"Usually deer take the path of least resistance,” Aaron Kleidon tells me while pointing out a trail as we find our way back to his brewery. We’ve been foraging in the nearby forest when we stumble upon the path that’s been diligently pounded out by whitetail hooves over time. Unlike the deer, Kleidon doesn’t follow the footsteps of others. Scratch Brewing Co. is blazing a different kind of trail, one littered with foraged beers that include all sorts of unorthodox ingredients found in these Southern Illinois woods. Along the way, Scratch is proving that, sometimes, returning to your roots can be the source of reinvention.
Most beer is produced as an industrial product. For most brewers, ingredients are grown in specific regions of the country. But Scratch co-owners Kleidon and Marika Josephson aren’t most brewers. They source the small-batch malt, hops, and experimental flavor components directly from the land surrounding them in rural Ava, IL. Situated at the intersection of Southern Illinois farmland and the Shawnee Nation Forest, they spend more of their effort sourcing and understanding local, high-quality ingredients than nearly any brewer in the industry.
The pristine land that Scratch sits on has been in Kleidon’s family for years. It was part of the surrounding forest—they cleared out a spot of land and built everything up themselves.
“There's never been a building or anything out here,” he explains. “We got the land just for hunting and stuff."
After growing up in Southern Illinois, Kleidon moved out to the craft beer mecca of Colorado so he could snowboard and fly fish. After working at a ski resort and an airport, he decided to move back home to be closer to family and old friends. Josephson grew up in San Diego County (itself, a mecca for craft beer) and, after moving to New York to start a philosophy PhD program, she followed her boyfriend down to Southern Illinois, where he accepted a teaching position at Southern Illinois University.
"I think I was ready for a life change and to do something different,” Josephson explains. “I always liked beer, so I started homebrewing, and I met Aaron and Ryan [Tockstein] around the same time.”
Including Josephson, all of the original three owners were homebrewers when they met. At that time in Southern Illinois, the craft beer scene was basically nonexistent. Josephson explains: "Even just buying craft beer, a lot of people went to Kentucky because there weren't a lot of places around here.”
Soon enough, though, a unique bottle shop opened up not far from Carbondale. Quickly, the store became the hangout for the area’s homebrewers, a place where they’d bring and share their creations.
“Pretty much all my friends the first year out here, I got there,” Josephson says. “The homebrewers would all gather, bring both beer that they made and beer that we got on our travels. We would just share things and share ideas. That's where Aaron and I met.”
“She used to keep a blog,” Kleidon remembers. “When I moved back from Colorado, I found it—it was about making sodas and different kinds of liquors. I called her and asked her if she wanted to learn how to make root beer."
In this area of the country, job opportunities are sparse—something that both Josephson and Kleidon say pushed them to start their own thing. "Basically, I figured if I started a brewery it would work, and then I could live around here and have a job," Kleidon says.
At those early meetings as homebrewers, each wrote notes about what they wanted in a brewery. And after comparing notes, like some bizarro-inverted version of The Newlywed Game for brewers, they realized their visions aligned quite well. However, “neither one of us really had the means to start it on our own," Kleidon says.
Instead, each partner brought their unique strengths to the brewery. Kleidon had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the wild plants around his family’s land in Southern Illinois. Josephson was a do-it-all kind of woman with experience in writing, brewing, cooking, and baking. And their third partner, Tockstein?
“He had the scientific mind of the group. Finding out what kinds of fittings we needed for certain equipment—he fucking loved that. I don't really care too much about that kind of thing," Kleidon explains.
Tockstein has since left Scratch to work for Bohemian Brewery in Salt Lake City, Utah. As it turns out, his scientific mind needed to be closer to the mountains out West in order to train for ultramarathons.
Scratch initially looked at a couple of places in other areas of Southern Illinois to open their brewery, but for one reason or another each spot fell through. While looking for properties, Josephson, Kleidon, and Tockstein homebrewed a couple of beers deep in the woods on Kleidon’s family property, near a spot where the family parked their camper. Those experiences, along with wanting to experiment with the plants in the woods of the property, made building the brewery on the land a no-brainer. Although located in a remote area of Southern Illinois, the location gave Scratch access to its most unique aspect: the surrounding land.
