Fitzhugh Road brewery uses wild edibles to make beers that taste like the Hill Country
(Update: An earlier version of this story said the brewery was open with a food truck. It has a full service restaurant.)
Wild, edible plants are all around us.
Some people study them for their medicine. Others learn what’s edible and what’s not as part of outdoor survival training. Trevor Nearburg knows plants because he wants to brew beer with them.
Nearburg, the former Uncle Billy’s head brewer who now runs Beerburg Brewing off Fitzhugh Road, can identify most of the plants outside his 18-month-old brewery because he’s been brewing experimental beers with many of them.
Those beers include a golden ale whose IBUs, or International Bitterness Units, come from horehound, a wild-foraged member of the mint family, and the extra special bitter, or ESB, made with mugwort, a plant that has been used for medicinal purposes for longer than we have a written record.
Nearburg, along with head brewer Gino Guerrero, another Uncle Billy’s alum, both love plants and permaculture, so they knew that they wanted to bring their love of wild foods to Beerburg when it opened. They just didn’t know exactly how.
“We’d talked about doing this for a long time,” Guerrero says, “but when it came time to brew, we had no idea what to do.”
They looked up recipes in several wild brewing books to get a basic idea of how to start, but they quickly realized that they would be writing their own formulas, which would vary greatly depending on the quality and quantity of the plants they were harvesting.
For instance, last August,Nearburg harvested 150 pounds of prickly pear, which eventually went into 5 barrels of what they called Prickly Pear Milkshake IPA. The first batch didn’t have a very strong prickly pear flavor, so Guerrero more than doubled the quantity to get a richly colored IPA with a strong sense of Hill Country terroir.
Guerrero says he was most impressed with the Mustang Grape Vine Porter, a robust beer made with toasted mustang grape vines and leaves that quickly sold out.
Another bestseller is the Ashe Juniper Pale Ale, an amber ale with hints of juniper and pine that Nearburg sells in bottles at the brewery. (Last fall, Nearburg sold beer kits and virtual home brewing classes so customers could make the beer at home.)
In early May, Nearburg gave a tour of the brewery, pointing out all the edible and useful plants growing around the 15-acre property, which is on the Hays/Travis county line southwest of Austin.
He pinches off a leaf from a white flower-topped plant called horehound, which is used to make strongly flavored candies in Europe. Nearburg is using them in place of hops for a popular golden ale that’s on tap at the brewery.
“These are the historic brewing ingredients,” Nearburg says. Before beer became commercialized, brewers around the world would use whatever ingredients grew near them to brew beer, which was safer to drink than water at the time. It would have been common for them to use something like mugwort or verbena to add flavor and medicinal value, he says.
Guerrero points out that the German purity law, instated in the early 1500s and still in effect today, outlawed anything except hops, barley and water in beer, and throughout Europe, the use of common plants in beer brewing became illegal.
In America, brewers made these European-style beers until Prohibition, which started in 1920 and ended in 1933. After Prohibition, the beer industry picked back up and, once the craft beer industry emerged, expanded the kinds of ingredients used, such as malt and rye.
But the ban on homebrewing, where so much of this foraged-plant beermaking would have taken place, was not lifted until 1978. In the years since, home brewers have been finding new ways to use foraged plants, what some might even call weeds, in their small-batch beers.
Dandelion beer hasn’t been on the Beerburg menu yet, but that’s only because there aren’t that many dandelions on property that Nearburg forages on.
Nearburg’s family has about 100 acres near Abilene, which is where he does most of his foraging, but he’s always keeping a close eye out for agarita, prickly pear, stinging nettle, ground cherries, green briar, mullen, yarrow and mustang grapes, all of which can be used in brewing.
As he meets customers, some of them have invited him to their properties or connected him with landowners who are happy to have him come on the property to forage.
Nearburg spent the first spring at Beerburg adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic, but now that the brewery is open with a full service restaurant called Taqueria la Violeta and large outdoor seating area, he is spending even more time concocting beers for Beerburg’s Wildcraft program and a new apothecary line with tinctures, soaps and teas.
Beerburg has already released about half a dozen beers that use some kind of wild foraged ingredients, and Nearburg will be rolling out new beers as they are ready over coming months. Nearburg has even found a use for plants like pricklyash, a shrub that has a tongue-tickling berry. He plans to use that instead of lemon in an upcoming Belgian horehound ale.
Rather than sell the beers in grocery stores, Beerburg’s focus is bringing people to the property so they can experience the beers where they are made (or buy them at the brewery to take home).
He wants to host foraging classes at the property and expand his online video series called Beerburg Brewtube. Nearburg also created an app that uses the label as an augmented reality classroom, with information about the ingredients and flavor profiles as well as links to his videos.
The beers change a lot, even from day to day, Nearburg says, just like the plants all around us.
By sticking to small batch brewing, he can use the beers to learn more about what the plants around him are capable of.
“I could talk about plants all day,” Nearburg says.