describes itself as being "Chicago's first botanic brewery". I interpret this to mean that they're taxonomic dilettantes who have casually tinkered with hop's status in the plant kingdom without informing any devotees of Linnaeus such as practicing botanists. Oh, and they consider any remaining plant life fair game for flavoring their brews.
There must be something in the water in Illinois because Scratch Brewing Company
at the other end of the state takes a very similar approach. Like Forbidden root, Scratch does use some hops but, from what I can tell, mostly flavors its brews with other ingredients foraged or grown locally.
Forbidden Root was founded by Robert Finkel, a refugee from the world of venture capital. B.J. Pichman is brewmaster and operations manager. Brewer, author, and brewing consultant Randy Mosher is a partner in the venture financially and creatively. I take it that he helps formulate the beers as well as designs the labels, packaging, etc.
The team takes inspiration from history – those days of yore when brewers did not have sacks of Citra hop pellets dropped off on their doorsteps by the postperson. Tellingly, neither "grut" nor "gruit" appear on the brewery's webpage. "Botanic" has more cachet these days. Or the former words have medieval European connotations, perhaps. But even when hops are used, Forbidden Roots' beers still contain generous amounts of alternative botanicals.
I recently purchased a four-pack of Shady Character
, a porter laced with licorice, black walnuts, roasted chestnuts, star anise, and tellicherry pepper.
It pours a very deep brown which appears black in the glass. While I was pouring I noticed that the beer looked a bit muddy – like there was sediment in it. Not a problem and understandable considering the beer was flavored with the fruit of the forest floor. I got about ½" of tan head that was neither in a hurry to dissipate nor desperately keen to stick around. I couldn't see inside the glass so I'm not sure if there were bubbles shooting up or not.
The first thing I thought of after taking a whiff was Chinese plum wafers. These are about the size of a quarter and slightly thinner and I ate many as a kid. Check out your local Chinese/Asian grocery store. The typical deeply roasted grain porter smell came next followed by more botanicals – licorice and nuttiness, though I couldn't tell you if it was the black walnut or the chestnuts or both.
The black malts came through well in the taste as primarily coffee but also some bitter chocolate. I could taste the licorice as well as that Chinese plum wafer. I am curious as to what gave that flavor and aroma. Despite the fruity taste, this isn't a very sweet beer. There is some sweetness, presumably from the dark caramel malts, but it is balanced by a fair amount of bitterness. Forbidden Roots says Shady Character has 33 I.B.U.s but lists no hops which comports with my tastebuds who thought that the bitterness was from the black malts. Rounding things out was some nuttiness in the background of unknown origin.
The beer finished with that plum wafer flavor and the malty sweetness took their leave while the black malt bitterness and the licorice/star anise lingered. There wasn't much in the way of lacing as most of the foam slid down into the beer leaving only a few random spots.
If this is "botanical brewing" then I say bring it on. I have reviewed a few gruits here and I've come to really enjoy them, especially those that use flowers. Shady Character, on the other hand, makes a good case for the forest floor as source of flavorings for beer instead of verdant fields. There are few sharp flavors here and instead we have earthier, more rounded ones. I like how the nutty flavors meld with the darker malts as the licorice and star anise provide a brighter flavor to give contrast as hops would. Shady Character is 6.7% A.B.V. and has a medium body which make for a hearty bulwark against the cold. On the other hand, it's not that big of a beer and it's unique, rich flavor isn't cloying. Thusly it makes for a nice of change of pace from the season's sweeter bocks and boozy imperials stouts.
Junk food pairing: Shady Character has a lot of flavor on its own so pair it with something complementary and unobtrusive. Try some pumpernickel pretzels if you crave the savory. If you have a sweet tooth go with some dark chocolate covered pretzels.
Labels: Beer, Forbidden Root, Gruit, Porter