Creamy foam, thick and pale brown, floats atop the dark brew Jacob Pressey sets on a comfortably cluttered bar at Humboldt Regeneration. Outside the roll-up door, rain hammers the corrugated green awning and douses the parking lot of this industrial strip behind McKinleyville's Central Avenue. Inside, beer fans are in hoodies and knit caps, idly petting Sitka, a big white shepherd who sometimes hangs out here with his owner. The guy next to me is drinking one of Pressey's "improperly hopped ales," a series of brews that cater to — and poke gentle fun at — hopheads like me.
Pressey only serves tasters of what I'm about to drink, a beer like nothing else you can buy from any Humboldt brewery. It is a gruit — an ale bittered with herbs, roots or other ingredients instead of hops — but it's not just any gruit. This one is also made entirely of Humboldt-grown ingredients.
The yeast, starting from a commercial strain of Wyeast Laboratories in Oregon, has multiplied and divided in Pressey's brewery tanks so many times that he figures every cell is now made in Humboldt. Most of the barley grew on land that Pressey farms in McKinleyville and the rest came from Southern Humboldt. The honey came from Fieldbrook. And the bittering agent was reishi, a mushroom with a long history of medicinal lore, raised by Mycality Mushrooms in Arcata.
Yes, this is mushroom-bittered beer. Delicious mushroom-bittered beer. It's dry and earthy, a little like a porter but without much malty sweetness. This Black Grut Bier is on a nitro tap, getting its bubbles from a blend of 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide. Like most nitros, it has a rich, creamy mouth feel. I love this gruit because it's complex and flavorful, because it's Humboldt in a glass and because it's history in a glass.
Before the ascendency of hops, brewers used gruit (sometimes spelled grut) for flavoring and preserving beer, and for creating all sorts of real or imagined effects. (Aphrodisiac, anyone?) Gruit refers to a medly of plants that varied depending on everything from growing conditions to local tax and land ownership rules. Common medieval ingredients included rosemary, yarrow, juniper and lavender, along with mugwort and bog myrtle. Contemporary craft gruit brewers stick with the early palate or get wilder: lemon grass, caraway, clover tops, heather tips, cherry bark, mushrooms.
But it's hard to find gruits. Even at the more adventurous craft breweries, you're more likely to find beer that includes other herbs or spices along with the hops, rather than an entirely hop-free brew. International Gruit Day, established three years ago in an effort to popularize a gruit revival, lists just 30 participating breweries on its website for 2016, mostly in the United States and Canada. By comparison, there are hundreds of craft breweries in California alone.
So we're lucky that the style is brewed here at all, and luckier still that Pressey brews more than one. He's made several batches of his much sweeter, saison-evoking Cabernet Thyme Gruit, which is also on tap now. It's an interesting brew, and Pressey tells me it's the customer favorite among his gruits so far. He's planning another gruit soon with lavender, honey and sage.
If you want to taste his mushroom-bittered beer, don't wait too long. Pressey didn't make much of it, which is why he's only selling tasters, and he doesn't plan another all-Humboldt beer until his crops come in this fall.
Once Pressey's gruits pique your interest, you'll be primed for the myriad flavors and brewing styles at next month's Humboldt Homebrew Festival at the Arcata Community Center from 2 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 2 ($45, $40 advance). For sheer verve and variety, you won't find a better local beer fest, and it benefits Engineers without Borders. This one has sold out in advance the past two years, which is why I'm mentioning it now. You can buy tickets at Wildberries or online through Brown Bag tickets, and keep an eye on the festival's Facebook page so you can get yours before they're gone. Meanwhile, there's March.
A Date With Beer
Today through mid-March: Check out the boozy, intense world of barley wines during a rolling barley wine festival at Dead Reckoning Tavern in Arcata. Sets of five or six varieties will be on offer, culminating with a final round of favorites in mid-March.
Thursday, March 3: Talk about making beer, learn from experts and taste examples during the Humboldt Homebrewers monthly meeting, at 7 p.m. at Humboldt Beer Works in Eureka. Free to attend, $20 for an annual membership.
Saturday, March 5: Mad River Night at Siren's Song Tavern in Eureka, with taps devoted to specialties and favorite standbys. Get your Mad on without driving to Blue Lake.
Early March: The White Chocolate Grand Cru, a Belgian triple spiced with Valencia orange peel and white chocolate, is expected on tap at Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville.
Saturday, March 12: The Local beer bar in Eureka celebrates its fourth anniversary from 2 to 11 p.m. Expect a wide range of rare and aged beers, along with special food offerings.
Sunday, March 13: Salve your sleep-deprived soul with an all-day happy hour at Mad River Brewery in Blue Lake, in honor of Daylight Savings Time.
Save the dates for Beer Week, which has shifted from fall to spring this year. Stay tuned for info on the parties, pairings and special events April 1 to 10 beginning with the homebrew fest.