Local ingredients are the heart of some Southern breweries. Photo credit: Getty
"What is Southern beer?” Sean Lilly Wilson wondered aloud when we broached the subject with him. The founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, North Carolina, Wilson and a growing number of Southern craft beer makers believe the answer has to do with local ingredients.
The native persimmon is one of them. "When they’re ripe and at their full flavor peak, they [taste] like apricot-meets-pumpkin with a natural allspice-cinnamon component that’s very earthy," Wilson said, distinguishing them from the more common Asian variety. Previous generations of North Carolinians planted persimmon trees along their farms’ borders as wind breakers, and the bright orange, ping pong ball–sized fruit those trees produced have since been prized for making persimmon pudding. “It’s such a Southern thing,” Wilson said of the dish. Today, locals donate or sell their fruits to Fullsteam for use in the brewery’s Belgian-inspired Persimmon Harvest Ale, a smooth, spicy brew that Wilson describes as “your classic winter fireplace beer.”
Foraged ingredients at Fullsteam Brewery. Photo credit: Fullsteam Brewery/Facebook
Further south, in Kiln, Mississippi, Lazy Magnolia's Jefferson Stout relies on local sweet potatoes. ”Sweet potatoes are very much a Mississippi type of thing—you don’t have to drive far to see an old guy with a truck selling sweet potatoes by the side of the road,” said co-owner Leslie Henderson, who with husband Jack founded Lazy Magnolia nearly a decade ago.
"We knew that by incorporating familiar local ingredients, we could convince people to try our beer who wouldn’t otherwise ever try craft beer," Henderson explained. "It speaks to them and it’s not intimidating. Before you know it, Grandma is chugging down some IPAs and [we’ve turned her] into a hophead!"
Sweet potatoes lend the Jefferson Stout an earthy, faintly sweet character similar to pumpkin’s, but their higher starch content yields a creamier texture.
In Goochland, Virginia, Sean-Thomas Pumphrey of Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery grows three types of hops selected for their ability to thrive in the Mid-Atlantic climate. “Lucky that they’re some of my favorite,” he said. Cascade hops lend notes of grapefruit and pine, while nugget hops offer herbaceous flavors. The third, a variety called “chinook,” rounds out the trio with its robust hoppy character.
In late September, Lickinghole Creek will unveil this year’s Gentleman Farmer Estate Hop Ale, a limited release made with a combination of the three hops. ”What we’re trying to do is create terroir in beer—it refers to a sense of place,” Pumphrey told us. “We’re trying to create a flavor based on our unique climate. We believe our hops do not taste like hops anywhere else.”
Wilson agrees. Highlighting local ingredients—and supporting the farms, foragers, and agricultural entrepreneurs that provide them—will help Southern craft beer make a name for itself, he said. ”We may be catching up on some of the experimental edge of craft beer, but breweries like us are quickly rising to the occasion to develop a unique expression of the South.”