Nestled in between luscious farmland and overgrown forests in Southern Illinois—two hours from the nearest big city, St. Louis—is one of the country’s most unique breweries. Scratch Brewing Company is creating beers with an emphasis on local and artisanal. Those words get thrown around plenty in the food and drink worlds, but these folks actually live them.
They specialize in foraged beers developed around the ingredients naturally available from the land surrounding their brewery—lavender, chanterelle mushrooms, wild ginger, hickory bark, dandelions, maple sap, gooseberries.
You won't find a Double IPA on the premises. Scratch isn't interested in chasing the latest trend or appealing to market forecasts. What they strive for, instead, is bringing a sense of place into the glass.
Southern Illinois is a weird place. It feels kind of removed from the rest of the world, but it's also obscenely beautiful in spots. The state itself cuts further into the horizontal center of the country than most people realize, the thin Southern edge of it driving a groove between Missouri and Kentucky like a glacier. Scratch resides in this sliver.
I spent this past Monday wandering around the brewery's two acres in rural Ava, IL as the Scratch crew foraged a beer. After that, we drank some wine.
I pull up to Scratch just as the sun is rising over the hills of the surrounding farmland. Co-owner Marika Josephson passes me in her car as I pull over to snap a photo of the sign at the intersection nearest the brewery. We briefly discuss today's brew—an Amber Saison made with foraged spice bush and their house sourdough mixed culture. We waste little time before getting to work.
Marika retrieves their grain mill out of the shed and begins weighing out grain. Frank, one of their new brewers, arrives at the brewery and gets to work in the brewhouse. As Marika is milling, we discuss the sources of their malts and micro-maltsters. The majority of Scratch’s malts—minus a few specialty grains—are from Midwestern micro-maltsters. Today’s malt comes from Sugar Creek Malt Co. in Indianapolis, which sources near-100% Indiana-grown barley.
“They’re our closest maltster,” Marika says. “All of their stuff has been really awesome.”
We head over to a small barn near the front of the property to let their goats out. They seem excited to see us and do a quick lap around their pen before heading over to Marika for breakfast. She feeds them grain and a pitchforkful of hay.
She describes how they've used hay in a couple of beers. They love the unique smell of a bushel, which originates from the center when it starts to ferment. They’re hoping to replicate in a beer one day.
We move over to the brewhouse, where Frank has already filled a kettle with hot water. Scratch’s water is sourced from a nearby lake and is very neutral as-is. Frank explains that they only had a small amount of calcium and slightly adjust the alkalinity for typical brews. He adds the grain to the kettle and stirs everything together to mash in. Their brewhouse is basically an over-sized homebrew kit—a 1.5-barrel system that they typically brew back-to-back double batches on, as they are doing today, to fill 3-BBL fermenters.
Co-owner Aaron Kleidon walks in, and invites me to go foraging for spice bush. They’ll utilize the whole bush in the brew—broken-down branches will be added at the start of the boil, leaves will be added about 15 minutes prior to flame-out, and crushed berries—which have a similar character to allspice—will be added at flame-out before a 15-minute whirlpool.
How did Aaron learn the flavor and aroma profiles of the area's wild plants and herbs? "I've known all of them a lot longer than I've known how to brew," he says.
Growing up on this land, he's been studying these wild species for his entire life—over time, he's learned in which regions of the forest certain plants grow, the proper time to harvest each plant, and how the weather affects the growth—and even flavor—of certain ingredients.
As we get deeper into the woods, Aaron explains how Scratch achieves such well-balanced character in beers with such out-of-the-box, potentially-potent ingredients.
"I think store-bought spices can get pretty out of control,” he counters. “As long as you use restraint, these wild ones are pretty subtle.”
We're getting closer to the spice bush.
"Right now, this is kind of facing South, so the spice bush and a lot of the herbs we use all grow on North-facing hillsides,” Aaron says. “So once we go up and over this hill, then we'll get into a woods that's a lot wetter, and there will be a whole lot more."
We arrive back at the brewery with arms full of spice bush. Frank is mashing out the first 1.5-BBL batch. At such small volumes, Scratch is just about to reach the 300-BBL mark since they opened about three years ago. Given that nearly every batch is a new recipe, that's a lot of experimentation—and a lot of foraging. I'd think that some of those batches would turn out to be failures, a natural result of experimentation, but I'd be wrong.
“There's been maybe two beers we've dumped since we've been open, and those weren't a result of an ingredient we added,” Aaron says. “One time we got a bad pitch of yeast from a place and another time we just had some fermentation issues when the weather was changing a lot."
We head into their cellar to pick out some beers for lunch to put in the refrigerator. We pick a recently bottled Basil IPA, a Blackberry Lavender Sour, and their Single Tree Hickory. Scratch's single tree series of beers have garnered a lot of attention recently. Here, all of the ingredients for the brew except grain and yeast—bark, leaves, branches, and sap—are collected from a single tree. The sap is even used in place of brewing water.
Aaron shows me their small barrel collection, which includes a barrel containing a collaboration brew with Jester King. A Steinbier made with juniper branches, it’ll be bottled later this month.
Marika and Frank begin breaking down foraged spice bush branches into smaller, more-manageable pieces. Breaking the branches also helps expose the fresh center of the branch, which packs a lot of the flavor and aroma. Some of the branches require a little extra strength to crack—shoes and knees come in handy more than a few times.
Frank grinds dried spice bush berries while Marika scoops out grain from the first mash into plastic buckets. Their spent grain is typically picked up by local farmers to be used for feed or gets put into their compost. They compost all of their food scraps as well.
