Northwest Beer
7:26 am
Thu June 19, 2014

Tasting Old Growth Forest In Your Beer

Some Portland brewers have a challenge for you. Can you taste the forest in their beer? Is it an old growth forest or one that's been logged? They’ve been collecting wild yeast from both types of forest and using it to ferment some beer. EarthFix reporter Cassandra Profita joined a recent hiking group that tasted the results.

Matt Wagoner points to a standing dead tree on a recent hike.
Matt Wagoner points to a standing dead tree on a recent hike.
Credit Cassandra Profita / Earthfix

Wagoner: "Alright, let's stop right here."

Matt Wagoner of the Forest Park Conservancy, is leading a hike through a little known parcel of old growth forest. It's about 20 minutes from downtown Portland.

Wagoner: "Take a break. Drink some water."

To get there, the group has to hike through a stretch of forest that was logged about two decades ago.

Wagoner: "So as you can see, the forest we've been walking through is pretty small. On the ridge of this hill over there, you can see where the trees start to get a lot taller. That's were we're going. That's the old growth preserve."

On the way to the old growth, Wagoner points out plants like wild ginger, salmonberry, and vanilla leaf that brewers can use to add unique flavors to their beer. As soon as he crosses into the old growth forest, he stops and gathers the group together.

Wagoner: "Let's squeeze in as much as we can.

Wagoner pulls a beer out of his backpack and hands it to brewer Dan Hynes. Then steps up on a fallen log. It's covered in moss and sprouting plants.

Wagoner: "So, what I'm standing on here is known as a nurse log. If you just look at it and observe the vegetation that's growing out of it, this is one of the main characteristics of an old growth forest."

Harvesting wild yeast.
Harvesting wild yeast.
Credit Beers Made by Walking

It's also one of the spots Wagoner and Hynes picked to collect another beer ingredient. Wild yeast.

Wagoner: "We all have cups?"

Hynes hands each hiker a tiny red plastic cup. Then he fills them one by one with beer he made using yeast collected from this very spot. Wagoner explains how he and Hynes went out into the forest in February and put a bucket of unfermented beer – basically sugar water – right alongside this nurse log.

Wagoner: "All the microbes in the air were falling into this bucket as it was out here and this is the beer that it produced."

Invisible yeast from the forest ate the sugars in the bucket and turned them into alcohol. And they infused the water with their own flavor in the process.

You can see a lot of the differences between an old growth forest and one that's been logged. But Hynes says he wants to know whether that carries over into the yeast that you can't see.

Hynes: "Our normal yeast we use is more like a cow. It's been bred over periods of time. It has personality traits. You can kind of know about it."

In addition to being a building block of beer, yeast is also a fungus. And Hynes says since old growth forests have more species diversity, they might also have a wider variety of yeast. The green, puckery taste of this beer, he says, tells him that the yeast he collected here is wild. Not like the reproduced yeast brewers use over and over to make traditional lagers and ales. Hynes says you can think of wild yeast the way you might think of wild game.

Hynes: "It's like elk or venison or bison."

Beer writer Lucy Burningham is one of the beer connoisseurs on the hike. She says the beers made from the forest yeast are sour, for sure.

Burningham: But I think what's unique is the place that we're standing and the sounds I'm hearing as I'm tasting these beers. This is a unique experience for me.

She says the flavors of the forest aren't what she was expecting. It's not like she could literally taste the cedar trees.

Burningham: "I think it's definitely changed the way I'm thinking about the forest. There's all these invisible things that are part of the forest that have now shown up in the beer."

Hike organizer Eric Steen says that's the reaction he was hoping for. He's led brewers on outdoor hikes in Oregon, Washington and Colorado to look for local brewing ingredients.

Steen says it's not that the resulting beer is that much better than other beers. It's how the beer allows people learn about the local environment.

Steen: "I like the idea of thinking of these beers potentially as artwork. As drinkable sculptures. As drinkable portraits. It's another way to interpret the landscape, to interpret the trail."

Steen has several more brew-based hikes planned for Forest Park this summer. The resulting beers – including the old growth forest beer and a logged forest beer made by Hynes – will be on tap at a tasting event in October.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix.