I’ll admit, it was the name that first caught my eye- Dirt Candy. Two words, so much possibility. What kept me reading and looking for more was the description: a beer made with Turkey Tail mushrooms and lactic acid fermented Oyster mushrooms.
I have only had one other beer with mushrooms in it: Jester King’s Snorkel, also made with Oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms added a subtle, but distinctive flavor in that beer.
The Good Wolf’s take on a mushroom beer sounded like a whole new experience, and I was curious to learn more about what their approach was. I was also curious how you go about designing a beer to showcase such a delicate flavor.
Neil Moroney runs the Forest Beer program at The Good Wolf, and he agreed to fill me in. And tell me what a “forest beer” is.
Hop: Can you give me a little background on you?
Neil: I homebrewed for years before ever getting into the industry. I shifted careers from being a cook and Sous Chef in restaurants around my hometown as well as scenic destinations like Yosemite National Park and Olympic National Park. Beer and food have always been one in the same for me. Pairing flavors and exercising techniques to create something special is infinitely fun for me. I enjoy witnessing the ingredients transform over time, especially through the process of fermentation.
I worked as beertender at a local brewery for a short time before I was given the opportunity to join the Good Wolf team as head of the Forest Beer Program.
Hop: Can you give a little background on the Good Wolf and Matt & Heidi?
Neil: Matt and Heidi are both Northern California natives, and following the Camp Fire in late-2018, decided to return back to the state to be closer to home.
Matt has spent time brewing and working for renowned breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company, and Oskar Blues Brewing. A hops aficionado who regularly forages for fresh ingredients, Matt says he enjoys “exploring and experimenting with unique hop varietals and creative beers that push the boundaries of the brewing tradition”; a passion that comes through in The Good Wolf’s beers.
Hop: What size is the brewhouse?
Neil: We brew on a copper clad Bavarian style 10bbl brewhouse.
Hop: Can you tell me a little about the area of California you’re in?
Neil: We’re located in the heart of the Tahoe National Forest in Truckee California, just minutes away from Lake Tahoe.
Hop: What’s a forest beer?
Neil: Forest beer captures the terroir of the Tahoe National Forest by utilizing foraged ingredients, locally produced craft malts, and flavors inspired by the forest. As aroma and flavor are the senses most closely connected to memory, we use forest-inspired flavors and ingredients as a medium to express the beauty of the Tahoe forest. A variation on the Farmhouse brewing tradition, forest beer represents our unique time and place in one of the most beautiful regions in the world.
Hop: It seems like being close to the Tahoe forest has had a huge impact on the beers at The Good Wolf. Was the sensibility there before the brewery started or did the setting influence the beers?
Neil: Originally there was no intention of creating forest beers, but like a lot of the best things in life, it happened by chance. One afternoon before the brewery was open, we went on a hike and came upon a meadow of yarrow flowers in full bloom. The smell was like toasted almonds and chamomile and we immediately knew that we had to figure out how to capture this experience in a glass.
Hop: Did you ever figure out and release the yarrow flower beer?
Neil: We did! Diving Bell, our honey lager with yarrow, was released in October of last year and we were really happy with the results. Our aim was to create a floral, spritzy, champagne-like beer, so a lot of the prototyping revolved around the yarrow in regards to the flavor/aroma intensity. Using botanicals can be tricky because many will pass flavor thresholds with very little quantity added. So much of our time with Forest Beer is spent figuring out just how much of certain (and often atypical) ingredients are the perfect amount. We also take into consideration how fermentation changes flavors. In some ways it's like garlic- when you add it fresh and cook it minimally, it takes on a brighter and sharper flavor than its sweet, slow roasted counterpart. This was something that we considered with the yarrow addition in Diving Bell because we really wanted to maintain the freshness and brightness of the flower. We also found that pushing the carbonation a little higher than typical for this style really made the delicate flavors pop. In the end, Diving Bell was a beer that we were super proud of.
Hop: When developing a new beer recipe, do you have a process that you like to go through?
