How one group is blending the age-old crafts of foraging and brewing
Twenty hikers follow Cody Chambers through the 5,000-acre Forest Park near downtown Portland, Oregon. Chambers, the program manager with the Forest Park Conservancy, stops to point out a thimbleberry plant 90 minutes into the 2-hour hike.
It’s too early in the season for the plant’s reddish berries to appear, so Chambers paints a mental picture: “When the fruits come out, they look like a thimble that would fit on your thumb," he says. “Blackberries are tasty, and salmonberries can be tasty, but there’s something about the thimbleberry. They’re tart and sweet at the same time. It’s not an overpowering tartness, it’s pretty mellow.”
He tells the hikers he’s used thimbleberries in cider, to great effect, and directs his next words at one of the hikers. “I’ve never seen it in beer, but I sure would like to.”
The hiker is Trever Bass, head brewer at Hopworks Urban Brewery. “It’s hard to find enough to make a pie with,” Bass says. “It takes a lot of work, and they’re so delicate. They’re best when you find them on the side of the trail.”
To the untrained eye, it might look like a nature walk at adult summer camp. But this is Portland, a.k.a. "Beervana," and a handful of those hikers brew for some of the city’s best-known breweries. Seeking inspiration, they’ve joined a cavalcade of beer enthusiasts for the season’s first Beers Made By Walking hike.
"The process of discovery is just as important as the beer itself.”
Beer enthusiast Eric Steen launched Beers Made By Walking in 2011 as part of a broader homebrew project. Living in Colorado at the time, Steen put together hikes and nature walks, invited local brewers to join, and asked them to dream up beers inspired by their natural surroundings. Along the way, hikers learned about the medicinal and edible characteristics of the plants they encountered. The participating breweries then devised new recipes and released their creations at special end-of-season tapping events, with proceeds benefiting a local nonprofit.
“My hope is that, when people go on the hike, they learn something about the natural world, gain a better appreciation for it, and begin to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” Steen says. “The brewer has been tasked to create a beer inspired by what we find on the trail, so the process of discovery is just as important as the beer itself.”
What started as a fun way to combine two of Steen’s passions—craft beer and the great outdoors—soon blossomed into an annual event that expanded to nearly a dozen cities in five states. Now in its seventh year, Beers Made By Walking hikes and special release events are planned for Portland, Corvallis, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle in 2017. (As details are announced, each city’s hikes and tapping events will be shared on the official Beers Made By Walking website.)
"This sense of place through beer can happen very easily by connecting people to something they learned how to identify on a trail.”
Steen brought Beers Made By Walking to Portland in 2012, and the Rose City has been a program mainstay ever since.
Shortly before the hike sets off in Forest Park, Chambers gives a brief history lesson about the area and its trails. Located entirely within Portland city limits, it’s one of the largest urban parks in the country. Springville Road, where the hike begins, had been used by Native Americans as a route to the nearby Willamette River and by farmers as a trade route in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A century later, Oregon grape, orange honeysuckle and trillium are just some of the plants that grow alongside the dirt path.
Chambers stops the hike a dozen or so times over the next two hours, routinely pausing to discuss a particular plant’s edible and medicinal characteristics.
He points out a salal plant early in the hike, mentioning that its berries should appear later in the season. Bass chimes in and likens its flavor to a cross between blueberries and pine sap. “It’s a really fun berry to play with in beer because the amount you use changes the intensity and whether it comes across as a sweet fruit or more savory.”
Later on, Chambers talks up the Oregon grape’s prickly leaves and bright flowers; its bark can be used as an anti-inflammatory, he says, and the berry’s enzymes can activate stomach bacteria.
Of the licorice fern, Chambers says: “It’s spicy, and it’s a little bitter, like black licorice. I’d love to see it in one of the beers this year.” (In fact, Bass created a beer with licorice fern, wild ginger and maple syrup two years ago.)
They’ll taste their own backyards and even a sense of history.
Bass is one of a handful of Portland brewers tasked with developing a Beers Made By Walking ale in 2017. It’s a natural fit for Bass, who cultivated a love for the outdoors as a child growing up near Joshua Tree National Park. In many ways, Bass’ youth (much of it spent outdoors) prepared him to brew for Hopworks Urban Brewery, which champions environmentally-friendly business practices and uses locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible.
“We talk a lot about a sense of place, being connected to place, and how that’s probably more important than anything for people to get behind,” he says. “This sense of place through beer can happen very easily by connecting people to something they learned how to identify on a trail.”
Hopworks is one of five Portland breweries and one cider maker that will debut nature-inspired beverages at tapping events between June and August, with proceeds benefiting the Forest Park Conservancy. Similar events, each raising money for a different organization, will follow at four other cities throughout the summer and fall.
Whatever Bass comes up with, it will be the latest in a long line of innovative libations. Some of the nearly 200 ales brewed for Beers Made By Walking—a few of which were foraged for and created by Bass himself—have been made with stinging nettles and salmonberry, ginger root, huckleberry, pine needles, sagebrush, elderberries, spruce tips, foraged rose hips and prickly pear cactus fruit.
In sampling the ales, craft beer fans won’t just taste unusual ingredients; they’ll taste their own backyards and even a sense of history.
“It truly feels innovative in the accurate, honest sense of that word,” Bass says. “A lot of this stuff hasn’t been done in 250 or 500 years. The body of knowledge we used to have about the things that grow in the forest—the forest was our medicine kit, the forest was our spice kit, it was our herb kit for cooking—we’ve lost that. It’s sort of like going back to very early man, where we had to figure some of that stuff out, and it feels a little bit like being on the edge of the frontier.”