Scratching the Surface

Visiting new breweries is always fun, but this one felt different, in a good way.

I first read about Scratch Brewing Company in late 2013, in a complimentary issue of Draft magazine that a local home-brew shop threw in with my rather large order. According to the article, there was a brewer dude down in southern Illinois who rummaged around in the local woods to find his beer ingredients. Amazing, right?! I knew I had to check it out.

Visiting southern Illinois held little draw for us otherwise, but Matt and I finally decided to make the six-hour drive from Chicago to Ava, Illinois on a beautiful Saturday morning a couple of months ago. In (slightly obsessive) preparation/excitement for the trip, I had been repeatedly searching for the brewery address on Google maps; in my mind’s eye, Scratch was merely a tiny little dot on a digital map, floating around in between wispy, winding roads whose names I could not recall.

As we approached that digital dot, we lost cell phone service. Thanks to my aforementioned obsessive map-checking, I was 73% confident that we were still going in the right direction. Just then, we came upon a tall wooden sign with an arrow pointing south. The sign said “scratch”– we hadn’t gotten lost yet! Inside the lines of the hand-carved letters, someone had craftily adhered aluminum foil which had begun to peel off in a charmingly weathered way. We knew we were on the right track, so we turned right and kept going.

After a short drive the road turned sharply to the left, but straight ahead we spotted another hand-crafted “scratch” sign pointing the way. We headed into the nicely shaded gravel parking lot quietly; it was an almost mystical experience, finding this secluded place at last.

As we took in our surroundings from atop the sloped lot, I was immediately impressed not only by the size of the building before us, but by the towering rows of hops to our right, flourishing happily in the sunshine. As I looked more closely, there was a vast variety of plants growing all around us, undoubtedly past, present, and future beer ingredients!

We walked down the slope towards the building ahead on a wooden path that ended with a few large boulders. The tasting room was to our right, surrounded by a welcoming, wrap-around porch. Immediately in front of us there was a paved patio and to our left we noticed the beginnings of an outdoor stage currently under construction. Upon opening the door into the tasting room, a welcome flow of cold air took us by the hand and led us out of the hot and sticky summer muck.

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We ordered a small taste of every beer. The menu contained three groups of beers, the first being “familiar” styles and the second called “forest/foraged/fire,” meaning that these beers had ingredients that had been regionally cultivated, foraged on Scratch’s property, or that had been brewed over a wood fire. The third group, “fancy,” was described as “fantastical, free-spirited, flummoxing, fascinating.” Each beer was truly delightful; they all seemed to have a slight twist on the usual ingredients. Despite the oppressive humidity, we opted to sit outside–it seemed only right to surround ourselves with the wildlife we were about to consume.

After tasting each beer, Matt and I agreed on our top three favorites:

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Cedar Coffee Saison (forest/foraged/fire): Deep brown with reddish notes, this woody, light-on-the-coffee saison was refreshing, fruity, and fizzy with a light hoppy finish. It was earthy and herbal like a typical saison, but the cedar added a unique spicy personality to this standout brew.

Sour Brown Gruit (forest/foraged/fire): This unhopped, old world beer style began with a smooth chocolatey mouthful, balanced by a delicate tart cherry flavor and finishing with a pleasant breadiness. This one was a beautiful burnt sienna color and was pretty much a tie for first, in my opinion.

Maple Sap Baltic Porter (fancy): This beer was not only delicious, but incredibly memorable. This dark brown opaque porter had, not suprisingly, cocoa-forward notes and drank much lighter than an 8.3% beer. It had subtle hints of cherry and supposedly had barely-there flavors of mint, but I had trouble tasting that part. The memorable aspect of this beer was that maple sap had been used to entirely replace the water in this beer recipe. At first, I was actually surprised that the beer wasn’t more syrupy, but then I remembered that maple sap has much the same consistency of water, whereas maple syrup is…well…syrupy! I am totally kicking myself for not asking more questions about this beer in particular because now I have a bunch. In any case, this opened up a ton of possibilities in my mind–what else could water be replaced with in a brew?! I’m thinking maybe a light herbal tea?!

Following our enjoyment of the tastes (which we accompanied with a delicious cheese board and some tasty flatbread), we headed back inside to stop our sweat from flowing and to snag a growler of the cedar coffee saison. I was delighted to recognize the guy cleaning glassware behind the bar as the brewer from the photos in the Draft article that had brought us here. We struck up a conversation. He was very friendly and shared that in the near future, Scratch will be embarking on a really interesting brewing project. The brewery has plans to create a beer with no less than one hundred ingredients, all foraged from the surrounding Illinois landscape. I cannot wait to try this beer, but actually even more than that, I really want to illustrate it! One hundred ingredients would make for a beautiful large-format poster illustration, with the beverage situated in the middle of the poster, surrounded by all of its cultivated or otherwise found components. I can picture it now!

Scratch is a truly unique place. Not only are many of the beer ingredients foraged and found, but many parts of the physical brewery space–from the stubby wooden tap handles made of sticks, to the vintage iron sewing machine table bases–have either been picked up from the surrounding landscape, or recycled and refreshed to serve a new (and I contend higher) purpose for Scratch. Being there and drinking the forest/foraged/fire beers felt like becoming a living part of a self-sustaining microcosm. It’s a truly beautiful concept; I no longer have to find an excuse to return because now I can think of a hundred reasons to go back.


Inside the tasting room at Scratch Brewing Co. 

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So, have you ever replaced the water in your brew with another liquid? Oooo what about coffee … hmm … that could either be seriously awesome, or terribly disgusting. Food for thought! Cheers! 😀

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