Beers Made By Walking: Interview with Eric Steen



A recent trend in craft beer is brewing with unusual ingredients. At the National Homebrewers Conference earlier this summer, I attended a lecture devoted to the topic. Led by Dick Cantwell, founder of Elysian Brewing, we learned that inspiration for ingredients can be found anywhere.

Can inspiration be found during a stroll through the woods? Eric Steen thinks so. He uses nature hikes to inspire brewers to learn about and incorporate nature into beer. Eric a former Portlander, now residing in Colorado Springs, writes the  Focus on the Beer blog. I was intrigued by Eric's "Beers Made By Walking" program and contacted him to learn more.



Why did you start Beers Made By Walking?  How did you get the idea?


Eric Steen: The initial inspiration for BMBW came during a week-long canoe trip down the Yukon River in Canada. There, I was introduced to the Norwegian term ‘friluftsliv,’ which is translated as ‘Free Air Living.’Theterm describes a way of living in which people make a habit of being outdoors on a regular basis. There are Friluftsliv conferences that host ‘walking lectures’ where attendees hike for a few days on end, stopping every now and again for a lecture and food.

The program's concept developed further during a trip to Scotland, when I built a pop-up pub that served homebrewed beer to the public.While there, I visited Williams Bros. Brewing in Alloa and was inspired by their line-up of historic Scottish beers that used ingredients from the landscape -like heather flower, gale, Scottish pine, and seaweed. Another inspiration came from British artists, like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who use walking as a means of understanding our relationship to the world. Beers Made By Walking, in some respects, is a mashing together of those pieces.


Palmer Lake, near Colorado Springs, CO -  Photo by Daniel Flanders
Step 1 of Beers Made by Walking is "Go Hiking." What happens on the hikes?

ES:  Each hike has been completely different. For the hikes in Colorado Springs, I always try to have a big public crowd that comes along. The hikes generally last from 2-5 hours and a botanist or naturalist tells us about the plants we are seeing along the way. A couple of the Oregon brewers also had public hikes but some were private. So, it's always a bit different and I only get to go on a few of them each year.


Step 2 is "Learn." Is the focus on edible plants? What is the most surprising or interesting thing you've learned from your hikes? 
ES:  When I first started doing this, I had very little knowledge about the plants that surround us. The most surprising thing is that now I have what I believe is a reasonable base of knowledge and was able to help lead a hike this summer. I want to learn more and more though I'm not anywhere where I'd like to be. One plant that stands out to me that I see a lot on these Colorado hikes is three leaf sumac which is related to both poison sumac and mango. It produces a lovely hairy red fruit that taste like lemon. A few brewers have used it in the past and I think it's wonderful.


Step 3 is “Make Beer.” As a homebrewer, I’m interested in the technical aspects of this step. Do ingredients tend to be added in the boil as substitutes for hops?

ES: Actually, the ingredients have been used in every step of the way. Perhaps they tend to get put at the end of the boil more than others but brewers have used Juniper, sunflower, and grains in the mash. Chokecherry and other berries are often added during or after fermentation and then the more aromatic plants are often used at the end of the boil. I've had some people really go all out adding wild yarrow or wild sage to the beginning of the boil. It's always fun to see what the brewers try.


Red Huckleberry, Forest Park, Portland - Photo by Eric Steen
Step 4 is “Drink Beer.”  How many events have you held?  What were some of the more interesting and surprising flavor combinations?

ES: The Oregon BMBW will be the 5th one, although I put on lots of other types of beer events too. I've done a couple in Colorado Springs,just finished up one in Denver during GABF and I also did a small in Washington over the summer. It's hard to pick an overall favorite beer out of these but some that stand out include a 4% sour mash chokecherry kreik with 100% lacto, arose hip and sumac saison, a juniper and pineapple weed belgian dark ale, and a prickly pear cactus golden ale. Other ingredients that I'd really like to see more exploration are stinging nettles (which have been used but I think they should be used more), sorrel, dandelion, oyster plant, and other plants that we consider "weeds."


How have brewers and beer drinkers responded to BMBW?

ES: Most brewers seem pretty enthusiastic about the idea.Lots of breweries are currently undergoing expansion and said they would give this a try when they were finished up. 


What’s next for BMBW? Do you have any specific goals or plans?

ES: I've been thinking a lot about this and have begun meeting with a few people for advice. I have lots of ideas but not sure which to act on. I like putting on these special tappings and mini-festivals, I don't think I'd want to do a full-blown festival because I like that people would get to spend a more concentrated amount of time contemplating the beers and ingredients. I do plan to increase the amount of brewers that participate in Oregon, and I have hopes of expanding the program into more states every year.

Grizzly Peak Trail, Medford OR -- Photos by George Rubaloff


I visited Colorado Springs last year, and enjoyed the local beer at Trinity Brewing. How does beer culture in Colorado compare to Oregon?

ES: In Portland I didn't have to drive anywhere for beer, I could go where I wanted and walk home. That's impossible here, things are spread out and people love to drive. That's one thing I certainly miss. Other than that, Colorado has plenty of great breweries that make amazing beer. I'm lucky to have Trinity Brewing in my own town, I love having Crooked Stave, Avery, and New Belgium in this state. There seems to be a similar amount of craft beer drinkers that are educated and thirsty. There's new breweries popping up every time I turn around, it's impossible to keep track of now and I hope that soon I'll be able to easily walk to any number of great breweries.One thing Colorado has down that I'm not sure Oregon does is this heavy emphasis on canned beers, which really are a nice addition to any camping, hiking, or ski trip. They're light weight and they condense down when you're done with them.


Lastly, you find yourself sitting next to some guywho’s enjoying a macro lager. You can choose any two beers in the world to give him. What would they be?

ES: Mirror Pond Pale Ale would be the first because that's the beer that changed me and I still think it's fantastic. The next would be a Colorado Native from AC Golden. This is a Coors product but AC Golden is a killer brewery located upstairs from the big boys. The Colorado Native is 100%Colorado ingredients and is a crisp and refreshing lager with plenty of flavor.


A big thanks to Eric for taking the time to chat! He has a unique idea and I can't wait to see how it grows. Do you want to taste some Beers Made by Walking? If so, you're in luck!  Eric will be holding a BMBW event on Saturday, October 20 at Belmont Station in Portland.You'll have the chance to taste five beers inspired by nature hikes in Oregon:

Coalition Brewing - Ale with Stinging Nettles and Salmonberry
Deschutes Brewery - IPA with Juniper and Sage
Flat Tail Brewing - Fresh Hop Cherry Saison with Corvallis Cherries and Yarrow
Standing Stone Brewery - Ale with Sweet Root, and Wild Ginger
Upright Brewing -  Saison with Yarrow and Rose

100% of the proceeds from this event will be donated to Northwest Trail Alliance.  To learn more, check out the Beers Made By Walking website, Facebook page, or follow along on Twitter.


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