"Aaron's family was cool with us building here, so we really started from scratch," Josephson says, the brewery’s name origins made obvious. "His dad helped us put the first posts in the ground, and his mom brought us a hot meal every weekend when we were working on the building—which was especially nice in the winter when we didn’t have heat. This was just slightly more cleared than the rest of the land and slightly more flat. We had somebody lay the concrete and put up the shell of the building, and we did all the rest ourselves.”
Kleidon’s dad has also helped Scratch with every expansion they’ve done since opening. “He’s an unsung hero of the brewery, that’s for sure,” Josephson says. After renting the building and the five acres of land surrounding the brewery from Kleidon’s parents at first, Scratch now owns the property.
Opening a brewery in the middle of some farmland, in a remote area of Southern Illinois, more than 80 miles from the nearest metropolitan area (St. Louis), may sound like a bad idea to many brewery owners. It may sound like a bad idea to almost anyone in the world, to be honest. But Josephson and Kleidon haven’t experienced many difficulties attracting beer drinkers from near and far. Chalk it up to their boundary-pushing beer. As Josephson explains, they’ve built up a core group of clientele since opening in 2013.
“Around here, people are kind of used to traveling a little ways to get to stuff,” she says. “We haven't done any advertising—it's all been word of mouth. Going to beer festivals in St. Louis before we opened helped kind of get the word out. And since we were doing something that's really unique, I think that it really just got stuck in people's heads."
In 2011, when they started planning the brewery, Josephson, Kleidon, and Tockstein didn’t have any real-life case studies by which to compare what they were building. While there were a handful of larger breweries operating in St. Louis and Chicago, there weren’t many comparable to Scratch in size.
"It was about five years ago when we started really seriously figuring out how we're going to do this,” Josephson says. “And at that time, craft beer still hadn't hit that massive growth phase. We went to all of the breweries nearby that we could find at a similar scale, and I'd say that in, like, a five-ish hour radius, that meant like two at that time, which is crazy.”
One brewery that helped out Scratch in a huge way was Big Muddy in nearby Murphysboro. Kleidon worked for Big Muddy for a short time before Scratch opened, allowing him to get crucial experience on commercial brewing equipment.
“You hear everybody talk about how everybody in the brewing industry is willing to share information, and that's definitely been our experience,” Josephson says. “We also talked with some of the wineries around here, just to kind of hear what their experiences were like with people on the weekends.”
While Scratch specializes in beer with ingredients like spicebush, chanterelle mushrooms, gooseberries, hyssop, hickory bark, lemon balm, and marigold flowers, their focus is translating these exotic components into something approachable.
"It's definitely beyond the norm for anybody, let alone for people who usually drink Bud Light and stuff like that,” Josephson says. “But I think [early local visitors] were actually really into it.”
Indeed, Scratch quickly turned many neighbors from macro beer drinkers into craft beer drinkers. And on my most recent visit, a middle-aged woman came in and told me they turned her “from a wine drinker into a beer drinker.”
Most Scratch beers sit in the 4-6% ABV range and are surprisingly balanced given some of the unique ingredients used. “I think since we don't make extremely bitter beer, they are very approachable—I think that really helps people wrap their minds around it,” Josephson explains. “And then there's familiar flavors in there too, like maybe you've never had a craft beer, but you know what these [ingredients] taste like.”
It’s not only locals that are making the trek out to Ava to visit Scratch, though. The brewery and its foraged beers attract people from St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis, among other cities, on a regular basis.
"We had several people from Indianapolis this weekend, a lot from Champaign-Urbana, a lot of people from central Illinois that come down for the weekend and to go wine tasting or whatever," Josephson says.
Beyond approachability, though, Scratch places equal value on creativity, constantly experimenting with new ingredients and how they’re utilized. A year-round lineup of core brands often provides your average craft brewery with stability while giving customers a clear picture of that brewery’s vision. But Scratch doesn’t do that.
“If each person made the same thing over and over, it would just get really boring,” Kleidon says. “I can't imagine making flagship beers—boring for the people who are drinking them, but also boring for the maker. It becomes factory work at that point. I don't think that's necessarily what the human mind was made to do—that's what a robot does.”
