Foraging for brewing

The story of Fonta Flora, the eccentric brewery in the Appalachian Mountains.

Would you have ever thought that a beer could be a complete and unadulterated expression of the region's terroir? This term defines the unique flavor and aroma of food that is attributed to the growing environment. There are such beers and Fonta Flora is the proof: a craft brewery that stands apart from the others with roots in the territory and unique because its beers are brewed with wild ingredients that are truly indigenous.

We are in the Appalachian Mountains in the northeastern United States. Todd Boera, a young, bearded brewmaster tattooed with hops and vegetables all the way to his hands, did not grow up here, but about a decade ago he made this area his home. Born and raised in Cleveland, Boera came to North Carolina in 2004 to attend college. It was at a liberal arts college, where the student body had to help run the campus, that Boera was introduced to manual work, initially tending to the cows and chickens at the college farm. However, his favourite assignment was working the land and growing vegetables. In his spare time, he nurtured his true passion: making craft beer. Both his activities were destined to merge: he soon began infusing garden vegetables such as pumpkin into his beers during fermentation. 

These beer experiments mapped out his future. Fresh out of college, Todd landed a job as a brewing assistant at a North Carolina brewery, the Catawba Brewing Company. Fate was not kind to the brewery’s owner, who was injured in a road accident, but it smiled on Todd, who from that moment became the full-fledged head of brewing operations. Alone at the helm of the brewery, Todd began experimenting again with the boiling of beer like a kid with a chemistry set but this time on a larger scale, adding local products and playing around with different yeast and bacteria cultures. His first beer recipe -one that he’ll never forget- was made with local honeysuckle using the Belgian Tripel method (Editor’s note: Tripel is a Belgian term to describe high-fermented ales with a rich and round taste and strong alcohol percentage, about 9 degrees). His intuition proved to be correct and he then began perfecting his original beer recipes based on vegetables.

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Where the results perfect? Not quite. Even in his new job, he soon began to feel too constrained and in 2013 he decided to leave Catawba Brewing Company to dedicate himself to pursuing his dream. He met the Bennett brothers, Mark and David, and together they opened a new brewery in a quaint building in the centre of Morganton, a town in North Carolina. They took the name, Fonta Flora, from a nearby farming hamlet that was swept away in a 1916 flood. And so it was truly a coincidence that the name turned out to perfectly capture the beer styles the brewery became known for: beers based on the flora of the Appalachians. But the brewery is also an important symbol: “Wouldn’t it be weird if our name was Fonta Flora and all we made were German lagers”, jokes Todd. 

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In 2014, when Fonta Flora Brewery opened, Todd was already a major figure in the area’s microbrewing movement. And rightly so: he created one of the most unique brewing establishments in recent years, making beer that fully reflects the flavours of the hills and hollows of the mountain range where they are produced. No one does a better job than Todd of showcasing the biodiversity of the Appalachian Mountains, expressing all region’s terroir in a barrel.  

 

Like René Redzepi gathering sea lettuce from a Danish beach to serve at Noma, Boera gets his supplies from the mountains of the Pisgah National Forest, foraging in the park to find the best ingredients for his beer: peppery sumac, a North American plant with a tangy, citrus flavour, whole dandelions, from the roots to the flower, wild plum, elderberries, wild fennel, and the fruit of the pawpaw tree, native to the Appalachians, with its banana-mango flavour and hints of vanilla. The range of aromas available in the woods is limitless and Todd knows this well.

 

Todd relates that it was his girlfriend who introduced him foraging: they foraged during long walks in the woods, initially gathering roots like ginseng and wild ginger for herbal medicines as well as wild edible plants such as burdock, chickweed, and elderberry, all of which have become instrumental for his beer. What he can't find wild, Todd procures from small local growers who can supply him a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Using these ingredients, he brews Land Trust Appalachian Apple Saison, made with apples from a local grower and Lindera Benzoin, a small tree native to eastern North America which is very aromatic with a scent similar to lavender. He also brews sweet-tart Need a Hug Appalachian Wild Ale with local blueberries paired with wild elderberries. To give you an idea of just how powerful an idea can be, Fonta Flora has become a major asset to the local community and the little farms that supply the brewery are growing economically along with it. He therefore plays and essential to the community of Morganton.

 

The Appalachian people once used the produce from their land to make quick-fermented fruit and vegetable wines that were a bit rough and rather rustic. Today, however, Todd Boera uses this produce to make what he calls Appalachian wild ales (Editor’s note: Ales  are high-fermenting beers). Nothing less than beers inspired by the Belgian farmhouse tradition blended with local edible plants. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, activated by a mix of wild yeast and bacteria cultured from dandelion. The result varies depending on the plants used in the fermentation process, but all the beers made at Fonta Flora share a special characteristic that links them indiscriminately: they are crisp and clean, effervescent and thirst-quenching. 

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They are eccentric, tart or bitter, and refreshing with a strong hint of vegetables and fruit. Simply put, they evoke nature. Admittedly out of the ordinary, but they are vibrant; concentrated expressions of the region's terroir. The significance of Tod Boeri’s work made itself immediately known: his beer, Beets, Rhymes and Life (a charming play on words inspired by a Tribe Called Quest, a storied New York hip-hop group) he won a 2015 a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. It is a balanced vegetal and peppery brew, brilliant magenta in colour, with pungent notes of dried hay whose main ingredient is red beets. Unusual ingredients yet surprisingly appropriate for that role.

 

When asked why he bothers to make all these beers when perfectly good commercial beers have been produced for centuries, Boera replies: “I would say it’s same reason that drives a normal person to shop at a local farmers’ market rather than going to a big supermarket chain”. It’s a search for authenticity, sustainability and uniqueness. 

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