This is not a list of desert-island beers, or even the objectively “best” beers that Marika Josephson has ever had. Rather, it’s a journey through beers and breweries that informed the philosophies behind Scratch—the tiny rural brewery outside of Ava, Illinois, which she founded with business partner and fellow brewer Aaron Kleidon in 2013.
Over the past eight years, Josephson and Kleidon have charted an unusual path, focusing on foraged ingredients (from mushrooms to tree bark) while brewing over a wood-fired kettle. Josephson says that there was no clear map to follow when they set out on this path, but that was all the more reason to embark on the journey.
These six beers were beacons that illuminated six key points along the way.
“I grew up in San Diego, surrounded by hoppy beers. My dad was a homebrewer, and he dragged me through all kinds of breweries growing up. So it felt very familiar and close to me to be around beer, and especially hoppy beer. Saison Dupont was the first beer that I had that felt so different and tasted so different. It made a huge impression on me—this is a dry, effervescent beer that’s intended to go with food and a whole lifestyle. It doesn’t punch you in the face, but it’s so warm and welcoming. It just has this character of friendliness—I immediately connected to it. I don’t remember it being a skunked beer, although I know that it was in a green bottle. That is not one of the things that has stuck with me over the years about Saison Dupont. I know for a lot of brewers, that is one of the things that they have kept with them—the nostalgia for the green bottle. But in fact, I stopped buying Saison Dupont for a while after every bottle I picked up was semi-skunked.
“But I was so happy to go to Belgium a couple of years ago, visit the brewery, and have the beer fresh. I got to reexperience the revelation what that beer was: the soft, spicy floral character, the dryness and effervescence. I fell in love with it again, and I’m happy to call it one of the first beers I really loved as a homebrewer—and one of the beers that Aaron and I both wanted to be the base style of what we were going to be making at Scratch. The saison style works so well with so many plants, and that’s one reason it became a big part of what we’re doing.”
“Bière de garde is an important style for us, too, and I almost chose one of those. But I opted instead for Brasserie Caracole’s Ambrée as my second beer, as a way of talking about our development.
“By necessity, the very first beer we brewed at Scratch was over a wood fire. We didn’t have our propane hooked up at the brewery, so an auctioneer friend of ours gave us a copper apple-butter kettle that held 30 gallons of liquid. We brewed our very first beer, perhaps fortuitously, in this copper apple-butter kettle. I think our brew day was 12 hours long and involved too many fires. We heated up everything—the mash, the sparge water, the wort—in this little kettle, and put it in a tank at the end of the day. It was so cold; it was November. Everything about it was ‘Scratchy’ though in the end. The amazing thing was, a couple of weeks later, we tasted it, and holy cow, the beer was amazing. Just that extra little bit of kettle caramelization that came from the hot fire on that copper added that little extra character that made it interesting and unique. We loved that beer, and it was the first beer we brewed at Scratch.
“Fast-forward a little bit, and we were talking about how to grow Scratch up in the brewhouse—what size equipment we want, how we want to design it. We’d been brewing in a copper kettle here and there for a couple of years, and I think I actually emailed Stan Hieronymus asking him, ‘What breweries are brewing over a wood fire? Where can we go for more information about this, or how would we design a brewhouse around this?’ I think he was the one who pointed me to Caracole.
“I remember, we were up in Chicago at Hopleaf, and they had a huge array of Caracole beers. I think we drank every one, and I remember Aaron and I looking at each other thinking, ‘We can do this.’
“We visited later—just took a peek inside the brewery. Our design is completely different, which is cool, too, but just having the beer and tasting how good it was, we felt like we could do it, and it would be worth it. The Ambrée stands out because it was the first one we had, and it conveyed, at least in my mind, the extra kettle caramelization that they must be getting from their equipment. That was what we experienced in our beer.
