just the same thing over and over; there’s no art behind it. So we task our brewers with, ‘Hey, it’s springtime. Come up with a spring beer or a summer beer,’ and they love it. It allows the brewers to have some fun and keeps our lineup fresh.” ❖