On August 12 I read a post on Michael Kiser’s beautiful blog, Good Beer Hunting, about the inaugural Naperville Ale Fest, which went down on July 20. Toward the bottom of the page, Kiser mentioned “Forbidden Root, a new start-up brewing heritage-style ‘beer botanicals’ made with roots and other special ingredients.”
Representatives from the brewery had set up camp in the VIP tent to pour “the first-ever tastes of their namesake brew, Forbidden Root, approximating a sophisticated root beer or sarsaparilla flavor, but with the true body and quality of a brewed beer.” Later in the day they tapped Sublime Ginger, made with ginger, key lime juice, honeybush, and cane syrup. According to Kiser, “more than a few” patrons called it “the best beer they’ve ever had.”
Well then! Consider me intrigued!
I tried to look up Forbidden Root online, but their website was just their logo, with nothing to click on and no further information. There were just two posts to their Twitter page, so it didn’t seem like a reliable avenue of communication. But the list of brewers for the sixth annual Oak Park Micro Brew & Food Review on August 17 included Forbidden Root, so I figured if I headed out I’d be able to find somebody to bother in person. Surely the principals of a brewery so new wouldn’t skip their second-ever festival to let volunteers do the work.
Fortunately, I was right. I located two of Forbidden Root’s three chief personages, brewer B.J. Pichman and “root master” Robert Finkel, without even using my flare gun. Pichman, an experienced home brewer who’s been a fixture in the Chicago beer-nerd community for years, is probably six foot three, with an impeccably groomed beard so thick you could lose your car keys in it. Thanks to Jess Straka from Revolution, I had a description to go on—he would’ve been easy to spot even without his Forbidden Root T-shirt.
Number three is Randy Mosher, minority partner at 5 Rabbit and author of Tasting Beer. He’s working for Forbidden Root as a creative partner, contributing to their branding efforts and recipes (and lending the weight of his name to their operation). Though he put in an appearance in Naperville, he didn’t make it to Oak Park. John Hannafan, the new director of education at the Siebel Institute, is also doing some recipe consulting for Forbidden Root, but he’s not as intimately involved as Mosher.
In Finkel’s role as “root master” (not a Ghostbusters reference, sadly) he sources the huge variety of roots, herbs, barks, flowers, seeds, stems, leaves, fruits, and extracts in the brewery’s beers—the recipe for Forbidden Root includes 37 botanicals, among them vanilla, anise, cocoa, wintergeen, fennel, nutmeg, patchouli, tarragon, and Peru balsam. During our conversation, he showed me photos on his phone of a beautiful open-air spice market in Turkey that he’d just visited. Because I love Indian food, I’ve cooked with a few hard-to-spell spices from the subcontinent, and I couldn’t resist naming a few favorites—I tipped him to amchur (dried green mango powder, which Pipeworks uses in A Foolish Wit) and kalonji (the aromatic seeds of nigella sativa, also called Roman coriander).
Finkel jokes that the brewery has a “death wish” when it comes to ingredient costs. Fortunately he’s founder and president of Prism Capital and is personally funding Forbidden Root, which means it can operate “without the usual short-term cash flow pressures,” to borrow his words. (He also serves on the governing board of the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which maintains the famous “minutes to midnight” doomsday clock, but that doesn’t seem as relevant in this context.)
The Forbidden Root folks have been working together since last summer, and so far they’ve developed three recipes: in addition to their namesake beer and Sublime Ginger, they’ve got a porter called Shady Character, made with licorice, black walnut, chestnut, and black pepper. The brewery also plans to develop two series of beers, one to showcase subtle differences among varieties of honey, the other to do the same for chocolate—the honeys will include macadamia, thyme, and blackberry, plus “wild foam,” a blend of conventional wildflower honey and meadowfoam, a ridiculously scarce honey that allegedly tastes like vanilla marshmallows.
In Oak Park the only Forbidden Root beer on offer was Sublime Ginger, and my heavens did the good people ever line up for it—the brewery brought half a dozen “sixtel” kegs, each holding five gallons or so (the same total capacity as roughly two full-size kegs), and the last one kicked at 5:50 PM, more than an hour before the end of the festival.
Sublime Ginger uses baby ginger, which lacks the brown skin and fibrous yellow flesh of the mature rhizome; it’s cream colored with pink tips, and its flavor is relatively mellow. (I’ve always assumed that sushi ginger is dyed pink to remind people of baby ginger, the way “wasabi” is dyed green to persuade people it’s not just mustard seed, horseradish, and starch—you rarely run into true wasabi in the States.) Baby ginger only keeps for a couple weeks unrefrigerated, and it’s way more expensive than the regular kind—I think I mentioned Forbidden Root’s “death wish” already. I don’t suppose I need to explain key limes or cane syrup, but if you’re like me, you didn’t know that honeybush is a South African plant used to make a fragrant and slightly sweet herbal tea similar to rooibos. (Its flowers smell of honey; hence the name.)
I had three tasting glasses of Sublime Ginger—it’s pretty addictive stuff. The gently spicy blend of ginger and lime works a special kind of alchemy, as the folks who brew traditional ginger beers discovered a couple hundred years ago. Forbidden Root’s version is subtle and complex, with no harsh edges—it smells almost floral, with a bit of tingly ginger heat, and on the palate its light, creamy wheat malt smooths out the bright ginger and lime. The beer’s satiny carbonation is in my opinion a big improvement over the aggressive, sinus-tingling fizz you encounter in a lot of ginger ales. At 3.5 percent alcohol, it’d make a wonderful summer session beer.
Forbidden Root hope to start tapping small batches of their beers at bars around Chicago this fall, then launch in earnest early in 2014. Right now they’re a gypsy operation, without a brew house of their own; they made this batch of Sublime Ginger at Atlas Brewing Company, and they expect to use 5 Rabbit’s facilities as well. Once they start bottling, four-packs will cost $11.99, if all goes according to plan.
I did try some other beers at the Oak Park Micro Brew & Food Review, of course, but only about a dozen. It was the festival’s biggest incarnation yet, with 66 brewers; I was one of an estimated 4,000 attendees. Actually, it’s a little misleading to say I “tried” Off Color‘s applewood-smoked grätzer, 15 Ft, or Metropolitan‘s Arc Welder dunkel rye—I’d had both before, which is exactly why I sought them out. Of the beers that were new to me on Saturday, I had two favorites: Haymarket’s Aleister DIPA, in a special version aged in bourbon and port barrels, and Goose Island Clybourn‘s Shiro LaBoeuf, an IPA brewed with yellow Shiro plums. Alas, I didn’t make it to Goose Island’s Halia sour peach saison and Cucumbersome pilsner. My esteemed colleague Julia Thiel informs me that New Belgium’s Coconut Curry Hefeweizen was also among the beers I missed, and that it was amazing.
Anyway. Time for the metal portion of this Beer and Metal post! Luckily there’s no shortage of metal songs with the word “forbidden” in their titles. Here’s Swedish tech-death band Spawn of Possession with “The Forbidden,” from the 2000 demo of the same name.
French black-metal group Glorior Belli has a track called “The Forbidden Words” on 2009’s Meet Us at the Southern Sign.
OK, an obvious one to wrap up. Brazilian giants Sepultura opened the 1996 album Roots with “Roots Bloody Roots.”