Todd Steven Boera is at the helm of his 3.5-barrel brewhouse mashing in the 2016 batch of Fonta Flora Brewery’s Urban Monk Imperial Stout. He’s working with his new assistant brewer, Adam Glover, the first employee he has hired since opening in 2013. “Up until two weeks ago, I was doing all the brewing, kegging, cleaning, barrel aging, fruiting...everything,” says Boera. “A lot of people assume we have a much larger system with the variety of beers that we’re making.”
Imperial stout is not a beer style commonly associated with Fonta Flora (Morganton, North Carolina) nor is the flagship West Coast–style Hop Beard IPA, despite their popularity. “Though we try to keep all kinds of beer styles flowing, we actually have a strong saison focus here,” Boera says, “mainly because the whole point of that style was a farmer’s kitchen-sink beer. Whatever Belgian farmhouse brewers had on their farms were the ingredients used to brew the style.”
Boera’s concept is greatly influenced by his travels in Europe after college, right around the time that homebrewing took over his life. “I was already really interested in saisons, spontaneously fermented beers, and sours in general,” he remembers. “I immersed myself in a lot of Belgian and French beer culture while I was out there, and almost immediately after coming back from traveling, I landed my first professional brewing job.”
That gig was at Catawba Brewing Company in Asheville, where Boera worked from 2009 to 2013 before meeting his business partners for Fonta Flora. They chose Morganton, North Carolina, as their home and named the brewery after the Fonta Flora community that was flooded in the early 1900s. “In our community in western North Carolina, there’s some folklore around the Fonta Flora name,” Boera says. “The town existed on the banks of the Linville River before Lake James was dammed and flooded the community. That’s a pretty common thing all over the Southeast—a lot of towns were forced to evacuate because of damming up rivers. Our logo is often mistaken for mountains, but it’s really those historic buildings with the waves.”
The name Fonta Flora also alludes to the brewery’s agricultural values. “The driving force of everything we do here is agriculture that’s local to our area,” says Boera. “My degree from college is in sustainable agriculture. That’s a huge part of the foundation of Fonta Flora. So people fixated on our name because a lot of folks know about this forgotten community, and then we started making beers with local flora. When we heard that name we thought oh damn, this works really well.”
Upwards of eighty percent of the beers made at Fonta Flora use ingredients grown in Morganton and the surrounding area, including malted barley sourced from local maltsters such as Riverbend Malt House, herbs, spices, fruit, vegetables, and various plants.
One such beer is Supper Table, a sessionable copper-colored ale brewed with local molasses and 200 pounds (91 kg) of sweet potatoes. There’s also Pomme de Femme Saison, a collaboration with Brewski in Helsingborg, Sweden, created with apples and basil; and Bloody Butcher, a Grisette brewed with heritage red corn, to name a few.
Most of the beers at Fonta Flora are what Boera categorizes as Appalachian Wild Ale. One such beer is Rhythm Rug, a tart saison fermented with the brewery’s mixed house cultures and then fermented again with four pounds per gallon (1.8 kg/ 3.8 l) of fresh local strawberries.
“The term ‘Appalachian wild ale’ refers to what breweries such as Rare Barrel or Wicked Weed are calling American sour ales,” says Boera of his chosen beer nomenclature. “When I’m giving a beer that term, I’m talking about mixed-culture fermentation.” (Check out a recipe for a Fonta Flora Appalachian wild ale here.)
The house yeast blend at Fonta Flora is a mix of lab yeast and bacterial pitches, and what Boera calls “happy accidents” from microorganisms in the raw ingredients he uses. “Over time, our house blend has developed nice complexities and awesome acidity,” he says. “Beers that I’m calling ‘Appalachian Wild’ spend six months to a year in oak barrels and are always bottle-conditioned with mixed cultures that keep evolving in the bottle.”
In Boera’s opinion, “Bottling with champagne yeast is kind of a drag.” He’d much rather use mixes of unique yeast and bacteria to create flavors that can’t be found elsewhere. “We’re creating flavors that are much different from other sour beers out there,” he explains.
Those flavors aren’t just different from mixed cultures, either. They often represent the use of raw, heritage (or local) grains. “I work with Red Tail Grains, a farm near Durham; the farmer grows the coolest grains—I clear him out every year,” he says. “I’m able to create more local beers because I’m willing to work with raw grains. Most often I have to conduct a cereal mash to break them down, grinding them up as much as I can. I soak them in water and bring them to a boil to allow the grains to soak up water and break down before adding in supplementary malted grains. This process creates unparalleled flavors, and these varieties have completely different flavor profiles than what’s usually available on a larger scale.”
The next phase in Boera’s crafting of Appalachian Wild Ale is a coolship, so that Boera can capture even more of the flavors of the region directly via spontaneous fermentation. He and his business partners just purchased 10 acres of land near the original Fonta Flora settlement where they are building a farm brewery that will support fermentation with naturally occuring, airborne yeast. “The setting is going to be pretty special,” Boera says. “Having the ability to grow some of our own ingredients is going to tie everything together and get brewing back to the farm. Obviously, breweries in cities are great, but the agriculture component of brewing is often forgotten, much like the town we named our business after. We’re bringing it back.”
PHOTOS: COURTESY FONTA FLORA BREWERY