Neil: Our forest beers start with a forest ingredient or experience. We take a culinary approach to recipe design, working from the drinking experience back to the recipe, avoiding style conventions as we feel they unnecessarily restrict the creative process. We try to envision the finished beer and its different elements such as mouthfeel, appearance, and aroma, while showcasing the target flavor profile. Typically, there is a fair amount of prototyping due to the use of non-traditional ingredients. While the genesis of each forest beer experimentation, it’s very important for us that the finished product be sessionable and not just an interesting concept. Once we have a prototype that we like, we scale it up, forage/ source ingredients and brew.
Hop: When you brew the prototype batches for development, I’m assuming that you brew on a smaller scale. Do you break out the homebrew equipment or do you have a pilot system as well?
Neil: It's definitely a multi directional approach; research, homebrewing, hot and cold steep experiments, and blending, are the primary tools that we use.
Hop: Tell me about brewing with mushrooms – I’ve only seen a handful of commercial attempts (and no homebrew ones). Seems like a bit of a crazy ingredient. Do you forage any of the mushrooms?
Neil: While it was tempting to lean on the funkiness of a Saison style, we were more interested in exploring the umami flavor aspects of the ingredient...something clean and meaty and less explored in the craft beer world. From a culinary point of view, mushrooms add a certain savoriness and depth to beer, which is an element we really enjoy. For our mushroom beer, Dirt Candy, we forage areas of the Tahoe forest for Turkey Tail mushrooms in addition to working with a local farmer who provides us with fresh Oyster mushrooms. The Turkey Tails are minimally processed before we add them to the boil, but the Oysters are lacto fermented before being added. During the oyster mushroom’s lacto fermentation, the mushrooms are soaked in a low percentage brine as the cell structure breaks down. The Lactobacillus bacteria transforms the mixture into an extremely flavorful and intense ingredient. Salty, sour, and with an exaggerated mushroom flavor, we sparingly dose the wort with this mixture towards the end of the boil. In some ways it's like mushroom bullion.
With this beer, our intention is to create a unique drinking experience that showcases an amazing forest ingredient; something that is both interesting and highly drinkable.
Mushrooms are a beautiful ingredient to incorporate into a beer recipe, but with a vast variety in species, it's important to know what you’re using beforehand. We forage with an experienced local mycologist and take into consideration other elements such as color, flavor, and availability. My recommendation for homebrewers who want to work with mushrooms would be to start with a variety that they’re already familiar with and enjoy eating. I believe all culinary mushrooms can be a great ingredient in beer if prepared the right way and used with the right malts, yeast, etc. When designing a forest beer, we are always thinking about how the peripheral ingredients can complement the ingredient we want to showcase.
Hop: What are the considerations with hops and brewing with mushrooms? I’m assuming that you’d need to be careful not to overwhelm the delicate flavors, so we’re unlikely to see a Shiitake IPA, for example.
Neil: Pairing hops with mushrooms is definitely an unexplored sector of brewing, but sounds like a fun project! A noble hop profile with herbal and woody notes could really compliment the mushroom’s earthiness...
Hop: How many beers have been in the Forest Beer program so far?
Neil: We've released 5 forest beers so far with two more fermenting, and a full calendar for the Spring.
Hop: How has the brewery come through the closures and challenges over the last year?
Neil: It’s definitely been challenging, especially since it was our first year in operation, but it’s given us the opportunity to focus on quality and dig deeper into special projects that we might not have been able to under different circumstances so we are thankful for that. And since we don’t have any historical data, it’s also been our most successful year!
Hop: Can people find the beers outside the brewery?
Neil: We are in high end restaurants and bottle shops in the Tahoe area.
Hop: Anything else we should know?
Neil: If folks are interested, our Instagram and Facebook pages are great places to see what we’re up to, check out new forest beers that we’re creating, and follow the special processes we are using to push the envelope.
You can also vist their website at: TheGoodWolfBrewing.com