Food & Drink

North Carolina brewers turn to foragers, farmers

Persimmons are a key ingredient in Fullsteam’s First Frost.
Persimmons are a key ingredient in Fullsteam’s First Frost. Mary Beth Brandt

To most, 75 pounds of persimmons would seem plenty. But for Sean Lilly Wilson, it was just enough to brew the inaugural batch of Fullsteam Brewery’s First Frost.

Five years later, and the Durham brewery still produces the persimmon-packed winter ale. They recently released this year’s version on draft at the taproom, and plan to release bottles of the beer in November.

The brewery produces much more of the beer now than they did their first year in business, and so naturally they use more persimmons. Right now, the brewery has nearly a ton on hand for the next batch. No, literally: they have 1,500 pounds of persimmons that will be frozen and used next year (the beer is brewed in the late spring so it will be ready around – you guessed it – the time of the first frost).

Where does one get a ton of persimmons?

“We know you can’t go into a Food Lion or even a farmers market and get persimmons or pawpaws or some of these ingredients, but you can crowdsource them,” said Wilson. “We want to do so by paying people market rate and giving them an incentive.”

That’s the motive behind the brewery’s Forager Collective, the group Wilson turns to when he needs large quantities of persimmons or mulberries or figs. He sends out the call to harvest via email and social media to anyone in the community who wants to participate. Wilson also tells foragers how to identify and harvest the fruit in question, and advises against trespassing.

“Everybody respects the boundaries,” he said. “There’s sort of an agreed upon no trespassing, get your neighbor’s permission and all that. A lot of times it’s people who already have persimmons on the property or they know someone who has them.”

Ben Woodward has come to learn some of these unspoken rules of foraging since opening Haw River Farmhouse Ales in Saxapahaw last year. While foraging for trifoliate oranges recently, he ran into Nick Fox, the founder of Durham-based Woodfruit. Fox forages sometimes exotic-sounding mushrooms, fruits and vegetables and sells them to local restaurants and breweries, including Haw River and Fullsteam. It’s not uncommon for several people to know the location of a good patch or field, according to Woodward.

“One of the things I’ve learned this year is that foraging is sort of by nature a competitive thing,” he said. “You’ve got to get to the patch first, but you want it to be sustainable so you don’t want to ravish it.”

This commitment to sustainable foraging inspired Woodward to create the Farmhand Exchange, whereby he encourages people to actually grow the very ingredients they will later harvest. Earlier this year, Woodward distributed seeds for ground cherries and tangerine gem marigolds to 100 people. He got back around 80 pounds of ground cherries that were added into a wine barrel-aged sour golden ale, and about a pound of marigold flowers that went a single cask of a saison. Woodward plans to hand out more seeds this coming spring, and to keep a better dialogue with his growers next year in hopes of yielding even better results.

Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton is no stranger to local ingredients, whether that means foraging themselves or working with nearby farms. They recently put out a call on Facebook, offering to pay $3 a pound for figs and persimmons or to harvest themselves if people would share the location. They also asked that anyone carving pumpkins save the seeds for a toasted pumpkinseed ale. In Carrboro, Steel String Brewery has brewed with foraged honeysuckle as well as dragon fruit (also known as yuzu).

Perhaps the South’s deep agricultural roots play a part in all this, but by no means is the foraging phenomenon bound by the Mason-Dixon line. Through the Beers Made By Walking program, brewers across the nation have used ingredients sourced or inspired by hikes they’ve taken. With more breweries interested in brewing beers with a sense of place, don’t be surprised if they source their next ingredients from your backyard.

Daniel Hartis is the digital manager at All About Beer Magazine in Durham and author of “Beer Lover’s The Carolinas” and “Charlotte Beer: A History of Brewing in the Queen City.” Reach him at cltbeer@gmail.com or on Twitter, @DanielHartis.

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