Mustard seeds in beer? It's happening. Credit: Michelle Bruton

In the days between summer and fall, past scorching July with Oktoberfest looming, almost nothing hits the same as a grilled sausage with mustard and a crisp beer. Chicago’s love affair with cased meats and beer is well-established; with the arrival of German immigrants in the 1850s, sausage making and its supporting condiment entered Chicago’s culinary scene indelibly. The city’s craft beer history goes back even further, to 1833.

Yes, Chicagoans have loved mustard and beer for more than 170 years. But do they love the pairing so much they would consume them both in one go . . . in a mustard beer?

The use of mustard seeds in brewing is not new. It’s as old as Belgian-style witbiers, which date all the way back to 14th-century monasteries. The witbiers you drink today typically use hops and ingredients like coriander or orange peel to counteract the sweetness of the malt, but in early brewing, Belgians used any herbs and spices available to them to accomplish that balance—and serve as an antibacterial agent.

Few American brewers use mustard seeds today in witbiers or other styles, despite their similarity to coriander. The latter seeds of the cilantro plant are lightly bitter with notes of citrus and fennel; mustard seeds are sharper and spicier. But many U.S.-based distributors have worked with importers to acquire these beers from Belgium, to rave reviews from customers.

Chicago-based distributor Louis Glunz long carried Wostyntje Mustard Ale, which was regularly imported along with another Belgian mustard beer, Melchior. “They were picked by expert purveyors or publicans who would have it on premise for a mix of quality and novelty value,” says Samu Rahn, the key accounts manager and brand manager at Louis Glunz. “When somebody comes in always looking for something different, that’s a back-pocket play. It wasn’t just a gimmick, in that both of them were really quite lovely beers.”

One Chicago purveyor who carried Wostyntje for more than ten years was Hopleaf owner Michael Roper—mainly in bottles, but on draft whenever possible.

“It was actually quite popular and a very well-made beer,” Roper says, noting the beer is no longer available to U.S. distributors. “I would say it began as a novelty, but it gained regular drinkers. People would reorder it, and some ordered it frequently.” When Hopleaf held its bottle sale in March to clear out the cellar and bring in some revenue at the pandemic’s onset, Roper discovered a few rogue bottles of Wostyntje. They sold immediately.

If mustard seed, a coriander cousin, isn’t all that unusual in brewing, certainly the yellow stuff is. But that’s exactly what Oskar Blues Brewery used for a beer it released in August, French’s Mustard Beer, in a National Mustard Day collaboration with the mustard giant. The concept proved divisive, with some beer lovers scrambling to get their hands on the extremely limited bounty (only 25 barrels were produced) and others voicing their distaste.

Oskar Blues’s head brewer Juice Drapeau and head of brewing operations Tim Matthews were heavy into tiki-inspired recipes when the French’s collaboration surfaced. Drapeau knew immediately a tropical wheat beer was the perfect vehicle to complement—and tone down—the yellow condiment.

“I think they absolutely nailed it,” says Aaron Baker, Oskar Blues’s senior marketing manager. “The tropical fruit purees they used—key lime, tangerine, lemon, and passion fruit—balance out the earthy notes of the mustard.” The batch included a whopping 150 pounds of French’s yellow mustard and 175 pounds of fruit puree.

But can you put it on a hot dog?
But can you put it on a hot dog?Credit: courtesy French’s

“The incredible reaction to last year’s release of our Mustard Ice Cream showed us how far people are willing to go to savor this favorite condiment,” said Jill Pratt, chief marketing excellence officer for French’s. Oskar Blues sold out of French’s Mustard Beer before the sun set on National Mustard Day.

Chicagoland is a hub for experimental, botanical-forward breweries like Moody Tongue, Marz, Forbidden Root, and Noon Whistle, home of the equally unusual Planter’s collaboration Mr. IPA-Nut. Chicago breweries didn’t share immediate plans to produce a mustard beer, but given the enthusiasm consumers showed for the Oskar Blues release, it may be on the table. As Alarmist Brewing sales/marketing manager Joe Hehl points out, far stranger ingredients have found their way into brews. “We’ve seen some pretty off-the-wall ingredients end up in various mash tuns, from Oreo cookies to chicken and waffles,” Hehl says. “I recently stumbled across a beer that was brewed with shrimp, lobster, and lemon. Mustard suddenly seems pretty tame compared to that!”

Goose Island brewmaster Keith Gabbett points to his brewery’s use of uncommon ingredients like mango and cinnamon in IPA Lost Palate to rhubarb in 312 Rhubarb. “I think mustard beers follow the long trend of brewers using unique ingredients to defy drinkers’ expectations,” Gabbett says. “Brewers have used unconventional ingredients from mustard to wild rice to dandelion greens, and everything in-between.”

Perhaps you’ll soon savor a mustard beer at Forbidden Root. Head brewer Nick Williams “would love to play with” the ingredient. “I think it’s definitely got some legs,” Williams says. “Mustard seed is very similar to coriander, and coriander is a hugely popular ingredient as far as witbiers. I’m sure somebody will do it, and it very well might be us.”

Or perhaps Marz. “I think if anyone in Chicago could successfully pull off something like that, it would be Marz,” Hehl said. “I would absolutely try their take on it.”

To be sure, the pandemic will dictate brewers’ schedules for the foreseeable future. The precarious climate means breweries will likely stick close to what they know will sell: IPAs, stouts, even hard seltzers. Forbidden Root has “planned one-off stuff, but that’s very carefully considered, and we keep an open dialogue with our distributors,” Williams says.

Until breweries are ready to get weird with mustard in beer production at scale, homebrewers are game to give French’s Mustard Beer a whirl. Oskar Blues helpfully listed its recipe online.

“I have heard the Oskar Blues mustard beer is actually quite good and refreshing, which, as a homebrewer of over 15 years, makes me want to try and brew it,” says Dave Linari, brewer at Connecticut’s NewSylum Brewing.

Whether it’s the more subtle mustard seed or the high-octane yellow stuff, mustard has kept a low profile in brewing. But as breweries continually seek novelty to keep their adventurous customers satiated, mustard beer just may pop up at your favorite local shop.   v