For an Ancient Beer With a Locavore Ethic, Add a Boar’s Skull
Gruits in New Hampshire
Animated by a deft hand, something as simple as a sip of beer can be rendered transportive, spiriting the senses to some faraway terroir. Say, a thatch-roof hut in mediaeval Scotland, adrift in knolls of chicory and elderflower. Or a Belgian abbey a levy away from seizure, long ago forced to alchemize drinkable whatever sprouts through the cracks.
Welcome to the wondrously weird world of gruits: shorthand for ancient libations that highlight herbs, flowers, and other botanicals in place of hops, and the steadfast focus of Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Earth Eagle Brewings. I shared a round with cofounders Butch Heilshorn and Alex McDonald on a recent rain-logged Thursday. Snugged at a corner table, the taproom’s mix of Southwest verve and taxidermist kitch alive as antique yeast, the two’s assurance—in what they do and how, yes, but the why and where as well—seems as matter-of-fact as the brewhouse blotches on their jeans.
Launched in 2012, this two-barrel, garage-convert curio quickly emerged as one of the most evangelized nanobreweries, coupling a mastery of well-worn styles (IPAs, reds, and stouts routinely chalk the board) with a gamut of gruits built chiefly around the region’s seasonal flora. Here and now, that means poplar buds, birch branches, dandelions, and whatever other wares Jenna Darcy, Earth Eagle’s dedicated forager, can coax from the land.
But while the locavore ethic certainly informs the brewery’s grand designs, it’s tapping into beer’s hidden past that has long been a creative flashpoint.
“I think the history is part of what we are and who we are,” McDonald says. “The energy we put into our work—that comes across in the beer.”
Ditto the catnip, wormwood, mushrooms, boar’s head (the severed skull, not the deli meat), and myriad other fodder common to the Earth Eagle bill of fare. Beneath the avant-garde whimsy, however, lies a measures more utilitarian consideration: unlike hops, which can accentuate beer’s more depressive elements, many of the ingredients marshaled by McDonald and Heilshorn boast what the latter calls “tonic, adaptogenic qualities.” Stimulants, in short, for all things limbic—libido included.
What emerges is a guiding ethos at once arcana-steeped and unabashedly rogue, indebted to time-dusted texts without sermonizing. McDonald and Heilshorn are happy to sing praises to the past … until you tell them they have to.
“There’s some very regimented thinking on the part of a lot of people,” says Heilshorn. “You gotta do this, and you can’t do that. You know what? It’s all bullshit. There are all sorts of little things you can tweak and pull, and I love that. That’s why I’m a brewer. There’s a rush with the risk.”
Whether it’s skipping straight from mash tun to fermentation, bypassing the boil completely (“People drank the shit out of it,” Helshorn exclaims), blasphemously exposing product to sunlight by asphalt-baking it in glass for summers on end, producing a Medeira-esque Frankenbrew (a second-hand account, but no less batshit): Such gambits, anecdotal as they are, speak to the sense of unimpeachable playfulness Earth Eagle has worked hard to hone.
Art without science risks self-indulgence. Science without art: heartlessness and drear. Three cheers, then, for places where where risk is its own reward and even the ancient tastes refreshing and new.