By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s no secret that Oregon’s soil is rich with buried treasure. But only a small segment of the population possesses the knowledge to unearth the goods.
The hunt is unusual — the map moves and the untrained eye can’t tell whether they’ve discovered prize or poison. But over the years, foragers have helped create a thriving mushroom and truffle industry in this state. Lately, beer lovers have been able to sample these intriguing forest organisms in liquid form, as an increasing number of local brewers have started experimenting with tops and tubers to create unique seasonals and one-offs. To better understand these wild ingredients as well as how they can be incorporated into the brewing process, two beer makers helped explain their methods. Additionally, a fourth-generation chef at a mushroom- and truffle-themed restaurant described the practice of gathering the traveling fungi.
“The best season for hunting mushrooms is the season when it rains,” said Christopher Czarnecki, head-of-the-kitchen at The Joel Palmer House in Dayton.
That means hunting for mushrooms in Oregon is somewhat of a marathon. Of course, no two years are exactly the same when it comes to the harvest. A plot of land that was flourishing one season may become a dud the next. Czarnecki said rainfall, humidity and elevation can all affect growth. He’s pleased that 2016 has been particularly good for morels and chanterelles. Just like with crops you’d find at the farmers market, the seasons produce different varieties of mushroom. Finicky morels, for instance, tend to pop up in spring in Oregon and are known for emerging from the charred land following fires.
“Morels are particular. Those are the ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego’ of the mushroom world,” Czarnecki described.
Chanterelles, however, tend to be a little more reliable. Currently, professional and home cooks are taking advantage of Oregon’s fall chanterelles. A smaller, firmer version arrives in spring. The closest thing the state has to a dry period for mushrooms is in the dead of summer. But Czarnecki explained that even then the motivated hunter need only drive a little farther out of town. The region’s consistently damper areas, like coastal woods or the Mount Hood National Forest, still host mushrooms even when temperatures climb in the Willamette Valley.
Czarnecki is deeply familiar with mushroom growth, and not just because he needs to know how to plan his menu. His family does much of the foraging to supply the restaurant, which was owned by his father before he took it over nearly 10 years ago. The tradition of hunting for and cooking with mushrooms has been passed down, father to son, four times, with Czarnecki’s great-grandfather opening what was initially a tavern in 1916.
Many types of mushrooms can be found within the state’s borders, and Czarnecki isn’t the only one who’s conducted some culinary research on the various options available. Andrew Lamont, head brewer at Old Town Brewing in Portland, can tick off the list of mushrooms that didn’t make the cut: oyster, portobello, shitake. When he decided he wanted to make a mushroom beer, his trial work started in the kitchen. Lamont shared that his wife hates mushrooms, so examining options for the recipe was actually a fun opportunity to cook with an ingredient that rarely sees his stove. Ultimately, for the beer he envisioned, most of the flavors were dull. Lamont wanted something that stood out. He eventually found what he was looking for in the candy cap, which has more of a maple syrup character instead of the typical earthy notes found in many mushrooms.
So why the foray into fungi, beyond yeast, to begin with? Turns out, the answer is pretty simple.
“I’ve never had a mushroom beer!” Lamont said with a big laugh. “That was really the reason behind it. I never had one and it was just one of those ingredients that I never really heard anybody doing before, so I decided to give it a go.”
Lamont was also looking to bring a bold, new creation to the Oregon Brewers Festival last year. The event is one of the nation’s longest running when it comes to beer, which means plenty of producers use the platform to showcase something unusual. For Lamont, that became 1-Up Mushroom Ale, with a nod to Nintendo nerds in the name.
Once the mushroom was chosen, Lamont had to figure out how to incorporate them into the batch. Rather than tossing candy caps into the wort, he “dry hopped” them after standard fermentation. The cold soak lasted almost two weeks, which was plenty of time to allow the sweet mushroom flavor to make its imprint on the liquid. Lamont also researched this route by making a tea beforehand — a practice he employs when working with any sort of powder or peel.
“So I’ll take the dried mushroom, or whatever [the ingredient] is, put it in some hot water, let it steep for a certain amount of time and then I’ll actually taste that tea,” Lamont outlined. “That really gives you a good idea of how those flavors are going to be put into the beer.”
If he likes what hits his palate, the next step is a two-day cold soak in a growler. Almost immediately after a sip of that candy cap tea, Lamont realized Old Town had a beer on tap that would serve as a solid base — an alt. To help ensure the batch with mushrooms wouldn’t taste like a sugar bomb — going form a subtle sweetness to a triple-decker waffle tower dripping in maple syrup and melted Werther’s Originals — Lamont toned down the caramel notes and amped up the bitterness. He only needed about 2 ounces of candy cap per barrel, the supply coming from Oregon Mushrooms LLC in Southern Oregon. In the end, he struck a good balance as evidenced by an August limited-edition bottle release of what many fans have described as “pancake beer” going so fast, it even surprised Lamont.
