The date was June 2, 2011, and my former colleague covering the arts in C. Springs, Edie Adelstein, published an announcement of a then-new series in conjunction with UCCS’ Galleries of Contemporary Art. The project was called Beers Made By Walking, conceived by artist and then-faculty member Eric Steen. The concept was pretty simple: go on a hike and identify plants that could be utilized in the beer-making process; partner with a brewery to create a beer based on the hike; educate people on their environment; enjoy the beer. Steen told the Indy at the time that beer can be more than just a drink, but “a powerful tool for social change.”
Today, over a decade later, the artist (now based in Portland, Oregon) has collaborated with more than 200 breweries around the U.S. GOCA is bringing him back out for a BMBW event that features a free First Friday pop-up exhibit on June 3 (with photos by Daniel Flanders; 5-8 p.m.; 121 S. Tejon St., #100) and a beer tasting at the same location on Saturday June 4 from 2-4:30 p.m. Steen and Flanders will speak prior to the tasting of beers, which costs $25 and includes light apps and a souvenir glass.
Steen had returned to the Springs last year to go on a hike in Sondermann Park with Catamount Institute, Fountain Creek Brewshed Alliance and reps from four participating breweries. At this tasting, Atrevida, Goat Patch, Local Relic (who started its own Farm to Fermenter program with local urban gardeners) and Cerberus breweries will pour what they created based on the hike.
I caught up with Steen in late April and asked him to reflect on the last decade of BMBW; what it means to him, and some beer-nerdy things learned along the way. First, he offered a sneak peek of one of the beers we’ll see on June 4 (cautioning that tickets are limited and expected to sell out): Cerberus has made a “vibrant farmhouse ale with red currants and chokecherries aged in a sherry-finished bourbon barrel.” Steen says to expect “upfront tangy fruit notes that lead to a dry finish with notes of vanilla and toasted almonds.”
On that note, I inquired about a potential common thread to beers made over the years, which led him to think regionally, first sharing ingredients that make great beer: “In the Pacific Northwest, my favorite unknown ingredient is salal.” That’s an evergreen shrub that produces small blue berries. “... It turned the beer bright pink and gave it a nice tartness, earthier than raspberries.”
Another Pacific Northwest ingredient is Western Redcedar. “This is not only my favorite tree, but it makes delicious beer. You can add some boughs to the filter the grain bed. A little goes a long way and adds a nice woody, leathery and peppery flavor to the malt backbone of the beer.” And in Colorado, it’s those chokecherries that Cerberus is using this year. “Scott Simmons and Pikes Peak Brewing made a chokecherry beer during the second year of BMBW that really stood out,” he recalls.
What about ingredients that haven’t made for a good brew? “A lot of the ingredients have either never been used, or are used very rarely so sometime brewers don’t know the best way to use something,” he says. “Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the caveat here.”
A couple of examples here gives are sweet root, a perennial herb that “has a licorice taste, ruined the beer lines, and everyone had licorice-smelling burps after drinking it.” And mushrooms, for which he acknowledges: “some people love mushroom beers. I love to eat mushrooms, but my personal opinion is that they aren’t great in beer.”
OK, so a subjective element remains to BMBW experimental brews. “One of my favorite things to do on the BMBW hikes is to tell brewers that they could be the first brewery to ever make a beer with the plant we’re looking at,” he says. “Some of my favorite BMBW experiences include a juniper and sage IPA by Deschutes Brewery [Bend, Oregon], which they even put into seasonal six-packs for a couple years; a salt-pond-themed hike in San Jose, California that yielded what may be the first pickleweed beer; and Scratch Brewing’s [Ava, Illinois] ale with more than 100 different wild plants.”
My final question for Steen: What’s the significance of coming back to BMBW’s origin point?
“I’ve always been so thankful to UCCS GOCA and the beer community in the Pikes Peak region for giving this experimental project a chance,” he says. “Colorado Springs is where Beers Made By Walking came to life; the mountainous landscape and high desert flora made the perfect jumping-off point for the program. Something connected in that first year, and now I’ve worked with some of the greatest craft breweries in the country. It feels great to bring the program back home with a slightly updated format.”