Forget that antiquated foursome of malt, hops, yeast, and water.
Order a pint at your local pub today, and you might very well be sipping a brew also made with elephant dung, candy bars, or, in the case of one New Hampshire brewery, the head of a wild boar.
As both craft beers and home brewing have exploded in popularity — and as America’s beer-swilling population has grown ever more adventurous in its tastes — beer makers are turning to an increasingly eclectic array of ingredients to spice up their product.
“Every day there’s a new brewery opening somewhere, so [brewers] have to do something to sort of set themselves out from the crowd,” says Cape Ann Brewing Company’s Dylan L’Abbe-Lindquist, who has brewed with, among other things, hot sauce and crushed oyster shells.
The result, he says, is a beer-making landscape that “pushes people to use weirder and weirder” ingredients.
Look no farther than New England, where six area breweries are in the process of creating beers made with water from the Charles River. Last week, meanwhile, New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Brewery debuted Selkie, a Scottish red ale made from 60 pounds of sugar kelp — or seaweed — harvested from a floating aquaculture platform run by the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and New Hampshire Sea Grant.
Already, says head brewer Matt Gallagher, customers have been smitten with the beer’s quirky, seaside taste.
“About an hour later, if you burp, you burp straight low tide,” Gallagher says.
Still, by today’s standards, seaweed and river water represent some of the industry’s tamer additives.
At the website HomeBrewTalk.com, a gathering place for beer nerds looking to talk shop, brewers describe infusing their beers with everything from Skittles (“Fermented right out and was actually a pretty nice drinking beer, if a little fruity”) to tomato and onions (“Had a slight taste of Bush’s Baked beans, very drinkable”) to catnip (“It complemented the Fuggle hops very nicely by rounding out the headiness with a slightly grassy, marjoram-like flavor”).
It gets weirder.
Last year, the BBC reported an Icelandic brewery’s plans to produce a beer made from “salted and smoked” whale testicles — a year after the same brewery drew the ire of conservationists for producing another whale-supplemented beer.
Back in 2013, Japanese brewery Sankt Gallen produced a beer made from coffee beans plucked from elephant excrement, according to Fox News.
And in perhaps the most bizarre development to date, Oregon brewer John Maier made headlines in 2012 when he reportedly used yeast from his beard to create a beer.
As Smithsonian magazine noted at the time, “While the thought of drinking some guy’s beard might not inspire cravings for a cold bottle, scientists point out that most fermenting species of yeast are found on animals, insects and rotting fruit, so cultivating yeast from a person’s body might not be that far-fetched.”
The push for peculiar is not difficult to understand. Research has shown that beer drinkers, particularly millennials, often prefer drinks they haven’t tried.
And brewers — wanting to keep things interesting — have been happy to accommodate them.
“People want to buy the next new thing,” says Stan Hieronymus, author of the upcoming book “Brewing Local: American-Grown Beer.” “[Brewers] understand people want something different, so it’s a great opportunity for them to create something different.”
At Portsmouth’s Earth Eagle Brewings, for instance, different is sort of the specialty.
The brewery, which opened in 2012, specializes in gruits — or beers brewed using things like sumac berries, St. John’s Wort, and mugwort in place of hops. Each week, the business purchases ingredients from a local forager, who traverses the area gathering “goodies” that can be used in brewing.
And if the gruits aren’t sufficiently unusual, customers can partake of one of the two or three “meat beers” the brewery annually churns out.
“We’ve [brewed with] pigs heads, moose heads, we’ve used bear meat before,” says Butch Heilshorn, co-owner and brewer at Earth Eagle Brewings. “We actually did a beer called Captain Beef Parts, that had, essentially, beef liver and heart in it.”
As for the popularity of these meat-laced concoctions?
“They disappear damn quick,” Heilshorn assures.
Even brewers who’ve refrained from going too far down the weird beer rabbit hole admit that creating beers with unconventional ingredients poses a welcome challenge.
“When you brew with blueberries or kumquats, it’s easy to picture what that’s going to bring to the whole flavor profile,” says Gallagher, of Portsmouth Brewery. “It’s a lot harder to predict what kelp’s going to do.”
While there’s no denying the current trend toward peculiar brews, some predict that it might ultimately have a limited shelf life.
Where do you go, after all, from cow’s heart and catnip?
“As fun as it is to throw all sorts of fun stuff in, I think the trend is always going to go back to well-made, age-old styles,” Gallagher says.
“Those styles have been around for hundreds of years for a reason.”