Case Study: Scratch Brewing

Plan your detours: This tiny, made-from-scratch southern Illinois brewery has become a destination by specializing in highly drinkable beers made from seasonal ingredients—such as mushrooms, tree bark, or leaves—that its duo find or grow themselves.

Joe Stange Jul 17, 2020 - 16 min read

Case Study: Scratch Brewing Primary Image

Cofounders and brewers Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon at the bar of their Serpent Room. Photo: Aaron Kleidon.

Like the foraged ingredients that Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon toss into their kettle, Scratch Brewing sprouted up in this woody patch of Illinois and then grew organically.

Scratch sits in a part of the state where the tilled flatness, as it stretches southward, starts to get a bit hillier. There was nothing in this spot before 2012—just a gently sloping property with lots of trees, amid the farms about 20 miles northwest of Carbondale. Kleidon’s family owned the land. The friends and business partners built the small, house-like main building—while homebrewing hundreds of batches and experimenting with ingredients—before they opened the brewery’s doors in 2013.

The place has grown bit by bit, since then. They’ve done most of it themselves. After the taproom and brewhouse/kitchen, they built the wood-fired brick oven, used for pizzas, sourdough bread, and for toasting various ingredients. Here and there, they salvaged bits from elsewhere. The bricks on the patio came from an old shoe factory in nearby Murphysboro. “We just started on a shoestring budget, as most people do,” Kleidon says. “But then as more money was available, we were able to build on here and there, little bits and pieces.”

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Left: The patio outside the taproom. Right: Josephson pouring a beer in the taproom. Photo: Joe Stange

They built a stage and a modest pavilion. Their beer garden grew to accommodate more weekend visitors. Recently they added space with more room for barrels and an additional tasting room—the Serpent Room—brightly decorated by a local artist. Kleidon built the tabletops from the gym floor of a local elementary school.

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Scratch’s success story is not the usual kind. It’s not a story of fast growth and ballooning volumes. This is not about meeting the demand for hazy IPAs or pastry stouts. Theirs is a story about realizing a far-fetched idea in a far-flung location, getting their name out there, and making it work.

Becoming a Destination

Scratch beers get around. The first place I saw them was in Berlin, at a tasting that was part of the annual Berliner Weisse Summit last summer. Emerging from a universe far removed from the Reinheitsgebot, the beers’ distinctiveness and drinkability—despite ingredients such as cherry bark and burdock—inevitably raised eyebrows.

Drop any misconceptions you might have about hippie homebrewers dropping dirty mushrooms and leaves into iffy homebrews. The beers are a triumph. The Great American Beer Festival medal they won in 2017—a bronze for their Oyster Weisse, a lemony-tart and oddly quaffable brew made with oyster mushrooms and turmeric—was no accident. Neither is the news—just before we go to press—that the Scratch is a James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Producer. There is a reason that people make the pilgrimage—and they do, sometimes taking long detours from cross-country road trips. (Interstates 55, 57, and 64 aren’t that far… but they’re not that close either.)

One way that they have been able to remind people that they are here and worth visiting is by publishing a book in 2016, The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch.

The book includes a wide range of recipes based on various ingredients, with advice for growing or finding them, all organized by season. It has sold about 5,000 copies. “It’s kind of a slow way to advertise,” Kleidon says. “People may not get here for four or five years, but then they trickle in: ‘Yeah, we have your book!’” They even met a fan in Spain who had a copy.

Last year they brewed about 260 barrels of beer—about the same as the past few years. “I think it’ll be about the same this year, too,” Kleidon says. Nobody here is getting rich. “It’s just enough to take care of the employees who work here.” The team is currently comprised of three full-timers—including Josephson and Kleidon—and three part-timers who help when the taproom is open on weekends. Their fellow cofounder, Ryan Tockstein, has since moved on to become quality manager at Uinta Brewing in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Big growth was never the plan. “Honestly, these days, the way the industry’s changed, I would be nervous about jumping into something like that,” Josephson says. “We’re in a rural area. We can only get so much foot traffic here.” They do have a loyal cadre of locals, but the population base is small. “We have seen the demographics change,” she says. “We do get more travelers than we used to. We do have to be a little bit more of a destination.”

