“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. Almost I fear I think how glad I am. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and a sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed,, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”
- Kris’ famous sauerkraut
- House corned beef
- Kenny’s Farmhouse Swiss cheese
- 1000 Island dressing with green tomato pickles and Sriracha ketchup
- Hearth baked rye bread
One of my favorite things to do, besides indulging in bovine genocide that is, is enjoying beer straight from the source. There’s nothing better than having a couple pints (or more) where they are actually brewed and bottled, see? Breweries are kickass, and actually getting to rub elbows with the brewers is just a bonus. Does it get any better?
Well… sure! How about hanging out at a brewery that makes everything from scratch, sources their stuff from the local flora, fauna and farms, AND then shares this knowledge with us, the common imbibers? That’s right, they’ve literally written the book on brewing with farmed and foraged ingredients! And they are from Southern Illinois to boot!
Enter Scratch Brewing Company, from Ava, Illinois! The brewery is situated in a small jigsaw-shaped city; a quaint farm with trees framing its outskirts and goats bleating by the porter potties.
We visited Scratch for their 4th Anniversary and my fiance’s birthday. Ava’s just 30 minutes NW of Carbondale, and we were lucky enough to have designated drivers to and from the event. A $50 all-inclusive ticket included a gorgeous glassware, 20 tickets to sample all of Scratch’s available beers on tap (of which they had 20!), a ticket for a delicious sandwich, and a ticket to purchase 1 bottle of Scratch and Jester King Stein Beer American Wild Ale [4.80% ABV]. More on that later.
Scratch’s anniversary sandwich for all the glorious carnivores was their Reuben sandwich, which is one of the only things I like about the month of March. March is about the death of winter, the coziest time to enjoy the last jars of sauerkraut and pickles, and when Märzenbier is brewed for Oktoberfest. That’s about it.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon, after more than a dozen samples of various beers, the Reuben was a godsend. It was probably one of the heartiest, most satisfying sandwiches I’ve ever had, and at some point I was seriously contemplating an honest to God attempt to exchange some beer tickets for another sandwich. The sourdough hearth baked rye bread is so sturdy, chewy, crunchy and aromatic, and just like all good breads you just know you’ve hit the jackpot after the first bite. It’s definitely one of those loafs that make great hiking sandwiches. The House corned beef was juicy and well-seasoned, with a smokiness more akin to a good rack of ribs and just a slight peppery aftertaste. Kenny’s Farmhouse Swiss cheese was nutty and sweet, and the sauerkraut, green tomato pickles and Sriracha ketchup 1000 Island dressing was simply phenomenal. It played well with the Swiss, and complimented the corned beef for a very balanced, slightly tangy and salty overall taste. You know, the typical Reuben, but much, much better.
Out of the 20 beer on tap, I narrowed it down to two possible pairings for the Reuben. Initially I was eyeing the Scratch Tomatillo Saison Farmhouse Ale [low% ABV] which seemed very promising, given the green tomato pickles used in the Reuben’s 1000 Island dressing. The Tomatillo Saison proved to be very pleasant, with a balanced herbal and vegetable notes and a short-lasting astringent aftertaste. We had it before we had the Reuben, because we ultimately decided that my second pairing of choice would be a more intriguing match, so we went with the Scratch Rye Kvass Kvass [2.70% ABV] for the actual pairing. The Rye Kvass is “sour beer made with [Scratch’s] house rye bread and fermented with rye sourdough culture“, and it was actually kind of delightful to choose a pairing because of the bread! Rye Kvass was one of my favorite beers of the day. Ultimately, kvass beer, or limonade de cochon (pig’s lemonade – as the French from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” would say) is one of those “beers” that breweries like Scratch should excel at, and this Eastern European staple is best from the source. Most kvass has low ABV, which means a short shelf-life, so what better place to try the liquid bread of liquid breads than from the very brewery which makes it? The tangy, malty drink proved to be a great pairing, after all. The sourness matched the pickled in the dressing, and the grainy notes meshed well with the rye. It was perfect.
