The M word
Jo Caird meets the intrepid brewers putting the ‘fun’ into ‘fungus’
Sunday 14 February 2021
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If you want someone to try a beer made with mushrooms, says Zoey Henderson, founder of the Fungtional Brewing Company, it makes sense to “be careful with the ‘m’ word”. She should know: her new range of non-alcoholic beers contain medicinal mushrooms known as myco adaptogens.
“If you tell them this is a mushroom beer, because of the way our brains work somebody might go, ‘oh, it’s really disgusting’. But if you just say, ‘this is a really great IPA and, by the way, it’s got this mushroom in it,’ they’ll be like, ‘oh, all right’.”
Zoey had no brewing experience to draw on when she came up with the idea of putting myco adaptogens into beer. She wasn’t even much of a beer drinker: “I would drink the odd cold beer on a hot day but it made me feel bloated and got me quite pissed pretty quickly.”
But, having found medicinal mushrooms helpful in addressing her own long-term health issues around allergies and asthma, Zoey was keen to find a product that would enable people to easily access what she regards as really beneficial alternative remedies. Craft beer seemed like the perfect vehicle, she says, because of how the flavour profiles of the mushrooms – “bitter, earthy, nutty, sweet” – line up with those of hops. She opted to go alcohol-free, vegan and gluten-free so as not to exclude non-drinkers and those with restrictive diets.
Zoey and a master brewer spent several months experimenting with different types of mushrooms and different styles of beer, ultimately settling upon a lager made with chaga mushrooms, an IPA made with lion’s mane mushrooms and a citra made with reishi mushrooms. With the people of the UK stuck at home under the first coronavirus lockdown at that stage, all their work took place remotely. “It was quite a surreal experience not to have actually met the person who’s developing your product,” she says.
Zoey is at pains to stress that her beers are not health supplements. And that the mushrooms she puts in them, while showing some benefits in relation to inflammation, immune response and slowing tumour growth in animal and test-tube studies, have not been tested on humans. All that said, she stands by her own experience of supplementing with myco adaptogens and points to the fact that “in Asia they’ve been using these mushrooms for thousands of years.”
Fungtn may be the first medicinal mushroom beers to launch in the UK, but the Fungtional Brewing Company is not the first brewery to experiment with mushrooms as an ingredient.
Estonia’s Põhjala Brewery launched Porcini, a 9% ABV Baltic porter made with, yep, you’ve guessed it, porcini mushrooms, in 2018. Head brewer Chris Pilkington, who moved to Estonia from Scotland to help set up Põhjala in 2014, says that he had been looking for a way to brew with mushrooms for years.
“Here in Estonia it’s very common to go foraging for mushrooms and most families have passed down their prime spots for generations with the prized porcini - “puravik” in Estonian – being a favourite, so we thought this would honour that tradition,” he explains.
It made sense to us that we could find a way to bring these bold, umami flavours to your glass
“We’re always looking for interesting ways to incorporate the wild ingredients from the forests of Estonia into our beers so it made sense to us that we could find a way to bring these bold, umami flavours to your glass.”
Chris opted for a Baltic porter to balance the intensity of the porcini. “Whilst with many ingredients we’re okay with them being a little bit dominant (hops or fruits for example), we were pretty convinced that mushroom would be far too overwhelming – you need a strong beer backbone to support this,” he says.
Travis Peterson, founder of Meadowlark Brewing in Montana, came to the exact opposite conclusion when creating their mushroom beer, a 6.5% ABV amber ale called Fungus Shui. First brewed in 2016, it features candy cap mushrooms, whose name comes from the fact that they smell just like maple syrup, a result of sharing some of the same chemical compounds as the sugary liquid.
Travis and his head brewer, Tim Schnars, were writing the recipe for the beer when Travis’s mum, Rhonda, strolled into the brewery (Meadowlark is a family business) and asked them what they were up to.
“We filled her in on our idea for a new stout featuring the mushrooms and she suggested going with a lighter style of beer so the mushroom flavour didn’t have to compete with the strong aromas of roasted barley and chocolate malt,” says Travis.
Cognizant that Meadowlark customers tend to prefer lighter beers, they took Rhonda’s advice, throwing some local honey into the mix for good measure to create a beverage they call a “dessert beer”. Travis enjoys a glass of Fungus Shui “at the end of a drinking session, as a sipper”, as well as using it to baste pork chops, reduce into sauces and as the basis for a delicious ice cream.
Brewing Fungus Shui felt like a bold move, Travis says, even for a brewery whose ‘Fruits & Fields’ series has included experiments with gingerbread, cranberry, vanilla, butternut squash and mango. For starters, candy caps are foraged, not cultivated, and are only available in the spring, making them an expensive ingredient. The local honey wasn’t cheap either.
And then there was the issue of the ‘m word’. “It can be a bit of a hard sell to get people to try something so far out of their wheel house and unfortunately when you distribute beer for hundreds of miles you just can’t evangelize to every customer,” says Travis.
Nevertheless, the gamble paid off: Fungus Shui has been a hit with customers and even won gold in the experimental beer category of the 2019 Great American Beer Festival.
“With all the beers being produced in the world we see a lot of gimmicks employed to create buzz,” says Travis. “We aren’t making a gimmick beer. We were careful in our consideration of using candy caps to not just make a great mushroom beer but to make a great beer that could compete with all beers.”
Luckily... there’s just so many fellow drinkers out there in search of something unique
Põhjala didn’t have any trouble persuading people to try their Porcini porter either, as it turned out. “Luckily with craft beer having moved in the direction it has these last few years, people seem very open to trying new tastes and there’s just so many fellow drinkers out there in search of something unique that it found a niche,” says head brewer Chris.
The success of these beers is likely down to more than flavour alone. Mouthfeel – the physical sensation of drinking – plays an important part in how we experience a beer, and mushrooms offer mouthfeel in spades. Says Chris of Porcini, “There’s a rich earthiness and complex set of tannins that fill the mouth whilst seeming to elevate the malty sweetness almost in the same way that barrel ageing can do.”
In a regular beer, this extra mouthfeel is a boon. In an alcohol-free beer like those created by Zoey Henderson, it’s a gamechanger, replacing the mouthfeel lost by stopping fermentation before alcohol levels rise.
Really, says Zoey, we shouldn’t be surprised that mushrooms and beer make such a great pairing. “Obviously beer is made with another fungus – yeast. People can’t really get their head around that. Every beer is really a mushroom beer already.”
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