Those who make the pilgrimage won’t find many hotels nearby, but there are some cabins and vacation rentals. There is also plenty of camping at the nearby Shawnee National Forest. “There are thousands and thousands of acres around Kincaid Lake,” Kleidon says. “That’s all free. I take it for granted, living so close to it.”

Another way to get people to make the trek: They host about a half-dozen festivals of their own throughout the year. There is an anniversary bash in March, a fest devoted to beers with native fruits, another for mushroom beers, and an Oktoberfest. When I visit in mid-February, they are gearing up for Steinbierfest—featuring beers brewed using the near-extinct German method of dropping red-hot rocks into the kettle. “We have 10 of these steinbiers that we’ve done altogether,” Josephson says. “They all had a different tree or plant or something in them.”

They bottle about half their beer and keg the rest. They sell most of it on site, but they do some modest distribution, mostly in Illinois. They also take beer to the occasional festival.

They have seen bottles of their more coveted beers, such as Blackberry and Lavender or Strawberry Rhubarb, appear on trading sites or the secondary market. They don’t mind. “It’s advertising,” Kleidon says. “It’s just helping our word of mouth.”

Being where they are, getting beers to enthusiasts in a fair way is not a problem. “We’re never going to have a line out the door,” Josephson says. “Even if somebody came by and said they wanted a few cases, I’d say, ‘Go for it.’ It’s really special when people make an effort to come here because it isn’t so easy to get here.”

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Kleidon adds: “We want to make everything available to anyone, here. Anyone can come and taste anything we make.”

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The menu board at Scratch constantly changes with the season as the brewery produces around 100 different beers per year. Photo: Joe Stange

Keeping It Small and Seasonal

Typically, Scratch brews more than 100 different types of beer each year. That is largely driven by the seasonal nature of the ingredients and how they want visitors and drinkers to participate in that. “About every two months you’ll have a different experience each time,” Kleidon says. “We get people coming in at different times for different beers.”

One customer, for example, always looks for the hickory beers. “Her dad loved to barbecue, so the smell of hickory reminds her of her dad,” Kleidon says. The brewers like to collect hickory bark and toast it in their oven, then put it in the boil for 60 minutes. The result, Josephson says, is “a toasted-marshmallow-incense-campfire kind of aroma.”

Most of their beers are near 5 percent ABV. That’s partly because many visitors have to drive, but it’s also because the brewers happen to like them that way. “Our goal has always been drinkability, which is why our alcohol levels are really moderate, and our botanical additions are, too,” Josephson says.

In the kitchen is a 60-gallon stainless kit that they still use for smaller batches. Near the brick oven is the original 100-gallon copper kettle they used in the early days. “Having a smaller system those first few years was very advantageous,” Kleidon says. “We brewed hundreds of batches on that system. Just the repetition of being on that system, and tweaking, we were able to learn a lot.”

Outside is their larger kettle: an impressive 300-gallon copper cauldron, custom built, based on the smaller one. Insulated by a ceramic-fiber blanket, it’s heated by a wood fire, just like the brick oven. “We feel there’s a really nice amount of caramelization we get from having a fire,” Kleidon says. It doesn’t need a ton of fuel. “Every BTU from that fire goes straight into the liquid and the copper. About two wheelbarrows of wood will easily boil it for two, two and a half hours.”

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They use primarily pilsner malt, and they like the flavors and balance they get from longer boils. “Ninety percent of the time there’s a 90-minute boil at least,” Kleidon says. “And most of the time we go longer.” In fact, they recently attempted a 12-hour boil of a simple pilsner-malt recipe, just to see how much flavor they could get from it. Pump troubles meant that the boil lasted an extra three hours. By the end, the accurately named 15-Hour Ale had gone from 10 barrels of wort down to three. It wound up as a rich copper-brown ale of 9 percent ABV, with malty depth of caramel and dark stone-fruit flavors. It got rave reviews.