Although Scratch doesn’t have traditional flagships, they do have a couple of “series” beers—namely their single tree and mushroom series. Each is based around similar recipes utilizing a different species of a foraged ingredient.
"Our favorites we will brew from time to time, but we're also tinkering with those recipes or how we add the herbs—what's the best way to add them,” Kleidon says. “So there's still a lot of experimentation going on to figure out the best way to get flavors from certain plants into the beer. Sometimes we will just boil the plants for the whole time, other times they go in the flame out. It just depends what you want to extract from the plant.”
Scratch’s single tree series is unprecedented, each beer brewed with ingredients from a single type of tree—and as much of it as possible. The sap is collected to replace the brewing water, and bark, leaves, nuts, buds, and branches are all used in the process. Their house sourdough mixed culture lends the beer a soft acidity that pairs nicely with a balanced nuttiness and smokiness from the other tree ingredients. These beers are complex, but easy-drinking. They’ve made five different batches so far, including hickory, maple, and birch.
It’s comparable to how some chefs utilize an entire animal by cooking “nose to tail.” Just as Fergus Henderson claims, “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing,” Scratch believes that if you’re going to remove a natural-occurring ingredient from the forest, it’s only polite to utilize every part of it.
In a recent collaboration with Jester King, Scratch took the concept in a different direction. The two breweries made a Stein Beer—an ancient, esoteric German style that utilizes hot rocks to boil the wort. They used oak barrels for both the mash tun and kettle, and lautered through cedar branches. Then, they finished the process by adding foraged botanicals and fermenting in oak with Scratch’s sourdough mixed culture.
“Visiting Scratch is a very special experience,” Jester King’s Jeffrey Stuffings says. “It's a beautiful example of humans interacting with their environment in a positive, symbiotic way to make food and beer that's novel and delicious.”
Scratch’s mushroom series showcases a dark Saison/farmhouse-base beer featuring a different variety of mushrooms foraged from their forest. Chanterelles and black trumpets have been featured thus far, and the mushrooms give these beers a rich earthiness, which makes a perfect pairing with food, like one of Scratch’s homemade wood-fired pizzas or cheese platters.
Another type of beer that has garnered Scratch some well-deserved attention is their take on a German Gruit. Their Spring Tonic, for instance, which uses a variety of spring greens as bittering agents instead of hops.
"That beer is kind of like a sour ginger beer that uses a lot of wild greens,” Kleidon says. “In beers like that, we may use 10-15 different plants in it, so we're not worried about how the individual plants taste. And since that beer doesn't have any hops, it's nice that it gets a little bit of bitterness. They just get boiled the whole time, so we're not looking for any type of fresh green flavor."
Without Tockstein on the team anymore, Josephson and Kleidon couldn’t keep up with the production schedule on their own. So last May, they hired an assistant brewer, Frank Wesseln, to help out. A single batch of beer typically lasts them three weeks during the summer, and every 90 days or so the beers completely change over.
"The last quarter, we went through seven barrels a week here on a one and a half barrel system," Josephson says.
Scratch sources their ingredients as close to the brewery as possible, even getting the majority of its malt from a small micromaltster in Indianapolis. They’ve been sourcing a portion of their wheat from a local farmer 15 miles down the road in Murphysboro. One day, they hope to source their malt from even closer—they’ve been talking with local farmers about growing barley.
"The soil in central Illinois, it's like the best soil in the country without a question,” Kleidon enthuses. “So if they wanted to grow barley instead of corn, they could grow the most amazing barley.“
He’s even thrown around the idea of running a few malting experiments in the future. The plan is to convert a little shed near the front of their taproom into a makeshift malt house.
"It would be nice to have some local grain—just another avenue for the farmers around here to grow another crop and give them a little diversity,” Kleidon says. “Malting varieties of barley [are] worth a whole lot more to a farmer than beans or corn, but you have to have all of that infrastructure in place to handle it.”
Therein lies the issue, of course—the profit increase from the crop typically doesn’t outweigh the headache of dealing with the infrastructure and maintenance required to run such a facility. “Most farmers would say five acres is too small to justify cleaning their combine and changing the screens,” Kleidon says. “For us, one part of one little field would be all of the barley we would need for the whole year.”