“I just didn’t think that many people would want a mushroom beer!” he laughed.
Truffle beers have also proven popular, possibly in part because they’re still extraordinarily rare. However, a few Oregon breweries have released bottles made with the beneath-the-surface brethren of the mushroom. One of those is La Truffe, a stout infused with Oregon white truffles and hazelnuts — the result of a collaboration between Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Newberg and the Oregon Truffle Festival. The event, which takes place again Jan. 20-22, 2017, happens to coincide with the beginning of harvest season for the Oregon Winter White. The state is home to four of its own truffle species recognized for their culinary value, according to the Festival. And you don’t necessarily need the exhaustive search party to track them down like you do with mushrooms. Chef Czarnecki explained that if you return to a tree where you found truffles before, you’ll find them there again as long as the roots weren’t damaged.
But that doesn’t blunt the thrill of the hunt. Wolves & People founder Christian DeBenedetti exuded enthusiasm when recounting the opportunity he had to accompany experts and their truffle dogs.
“One minute, you’re standing out in an open field; next you’re crouching in the underbrush of a young pine forest. And the dogs are going crazy, and pretty soon you’re digging,” he described. “You’re on your hands and knees digging through the soil to find your own truffles and picking them out, one by one. It’s really incredible.”
After that, he knew he had to follow through with an idea he’d been kicking around for years: making a truffle beer. DeBenedetti approached Oregon Truffle Festival organizers, who essentially ended up loaning him 5 pounds of Oregon white truffle for the project. That’s right — Wolves & People could return the fungi since they weren’t being destroyed or altered by the brewing technique. So truffles that helped shape La Truffe could have gone on to make another truffle lover happy by showing up in a different form on a dinner plate.
The borrowed truffles got very cozy with 50 pounds of custom-roasted hazelnuts from Springbrook Farm near the brewery. “We don’t like to go into extreme detail,” DeBenedetti explained, “about our method.” But he did say that the filbert was an excellent vehicle for the truffles.
“We found that by infusing those hazelnuts, which are very rich in fatty acids, with the aroma of truffles that the essence really kind of hitchhiked into the beer nicely,” DeBenedetti said.
Using a whole truffle “in all its glory,” as DeBenedetti puts it, was imperative. Experts advised him to avoid extracts, oils and salts, which are sometimes composed of artificial or chemical ingredients. And then, of course, there’s that addicting smell emitted by a ripe truffle that just can’t be beat. Researchers have found that that truffles have chemical compounds that mimic the reproductive pheromones of mammals. What’s not so clear, though, is how that translates in terms of flavor.
“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘What does a truffle taste like?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it doesn’t really taste like anything.’ It in itself does not have any flavor. It’s all in the aroma,” Chef Czarnecki said.
DeBenedetti characterized the gas as exotic and almost fuel-like. “Some have compared it to the aroma of ozone, which is not something I could pick out, necessarily, in a lineup. But once you learn to identify the smell, it’s a little fusel-y.”
The key is that the gases attach themselves to fatty oils — those found in meats, cheeses and eggs. When a truffle mingles with steak or butter, for instance, it imparts its unique properties to those foods.
“Something fatty that really likes to coat the palate, that’s when you can ‘taste it’ because what’s happening is its coating the inside of your mouth. You’re inhaling, you’re exhaling,” Chef Czarnecki said. “You’re getting what my dad likes to refer to as the ‘truffle burp,’ and that’s the closest thing you ever get to tasting the truffle.”
While most brewers haven’t yet taken a chance on mushrooms or truffles, Lamont and DeBenedetti seem to be part of a growing, brave group — including Portland’s Base Camp Brewing Company and de Garde Brewing in Tillamook — that embraces fungus along with all of the challenges and rewards that come with it. Increased interest in these ingredients can be attributed to a few factors: brewer curiosity, the urge to express originality and relying on the local environment to provide sustainable, inspiring new resources.
“To me, it’s just something that’s unique. Something different. Whenever you go to a bar, it’s the inquisitive nature of, ‘Hmmm … mushrooms,’” said Lamont. “I think brewers are just being more creative, especially up in this region.”
“I think any brewer who is interested in taking his or her brewing to the next level in terms of local ingredients — foraging, sourcing from right here where we live — that it’s a natural progression to try something with mushrooms or truffles,” DeBenetti offered. “As difficult as it may be, I think it’s at the very least a fascinating experiment, and at its best can be truly something delicious.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.