Scratch Brewing uses foraged herbs and plants that surround its woodsy setting to make its beers.(Photo: Kendall Karmanian photo)
A beer quest this summer took me to every corner of Wisconsin, sipping and savoring the Badger State's brewing scene.
So when I visited some friends in southern Illinois who knew about that journey, they were excited to show off one of their area's gems. Technically, they live on the Shawnee Hills wine trail, but they wanted to show me the farm-to-table brewery a few miles away.
A woodsy brewery in autumn? Yes, please.
I was not prepared for two things: The delicate flavor of herbs and plants from toasted caraway seeds to marigold flowers in my glass, and the cuteness of goats romping nearby.
But the goat show isn't the best thing about Scratch Brewing, a farmhouse brewery nestled at the edge of the Shawnee National Forest. The beer is.
Brews like the Belgian stout with fennel, a roasty stout with a touch of chocolate, delivers on all the smells Scratch promises — coffee, raisins and licorice (and a moderate 5.9% ABV).
Scratch doesn't distinguish a flagship beer but brews seasonal offerings on a two-barrel system spotlighting ingredients foraged locally. Co-owner Aaron Kleidon spent his childhood on the land where the brewery sits — mushroom hunting, digging herbs for money and finding wildflowers in thick stands of trees. He's happy to showcase those ingredients in his beer.
Those ingredients also earned the brewery recognition from Outside magazine as one of the country's four best breweries using foraged ingredients.
The microbrewery with its red metal roof is surrounded by lush woodland, or as the owners think of it, the pantry. Terraced seating — rocks set into the earth serve as stairs — is available left, right and ahead. We started our afternoon seated at a long, wooden picnic table in the sun before moving to benches around a late-afternoon bonfire.
The jewel box of a location is one of the reasons All About Beer magazine pronounced Scratch one of the most beautiful places in the world to drink beer. Good beer and good company is the reason I named it among the Top 10 afternoons of 2016.
Kleidon met fellow founders Marika Josephson and Ryan Tockstein at a package store that offered beer tastings. They discovered their similar thirst for beers made with herbs and plants. Kleidon foraged his ingredients. Josephson used culinary herbs in her brews. Tockstein was the most conventional brewer. The trio opened Scratch in 2013.
Tockstein has since left the group for a brewery in Utah. Josephson serves as head brewer assisted by Frank Wesseln. Kleidon remains chief forager and occasional brewer.
At the beginning, using fewer hops to brew helped the then-fledgling brewery which couldn't buy hops in the large amounts that are often demanded by hop purveyors. But that's only part of the reason Scratch uses hops sparingly. The brewers prefer beers based on local flavors, Kleidon said.
Exhibit A is the tart Sour Anise Hyssop, a sour ale brewed with anise hyssop from the garden and no hops. A little licorice. A little sour. An ABV of 4.8%.
Our group of four went through two flights of eight beers each in an attempt to try them all. A fifth friend joined us. She looked up the brewery ahead of time and shared her concern about the beer's ingredients. Nettles? A blonde ale filtered with cedar branches and brewed over a wood fire? In beer?
She landed on the seasonal Oktoberfest lager. Then tried more. Just to be sure.
We capped the beers off with a wood-fired pizza and an appetizer plate of goat cheese, house-made pickles, garden radishes, salami and house-made sourdough hearth bread. The brewery also makes its own sodas.
Kleidon and company keep trying new beer styles and flavors. His next challenge is to make a beer with acorns. If there's too much moisture in the jar the acorns will mold; not enough and they won't ferment, he said. But when he gets it right, he expects a full-bodied brew of 10% ABV that smells like cherries, bourbon and oak.
As we drank and ate, people walked in and out of the brewhouse, a cozy room in the style of an Irish countryside pub with dark furniture and a heavy wood bar. One group was celebrating a birthday, one appeared to be a family get-together, and another was in town for homecoming at Southern Illinois University, about 22 miles away in Carbondale.
A few customers carried copies of "The Homebrewers Almanac, a Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch" by Josephson, Kleidon and Tockstein and released by The Countryman Press in September. The book includes detailed information on brewing with plants, recipes using those ingredients and instructions on how to safely forage, preserve and brew root vegetables. It sells for $22.95.
The bluffs and rolling landscape of the region offers some outdoor adventure. Highlights include:
Sip on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, an area ripe for viticultural thanks to its location between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. Find a wine trail map at shawneewinetrail.com.
Head to Giant City, 4,000 acres of state park land filled with fern, moss, flowering mints, wild flowers and more than 75 varieties of trees. Stay at Giant City Lodge, a sandstone and white oak timber lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Parts of the movie "Gone Girl" were filmed here.
Hike Little Grand Canyon, a 3.6-mile trail that can take three to four hours to complete. It starts off as an easy-going asphalt/gravel path along Hickory Ridge, the southern lip of the canyon. The 365-foot climb from the canyon floor offers a panoramic view of the Big Muddy River and the Mississippi floodplain.
Visit Garden of the Gods, 3,300 acres of forest with more than 5 miles of interconnected trails, soaring bluffs and rock formations that runs through the southeast side of the region.
The Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tours in Makanda let you soar on eight zip lines, the longest stretching more than 1,100 feet, zig-zagging across bluffs and through the valley. The tour also includes 11 platforms high in the trees, three aerial suspension bridges, the longest stretching 180 feet, and two short ground hikes.
More information: If you're considering a visit, Scratch Brewing is at 264 Thompson Road in Ava, Ill., about 450 miles south of Milwaukee and 80 miles southeast of St. Louis. It's open from 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday; 4 to 10 p.m. Friday; noon to 10 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Note that Scratch accepts cash only (there is an ATM inside).
For more information on the brewery, call (618) 426-1415 or see scratchbeer.com.