Scratch recently brought on two farmers, Kris Pirmann and Adriane Koontz, to help with growing produce for their beers and their food program, including ingredients for all of their pizzas and pickled vegetables. After meeting Kleidon at a local farmer’s market, Pirmann and Koontz realized that many of the vegetables and herbs they were growing were beer-friendly, and they started providing Scratch with produce as often as they could. Now, Pirmann grows all of the produce, does all of the fermenting, and has even started helping Kleidon with foraging. Koontz is in charge of baking, keeping the pair organized, and helping out in the garden whenever possible.
“We have foraged before and enjoy it heartily,” she says. “Kris is much better at remembering what everything looks like, when it can be harvested, and how to use it than I am, so I think Aaron and he get along just fine in the woods.”
Pirmann and Koontz hope to grow Scratch into more than just a brewery—they’ve even started selling Scratch’s sourdough bread and other goods at local farmers markets.
“We all thought that the vegetable fermentation was a success this past year, so we’d like to grow enough to keep Scratch stocked in pickles year-round,” Koontz says. “I have my canning license, so I plan on eventually cutting through all of the red tape and preserving more for the brewery. We definitely want to increase the value-added products to go along with the great beers. We are grateful for this opportunity to work toward common goals together. We believe that it’s important for small businesses to work together for a stronger economy.”
"We read a lot of books on old uses for plants—that's where I read about the hickory nut shells not having bitterness,” Kleidon says. “So instead of picking all the nut meat out of there, you just smash them, throw them in a pot, and simmer it. Then you basically have a liquid that tastes like the nuts. Old, early country cookbooks have a lot of information.”
Most of their knowledge came from trial and error. Sometimes, it was just luck. It took years of practice to figure out how to utilize these ingredients. To help homebrewers and startup brewers begin thinking about the brewing process differently, Josephson, Kleidon, and Tockstein recently released a book on the subject, The Homebrewer’s Almanac.
“I did the writing, and Aaron did the photography,” Josephson says. “We kind of wanted to write by season, so right when we were using an ingredient, when it's really fresh in your mind, just write about it."
Some of their inspiration is of the decidedly more modern variety, too. Nearby Southern Illinois University recently added a Fermentation Science degree—an interdisciplinary program combining chemistry, microbiology, and agriculture. Scratch is forming a symbiotic relationship with the program, providing samples of their house-mixed culture and receiving data back from the school in return. The results should yield important insight into predicting how beers made with the mixed culture will turn out. Which is to say: it will help Scratch—and other breweries—make better, more consistent beers.
Scratch has been slowly increasing production each year. After brewing around 200 BBLs in 2014 and 2015, they reached 240 BBLs in 2016. While that doesn’t seem like much of a change, a difference of 40 BBLs equates to an extra 20-30 turns on their system, which is gamechanging in the world of Scratch. In 2017, Josephson is predicting Scratch will produce 250-300 BBLs, and they likely won’t do much more than that until they get a significantly bigger system. (They currently have no plans for a bigger system.)
For such a small brewery, Josephson and Kleidon have big ambitions for the future. While they’re not looking to necessarily increase production, they would like to push their creativity further and upgrade equipment to make their day-to-day lives a bit easier. They’ve discussed getting a spontaneously fermented beer program started in the near future, for instance.
“We talk about it a lot, actually,” Kleidon says. “We drove out to Denver [for the Great American Beer Festival], so we talked for about 12 hours straight—our annual brewery lock-in meeting.”
Scratch doesn’t need to increase capacity or distribution to attain the kind of success Josephson and Kleidon are striving for. They’re forging their own path by foraging for exciting, experimental ingredients. In doing so, Scratch is carving out their place in the ever-increasingly-crowded U.S. craft beer market. They're making a unique product for which only they have access to the ingredients. They don’t need to chase after market trends like using a popular hop or randomly fruiting an IPA (and they’d choose basil, anyway).
“I think few, if any, brewers achieve the level of authenticity with their beers that Scratch does,” Jester King’s Stuffings says. “I'm extremely impressed with Josephson and Kleidon’s ability to harness the land around them to make beers inextricably tied to a time, place, and people. Their commitment to this philosophy and skill in executing it is second to none.”