Book Week: Against All Hops by Butch Heilshorn
Against All Hops
Page Street Publishing, 143 pages, $18.99
- What is It? A brewing guide for experimental brewers and foragers.
- Who's it for? Mostly homebrewers, but I don't plan on making any of these beers and yet I found it fascinating to read about them.
- Reviewer disclosure: I have never met Heilshorn nor been to his brewery.
Butch Heilshorn is a co-founder of Earth Eagle in Portsmouth, NH, a brewery just a hair over five years old. The brewery specializes in foraged, herbal, historical, and just plain weird beers. Heilshorn has collected his experiences into a slim volume called, provocatively, Against All Hops. This turns out to be misleading in two respects. First, as he notes in the book, the brewery makes and sells conventional beers, including IPAs. "We know this at Earth Eagle; our IPAs out-sell everything else we brew." He's not actually against hops. Second, such a title suggests a kind of dogmatism, which, refreshingly, is entirely absent from this book. It's something like a field guide cum brewing log for some of the oddest beers you're going to find.
I am not much into herbal beers, I'll confess. As a curiosity they have a certain attraction, but in the flesh I tend to find them largely unsatisfying. A pint and I'm ready for a pilsner or IPA. Reading about them, however, is hugely entertaining. Heilshorn begins by walking us through his process and the vagaries of working with herbs, particularly foraged ones. The real fun begins with the meat of the book, divided into twelve chapters corresponding to twelve beers. That may sound like a small batch, but most of them use at least three herbs, which means there's a lot of material to cover.
The chapters begin with a discussion of the herbs in question, including a description, properties, and flavors, as well as where to find them (where applicable). Heilshorn has worked with a local professor and some of his beers are based on or inspired by historical beers brewed around New England. The show-stopper, however, is the chapter titled Porter Cochon, the central ingredient of which is a pig's head. There are extensive notes on this process, which he helpfully summarizes at the start:
There are, of course, pictures.
More conventional herbal beers include a local squash beer with more flavor than the annual pumpkin ale, a classic gruit beer, a sap beer (perhaps the US's only native ale), an herbal IPA, and a beer made with mandrake root, an ingredient used by pagans and said to cause both hallucinations and poisoning. (He seems to have emerged from the experience unscathed.)
Heilshorn lists all the different ingredients he's used in his beers, and at publication that number was almost 150. That is to say: he has certainly experimented a lot. I have every confidence he does really know his spikenard from his bog myrtle. I won't be whipping up one of these beers anytime soon, but if you are at all inclined to throw twigs and berries into your beer, this looks like an excellent place to start. It's definitely fun to read either way.