As a teenager, Aaron Kleidon earned money in the summer foraging in the woods near his Southern Illinois home for ginseng and goldenseal and then selling it to a local figure known as the Root Buyer. The Root Buyer, in turn, sold what Kleidon had found directly to families overseas.
“I was out in the woods all the time,” Kleidon says. “I saw all these plants many, many times and then started carrying guidebooks with me.”
Kleidon doesn’t know what happened to the Root Buyer, but he still forages in the woods around Ava, an Illinois town of some 650 residents a half-hour’s drive northwest of Carbondale. These days, though, Kleidon doesn’t sell the herbs and other edibles he finds.
He brews beer with them.
Kleidon and partners Marika Josephson and Ryan Tockstein opened Scratch Brewing Co. in March 2013. It’s a unique craft brewery – unique for the region and also unique, period – for many reasons, not least because here you might drink an India pale ale with fresh hickory leaves, a saison with chanterelles or a Baltic porter with maple sap.
This summer, the trio brewed a beer with 105 different herbs. Kleidon says this number was inspired partly by liqueurs such as chartreuse, which features 130 botanicals, and partly by the spirit of experimentation. They’d brewed with each herb before, so they knew which ones would contribute to flavor, which to aroma and which to bittering the hops, but never all of them together.
“To me,” Kleidon says of the finished result, “it tastes like what the forest is.”
From the Forest Floor
Scratch Brewing Co. looks less like a craft brewery and more like something you’d find in The Hobbit. The single, small building stands in a clearing in the woods a few miles outside of Ava proper. Even with GPS, a city slicker like yours truly is likely to miss one of the turns onto the back roads that lead you there.
A gentle hill takes you down past the chicken coop and alongside the garden – heirloom tomatoes (more than 20 varieties) and heirloom apples, garlic, carrots, pears and, in their fourth season and already towering over everything else, four different varieties of hops – across the rustic patio into the tasting room. Dried herbs hang in bunches above the communal tables. Mason jars filled with foraged ingredients line the shelves behind the bar. Covering one wall is an illustration of the Piasa Bird, a dragon-like creature of Native American mythology said to haunt the Mississippi River bluffs.
(“Supposedly there was one down on a cliff near here,” Josephson says. “We just thought it was a cool monster and legend.”)
Behind the tasting room is a narrow room – bigger than a walk-in closet, but not much bigger – that houses the actual brewing apparatus as well as a prep area for the tasting room’s limited food menu. A side door brings you back outside to the wood-burning oven, modeled after a traditional European hearth.
Josephson, Kleidon and Tockstein built almost all of it themselves from scratch, hence the brewery’s name. (They brought in outside help to pour the concrete and do some sheet-metal work; Kleidon’s father, whose background is in construction, helped with the especially technical details.) The environs are such an essential part of Scratch’s identity that I’m shocked to learn that this wasn’t their first choice of location.
“There were a couple other places we really liked, and for one reason or another, they fell through,” Josephson says. She mentions a 19th-century brick building in Cobden, Illinois, and another spot outside Murphysboro, Illinois.
“It was probably a year’s process of finding the place we were going to settle into,” she says. “Ultimately I’m glad those [other] things fell through because this is so right for the kind of beer we’re making.”
Josephson, a San Diego native who holds a doctorate in philosophy, was working as an editor in New York City when she decided to move to the area in 2009 because her boyfriend was pursuing a doctorate at Southern Illinois University.
“Coming from New York, I’m used to getting whatever I wanted,” she says. “I moved out here; at that time there was nothing – even the retail store had an absolutely minimal selection of craft beer.”
In search of beers like what she’d enjoyed drinking in San Diego and New York, Josephson took up home brewing. Meanwhile, craft beer finally started to creep into area stores. One spot in particular became the hangout for aficionados and home brewers, which is where she met Kleidon and Tockstein.
“I actually started out not liking beer at all,” Tockstein admits. “I grew up in Centralia, and just now it’s starting to get to where liquor stores are getting craft beer. Back when I had my first beer, I didn’t think there was anything outside the realm of A-B or MillerCoors. I absolutely hated it.”
Tockstein discovered the world of beer beyond fizzy yellow lagers when he worked at a grocery store in college. The variety of different beer styles on sale amazed him. He took the plunge with a 12-pack of George Killian’s Irish Red – he wanted the free mug packaged with it – and actually liked the beer.