The boil begins on the first batch. Chinook hops and a mesh bag full of spice bush sticks and branches are added to the boil kettle. We discuss the hops that Scratch grows on the property—Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and a wild strain, which Aaron discovered in the forest while foraging one day.
Aaron and Marika say the wild hops have a character somewhere between Chinook, Cluster, and Citra, both tropical and earthy, with a hint of wild onion character. They’ve used these wild hops in only one beer so far, which will likely be their only brew with them this year—they don't get a big yield out of them. They’ve also utilized their other home-grown hops in a couple wet-hopped beers earlier this season.
Aaron pops into the kitchen with two handfuls of dried, dead leaves he just foraged around the property—oak and hickory.
“Smells like tobacco and leather,” he announces. “And figs. These are about perfect.”
Aaron and I head out into the forest once again. As it turns out, Aaron's been picking nuts for various reasons since he was a child.
"When I was a little kid, I was in boy scouts, and one of our fundraisers each year was picking up nuts for the state nursery," he tells me. "So we would pick up all of these nuts, and you'd take bags, like big onion sacks, to this forestry building in Murphysboro, and they'd weigh it and pay you for the different nuts. So we'd always gather bur oak acorns because they were big and we would gather black walnuts. I don't know how many thousands of pounds of walnuts we picked up. I think it was maybe 10 or 15 cents per pound. It's a lot easier to pick three buckets of these than three buckets of hops, I'll tell you that."
When we get back, Frank is mashing in batch #2 and about to cut the flame on the first boil—after which he adds the crushed spice bush berries for a 15-minute whirlpool. Frank hooks up the heat exchanger to transfer the wort to the fermenter.
Aaron, Marika, and Frank discuss a shipment of bottles they’re expecting to arrive tomorrow. Aaron gives Frank a hard time about riding his motorcycle into work every time they get a big shipment delivered.
“We need to get him a trailer for that.”
Frank starts grinning across the kitchen.
“You want me to bring my truck tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Aaron replies. “And take that shit-eating grin off your face. My dad would say, ‘You look like an opossum in a pile of shit!’ A pile of spent grain!”
Frank starts circulating batch #1 through the heat exchanger and transferring it into the fermenter. Marika heads into the fermentation room and pulls samples of a Sumac Sour and Peach Sour from their respective fermenters. The sumac has a tangy lemon-y character, balanced by the amber malt bill. The peach is distinctively more sour, but very pleasant, with notable characteristics of fresh, white peach.
Marika explains their house sourdough culture used in these beers:
"We found that we just really liked the flavor profile—it made awesome Saisons and Hefeweizens and stuff like that. And all of our sour beers we really liked too. It doesn't finish too dry, so that extra sweetness with the sour helps balance it, which we really like."
Frank adds their sourdough mixed culture to the fermenter, and then we sample the chilled wort from the current brew. There’s a bready character and a pleasant lingering spice that sits on the back of your tongue, which will pair perfectly with fall. I’m curious to see how the spice comes out when the sugar content drops after fermentation.
The mash on batch #2 is complete, and Frank transfers the wort to the boil kettle. Marika pulls out pickles, pickled beets, green tomatoes, peppers, and onions out of the refrigerator and makes us a sampling platter. Calzones are on the lunch menu.
“Monday is calzone day around here,” Marika says. “The [wood-fired pizza] oven is still at 700 degrees, and we usually have pizza dough left over from the weekend.”
Today, the fixings include mozzarella, foraged hen of the wood mushrooms, green onions, a bit of the extra crushed spice bush berries, and olive oil. I'm in for a treat.
Over lunch, we discuss some of Scratch’s dreams for the future, including a coolship and an upgrade to their copper, open-fire boil kettle. Throughout lunch, Frank pops in and out of the kitchen to tend to the boil.
As the second boil wraps up, Marika asks if we need a caffeine boost. She begins heating a kettle of water, grabbing an Aeropress and a bag of coffee. There’s no skimping on quality in any aspect at Scratch HQ. They sometimes even feature cold brew in their taproom.
Both batches are now in the fermenter. They typically let the fermentation temperature free-rise after transferring at 70 degrees. Slightly elevated temperatures allows the lactobacillus in their house sourdough mixed culture to get to work before the saccharomyces starts doing its thing. Aaron stops in with another handful of leaves for us to smell—this time white oak.
“Smell these, Frank.”
“Smells like apples.”
"It’s crazy! Smells like an apple peel.”
It’s kitchen-cleaning time. Aaron runs out to get another handful of leaves and pops back into the kitchen—red oak this time. They smell distinctly like the inside of a traditional oak barrel. He explains that he’s super curious about the idea of a “single leaf” series of beers—making the same Pale Ale over and over with a different style of dried, dead leaves each time.
Aaron leads me to their fig tree in front of the taproom to smell its leaves. On the way, we pass his de-shelled hickory nuts. At the tree, we each tear off a leaf, rip it, and take a big whiff.
“What’s that smell like?” Aaron asks.
“Smells exactly like coconut.”
Aaron assures me that he doesn't usually spend days sniffing handfuls of various leaves, but I’m not sure I believe him.
To finish off the day, Marika grabs a chilled bottle of 21-year-old Cheteau Vari 'Reserve du Chateau' Monbazillac out of the refrigerator. Nobody told me before now, but it’s Aaron’s 36th birthday. We clink glasses to celebrate Aaron and a successful brew day.
As I leave this odd slice of Southern Illinois, I'm left with the joy of observing this special thing Marika and Aaron have built here. They’re staying true to themselves, brewing some of the most creative beers in the world, and having a damn good time doing so. I can't wait to return soon to sample the foraged spice bush brew we concocted today.