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THe wood-fired kettle and open-top puncheon fermenters. Photo: Joe Stange

Good for Bread, Good for Beer

The oven isn’t the only link between the bread and the beer, nor the most important. That would be their house sourdough yeast culture, which ferments both. It has proven to be incredibly versatile. A modest amount of hops can inhibit the yeast’s lactic bacteria, and then it develops a more saison-like profile, with mild esters and soft, spicy phenols. But if they use fewer hops, the beers can develop a quenching lactic tartness. All tend to finish light and dry on the palate.

An arrangement with the labs at nearby Southern Illinois University has helped them to get a handle on their various critters. “Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about our sourdough culture and what’s in it,” Josephson says. Sometimes, they allow other bugs to get involved, such as Brettanomyces via select barrels in the cellar.

Their current fermentation capacity is 35 barrels, with the two largest vessels holding eight barrels each. To fill them, they mash in a pair of bulbous, oaken wine puncheons with false bottoms and spigots. They can get about four barrels of wort from each.

Besides foraging, they grow a lot of what they use, for both the beers and the pizzas: beets, carrots, burdock, ginger, rhubarb, tomatoes, apples, pears, plums, and figs, among other things. They also built a greenhouse, which helps them to grow more ginger as well as pizza herbs and arugula year-round. And there are hops: They’ve planted about 100 rhizomes so far. A few other things grow on nearby farms. “And then we get lots of stuff from the forest,” Kleidon says. “It’s all around here. Tree leaves and bark. Mushrooms.”

The mushrooms include chanterelles, which lend a distinctly bright, fruity flavor to beer. “Apricots don’t really grow out here,” Kleidon says. “But we can make a beer that you think they’re in. It reminds me exactly of what it’s like when you’re picking those and you have a bunch of those in a bucket.”

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The bright taproom with work from local artists creates a fun, photo-worthy environment. Photo: Joe Stange

From the Ground Up

Besides lower cost, there is another strength to the rural, DIY approach: “You start with a blank slate,” Kleidon says. “It’s our own. We didn’t have much to think about emulating when we started out here.”

Do they ever wish they had done it differently—located in a city, perhaps, where more people could buy their beers? Asked that question in late winter, Kleidon is candid: “This time of year, you think about that a lot when it’s slow,” he says. “You can argue that this location has been both a blessing and a curse.”

They are also keenly aware that a higher-population area would have cost them a lot more. “We were able to do a lot of the building out here ourselves,” Kleidon says. “That’s one reason we’re able to stretch a little further.”

After thinking a moment, he adds: “Actually, I would love to have a city sewer instead of having to deal with septic systems.”

They support local artists when they can. Each year they commission a couple more of the varied, handmade steinkrugs for the taproom. “It’s a way we can buy high-quality things, and it helps some people in the area who are making that stuff,” Kleidon says.

The brewery itself continues to grow like that—a bit at a time, as needed. However, they don’t expect production to increase significantly any time soon. They like their size; it keeps them nimble. They don’t even need to schedule out the recipes for the coming weeks. Sometimes, Josephson and Kleidon don’t decide what they’re going to brew until they fire up the kettle in the morning—then they go and find what they want from the woods or the garden. “We try to pick stuff as late as we can—five, 10 minutes before it goes into the kettle sometimes,” Kleidon says.

“A lot of the stuff that we brew, it really does work best on the scale we have now,” Josephson says. “It allows us to change based on what’s growing in the season, which is nice. It’s the way we like to brew, and it makes us really flexible.”

Joe Stange is Managing Editor of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® and the Brewing Industry Guide®. Have story tips or suggestions? Contact him at [email protected].

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