“So then I started to try all the different kinds there,” he says. “Then I found out it was legal to make it at home. I was going to school for physics and was always interested in science. So naturally I just wanted to start making my own.”
Kleidon also traces his passion for beer back to college. While spending eight months abroad in Salzburg, Austria, he explored the different styles of German beer and then further broadened his palate while traveling through Europe. When he started home brewing, his background foraging and spending time in the woods was an unavoidable influence.
“For me, it was more interesting to brew with that stuff,” he says, “so when I started [brewing], I always did.”
Still, what you might call the Scratch Brewing ethos wasn’t fixed from the beginning. It evolved as the trio started brewing and working together.
“We learned how to brew all the traditional styles first,” Kleidon says. “Once we got to where we could brew a good base beer, we started bittering with different herbs.”
As Josephson home brewed her way through as many different styles as she could, she says: “I was also getting more into sustainable farming and eating local foods from local farmers. That started to permeate my brewing ethos.”
She adds: “I think that’s one of the most fun things about any kind of drink, whether it’s beer or wine or other spirits. You can taste the terroir in it.”
Before Tockstein met Josephson and Kleidon, he was more interested in brewing beers that hewed closer to classic styles.
“I was pretty interested in making a beer that was sourced from ingredients that we could get here in Southern Illinois,” he says, “but that’s about as far as my interest in foraging and all that stuff went.”
The trio’s early experiments didn’t exactly convert Tockstein, either.
“Initially, I was kind of opposed to the idea of using all this crazy stuff in the beer,” he says. “Back when we just started out, a lot of the beer wasn’t good. We needed to be able to make beer that was good, period.
“But as time went on, I learned more and more about it from both of them and from doing research. It’s amazing what all there is out in the woods to use that most people don’t even know exists. You can find a use for just about everything.”
Scratch Brewing is inherently a work in progress, its beers reliant on a forager’s eye and the whim of the seasons – or even the weather in a given week. This summer, for example, a sudden spell of heat caused the carrots on a nearby organic farm to bolt. Although the carrots were now tough, the trio took them and extracted their flavor to use in a beer.
Still, the brewery’s food program is expanding. The first major step in this process was the completion in March of the wood-fired oven in which the trio bakes pizzas and sourdough bread.
“I’ve got a pretty deep passion for pizza,” Tockstein says, “so I really enjoy doing that and trying to figure out new pizzas to do. That’s pretty much the same as beer – you have a limitless number of things you can do.”
The trio is proceeding slowly, though.
“It would be hard to do much more food than we’re already doing without jumping into something a lot bigger,” Josephson explains. “And none of us has restaurant experience. We’re figuring it out as we go along.
“But I really want us to be doing more of the food stuff. I’m proud of the fact that 90 percent of our menu comes from local farms and farmers, and our pizza is all stuff from our garden or local farms. I really want to be able to do some fun dinners where we’re sourcing stuff locally.”
Although the food menu is limited and the beers aren’t typical, the team has been impressed by the range of customers who visit the tasting room. There are locals, of course, and graduate students and faculty from Carbondale. Curious beer geeks make the not-quite two-hour drive from St. Louis and even the much longer trip from Chicago.
Because the trio were already brewing together well before the brewery opened to the public, they were able to build hype by participating in beer festivals in the region, and they’ve received national press in publications such as Draft Magazine, Outside and The Salt, NPR’s food blog.
And then there are the merely curious.
“There was a couple that came by maybe four months after we opened,” Josephson says. “They’d heard that there was a brewery here. They didn’t know anything about it. They walked in and said, ‘We’re Bud Light drinkers.’”
The couple decided to sample a blond beer – about as close to Bud Light as you’ll ever get at Scratch Brewing – and a stout that was not only sour but also a gruit, brewed without hops.
Josephson smiles as she remembers the scene. “They went for a goblet of the sour gruit stout.”
Ian Froeb is the restaurant critic and beer writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has twice been a finalist for the Association of Food Journalists’ “Best Restaurant Criticism” award, and his work has appeared in the Best Food Writing anthology. He lives with his wife and daughter in St. Louis’ Shaw neighborhood.
Scratch Brewing Company, 264 Thompson Rd., Ava, Illinois, 618.426.1415, scratchbeer.com