A nineteenth century explorer in Eastern Russia wrote that the Koryak tribe in Kamchatka “invented a drink equally potent [to brandy] which they extract from a red mushroom.” One has to wonder what kind of brandy he meant — that mushroom was likely Amanita muscaria, which contains isotonic acid, a neurotoxin that causes, according to one text, “inebriation, derangement of the senses, manic behavior, delirium, and a deathlike sleep.” That temporary death, some say, is the foundational basis for Christianity’s metaphors of resurrection. Mushrooms and religion are consistently, if sometimes hazily, linked. Soma, the drink of the gods idolized most famously in the Rig Veda (“we have drunk soma and attained the light”) but worshipped in one form or another by most early Indo-European religions, was likely made from koumiss or beer spiked with Amanita. We’ve found images of mushrooms in shamanic art everywhere from the Algerian mountains (the mysterious Bee Man drawing) to carved stone heads in the Guatemalan jungles. Aztecs took Psilocybe — Teonanácatl, they called it; the god mushroom — often in agave beer or chocolate. Some even say Stone Henge was based on a mushroom fairy ring.
At the MSSF Mendocino Foray, we made candy cap mead and drank mushroom tea, but no one had any mushroom beer. The bitterness of hops doesn’t really “go” with a ‘shroom’s rich umami. Mushrooms match butter, and butter, in beer, is bad — an infamous off flavor, caused by weak yeast, bacterial infection, or an oxygen-poor fermentation. Still, I had some surprisingly delicious grilled matsutakes with cinnamon, so spicy high notes aren’t entirely out of bounds. But a meaty beer is an acquired taste.
Hershey, PA’s Tröegs uses local coffee in JavaHead Stout, local honey in Mad Elf. For their latest addition to the one-off Scratch series, they tapped one of their home state’s biggest, but least-known industries. Pennsylvania grows half of the country’s mushrooms. Did you know that? Thank the Quakers. Most are buttons, aka cremini, aka baby bellas, aka portabello, aka Agaricus bisporus. And most end up saran-wrapped in aisle two. But this year, a pinch of the state’s 550-million-pound annual bounty was dried, crushed, and mixed into Scratch Beer #119, Mushroom Ale.
It’s one of those beers to which you have to give credit, even if you don’t love it. It tastes exactly as it should. Perfect. Which is to say, mushroomy. Which is to say, a little weird. Still, kudos.
I’m still waiting for the effects to set in.
Last Thanksgiving I went to Philadelphia to find Robert Hare and J. Warren’s porter. Instead, I found Rich Wagner.
Hare moved to Philadelphia from England with £1,500 and his dad’s porter recipe. He teamed up with Londoner J. Warren and built a brewery on Callowhill and New Market Street. They made great beer. “Little, if any, inferior” to what was available back in England. George Washington was a fan. So was his importer, Clement Biddle. “I beg you will send me a gross of Mr. Hare’s best bottled porter,” Washington wrote to him in 1788. “If the price is not much enhanced by the copious draughts you took of it.”
The brewery is long gone. Today, it’s a Dave and Busters, where Jessi won a dozen tickets kicking my ass in Rock Band and drinks came in plastic 20-ounce cups packed with crushed ice. Rich Wagner’s home-brew came in a Gatorade bottle. “That’s a stoneware jug,” he said. “Use your imagination.” Rich is a re-enactor. He made this beer wearing buckled shoes and a tricorn hat. Even without the accouterments, even tucking into a chili cheeseburger at the Yards Brewery taproom, where I met him, he looks downright Colonial: slate-gray ponytail, Franklin-esque bifocals, Franklin-esque girth. Rich brews with corn and barley and hops he grows himself. He uses baking yeast and boils over an open fire. “Beer in the field,” he calls it. It tasted that way, too. Fresh, floral, crumbly, slightly smoked, like a smoldering hay bale, like an unwatered lawn in August. We drained the jug then retired to City Tavern. Closer to the past, perhaps. Or at least candlelit. There, we had, not Hare’s porter, but Washington’s — Yard’s recreation of it, made with molasses. Tangy and thin, I’ll stick with Gatorade.
“When by law or custom of the Church men should fast, very few people abstain from excessive drinking: On the contrary, they go to the taverns, and some imbibe and get more drunk than they do out of Lent, thinking and saying, ‘Fishes must swim!’ “
— Robert Rypon, Finchale Abbey, 1397
"I tell ‘em, it’s a church service," says bartender Les Bennett, "And they’re, like, ‘In a pub?’ And I’m, like, yeah. Some of ‘em stick around for trivia, some of ‘em take off, some of ‘em will hang out and have another pint or two."
You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. But I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish. When something has been taken out of you by strenuous exercise Ballantine puts it back in. We keep it iced in the bait box with chunks of ice packed around it. And you ought to taste it on a hot day when you have worked a big marlin fast because there were sharks after him. You are tired all the way through. The fish is landed untouched by sharks and you have a bottle of Ballantine cold in your hand and drink it cool, light and full-bodied, so it tastes good long after you have swallowed it. That’s the test of an ale with me: whether it tastes as good afterwards as when it’s going down. Ballantine does.Hemingway
Gangly Ichabod’s ”sugared superstitions” of hasty pudding and pumpkin pie give a good sense of the 18th-century table.
As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye, ever open to every symptom of culinary abundance, ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn. On all sides he beheld vast store of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty-pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies; and anon he passed the fragrant buckwheat fields breathing the odor of the beehive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slapjacks, well buttered, and garnished with honey or treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.
Most of all, Colonial Americans loved pumpkins. ”We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon,” a 17th-century ditty ran. “If it was not for pumpkin we should be undone.” The gourds grew like weeds and settlers ate them in bread, stew, pie, or just mashed in a pot and cooked all day (a “standing dish” reported to be “very windy”). And of course, they made them into beer. Or, as one 1771 recipe suggests, more like pumpkin cider:
Let the Pompion be beaten in a Trough as Apples. The expressed Juice is to be boiled in a Copper a considerable Time and carefully skimmed that there may be no Remains of the fibrous Part of the Pulp. After that Intention is answered let the liquor be hopped cooled fermented &c. as Malt Beer.
No mention of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or cranberry juice — any of the modern touches today’s brewers give their pumpkin beers. Probably a good thing, though the beer made from the recipe above had, the author said, “a slight twang.” (Aged for two years, though, the twang “acquired something of a Mellowness approaching to Musk which is far more agreeable than before.”)
"…on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin…"