Other hits from Scratch were the Scratch Ava Weiss Berliner Weissbier [2.50% ABV] which I’d call the flagship beer of the day, worthy of a growler for sure. Creamy, sour, vibrant, citric, with a head that’s gone in a flash. A beer I was particularly interested in, given my adventures in Southeast Asia (and experience with snake blood drinking) was the Scratch Southern Illinois Snake Wine Farmhouse Ale [5.00% ABV] – a spicy, herbal tonic with strong notes of ginger, some turmeric and spicebush for a beer with a very fluctuating bite whose potency changes as one ingredient takes over temporarily, only to fade away and let the other flourish. Interestingly enough, it really did the trick when it comes to that snake taste, but the snake wines I’ve had were not as developed or strong, partially because baijiu, the traditional Chinese drink of choice, is sorghum-based, and its sweetness denatures the bitterness of dead reptile, just like the alcohol denatures its venom. I was surprised that sorghum did not make it to the mix of ingredients, but I love the direction that Scratch and artist Brett Douglas Hunter have taken with this one. It’s almost like a digestif. Another beer that deserves a LOUD shout out is the Scratch Tripel Belgian Abbey Tripel [8.00% ABV] – a boozy twist on a Trappist classic, this beer was chock full o’ honey. As in, it actually really smelled like sweet, sweet honey, unlike pretty much every other beer with honey I’ve ever had. A little herbal, sweet like a tangerine, and pleasantly musty.
I also tried tasters from the bottle share section, some of which were Scratch’s esteemed mushroom beers, something I thought I’d never say or taste, or like. Scratch Chanterelle Bière de Garde Bière de Garde [6.30% ABV], the Brewery’s first bottled beer, was fantastically juicy with a gorgeous copper nuance and balanced notes of earthiness, light stone fruits (peach, apricots), malts and, of course, mushroom. Second, we tried the Scratch Black Trumpet Bière De Mars Bière De Mars [6.90% ABV] – complex and dark, with toffee and dark stone fruits present all throughout, then chocolate and candied figs, followed by yeasty, alcohol-heavy lingering funkiness. All of that enveloped by the character of an earthy farmhouse ale. Both types were great and different. I hear that there may have been some experiments with morel mushrooms. ❤
Out of the more than 20 beers we had I only encountered one or two misses, at least according to my preferences. The one which stood out the most to me was the Scratch Herbed Stout Stout [6.80% ABV] – a strong, malty flavor peppered with herbal brightness. Its aroma reminded me exactly of the smell of a very particular Carbondale-based homeless man who legitimately believes that he is a Time Lord. As in, Doctor Who. Although the Herbed Stout tasted fine (getting a moderate 3/5 from me), I just couldn’t abstract myself from the way it smelled. We are all imperfect.
One thing I’m excited for is the Scratch and Jester King Stein Beer American Wild Ale [4.80% ABV]. At $15, these little bottles were available 1 per person, and we grabbed 2. I haven’t had it yet, I’m waiting for the right moment, and I’ll keep the second bottle for a potential trade or a bottle share, but here’s what the guys from Scratch have to say about it:
“This experimental beer never touched stainless steel. We mashed in oak barrels, boiled with hot granite rocks in barrels, and then fermented and aged the beer in a red wine barrel. The beer was bittered and flavored entirely with plants other than hops, including hyssop, basil, wild oregano, and juniper. This is a fascinating tart concoction unlike anything you’ve ever tasted and is reminiscent of herbal digestifs.”
And, despite all my high praise for the Reuben, or the various beers, it was a house-made soda that stole the show both for me and my fiance. Scratch does have a handful of sodas on their premises, all made from scratch, just like their beers, and if you ever find yourself in the vicinity of Ava, IL, you must stop by Scratch Brewing just to try their Hickory Creme Soda. Now, I am not a particularly outdoorsy guy, but let me tell you something – this soda is all the excitement and mysticism of the wild in a glass. It’s both the roaring of a campfire, and the gentle whisper of a fireplace on a lazy night. Creamy, with sugar cane sweetness, and with a smokiness that’s so real it will have you looking over your shoulder for an actual fire, the Hickory Creme Soda is a thing of natural beauty shaped by a human hand. Sure, there are millions of great examples of such craftsmanship already – marble statues, carvings and masterful floral arrangements and a myriad of other things that look pretty on a picture and will brighten your day when you recall them later. The warmth of the Scratch’s Hickory Creme Soda, however, is forever.
Mark my word.