“A lot of people expect smokiness when they have a wood-fired beer, but there isn’t actually any smokiness there. It’s just that extra heat contact that happens as you’re running the wort in because there’s so much surface area and it just gets so hot—especially down toward the bottom of the kettle. It’s just that little extra touch of caramel and body. We make a pils in that kettle, too, and you would almost think it went through a decoction. It just adds that extra touch of body. It’s so subtle—I don’t know that anyone else notices—but to me it’s a signature part of our beer.”
“I wish that I had a six-pack of herbal beers that really inspired that direction of the brewery, but the truth is that we decided to go with that angle because we hadn’t really had it before. We started Scratch about 10 years ago, and at that time in Southern Illinois, it was hard enough just to find a Fat Tire. We were trying to create something that we wanted to taste, that didn’t exist, or was so hard to track down and get your hands on—beers that might have only been made by one brewery in a small corner of the world, or beers that we had read about, like a historical beer, that had only been re-created here or there.
“So I don’t really have an origin beer that had an herbal character, but I will say that one of the very first ones that I remember having was Fantôme’s Pissenlit—it’s the one [brewer Dany Prignon] brews with dandelions.
“Aaron and I both had that together in Chicago. When we make runs up there to deliver beer, we often stay and find a place to drink a lot of beer that we can’t get our hands on down here. What I love about that beer, as with so many Fantôme beers, is that for a moment I didn’t know what I was drinking. I didn’t know what flavors I was experiencing; I didn’t quite know where the dandelion was coming in. We had brewed several beers with dandelions at that point, and we used the whole plant. My understanding with that beer is that he picks the plants, dries them, and makes a sort of tea with them that he puts into the beer. So it’s a really different approach to using dandelion, and it created a really different result—so much so that I, being someone who brews with dandelion, wasn’t sure what I was experiencing at that moment.
“I could choose any number of Fantôme beers—Vertignasse is another one that I especially remember drinking. It’s that one that’s bright green, and we don’t know how he does it. It’s another beer that you drink and think, ‘Is this beer?’
“I love having that experience drinking beer, where I have something and I don’t know what it is—I don’t even know if it is beer. I like that it makes me question what beer even is. I like taking that apart, as a brewer and a philosopher (I have a PhD in philosophy). I’m quite comfortable asking those types of questions and getting answers back that I don’t necessarily like to hear, as well.
“For us, too, Fantôme is a kindred-spirit brewery. We were lucky enough to visit the brewery a couple of years ago. We don’t know Dany well at all, but he spent a long time talking with us, and I remember walking out of there thinking, ‘This is all I really want for Scratch.’ We don’t need to be a big brewery. We don’t need to brew a hundred barrels of every batch. I want to keep the spirit of experimentation, and in the same way that he has a unique fingerprint on all his beers, I want to keep that on our beer throughout the life of this brewery.”
Thisted Bryghus Limfjordsporter
“This is one of the world’s great porters and one of my favorite beers. It’s brewed with a touch of licorice, and to me it’s the epitome of what we try to accomplish with herbal additions in our beer—subtlety, drinkability, balance, grace. If you didn’t know there was licorice in this beer, I don’t know that you would necessarily pick it out, and that’s what’s so great about it. It just has this very slight herbal note that complements the malt profile and the chocolate in the beer.
“They make a licorice-heavy one, which is also nice, but I like the regular version better because it’s so graceful.
“We got a wonderful insiders’ tour when we were there visiting, and I really love the way they add their herbs, which is so different from our approach and one reason I appreciate what they’re doing so much. We tend to use our herbs and spices in the boil—we’ve discovered over the years the best time to add those things throughout the brewing process, and for us that’s usually in the beginning, middle, or end of the boil. But they do an alcohol extraction and add that way. That’s actually legally impossible for us in the United States, so we can’t do that, but going back and seeing all their jars and things just mellowing and sitting away back there made me think differently about our plants. It made me—even for my own personal knowledge—want to experiment with plants that way, and that was not something that I had really thought about before then. And now, doing that for myself at my home bar, it really turned those plants I thought I knew very well on their heads. It brought out things I didn’t notice before, and I thought that was really valuable and very cool.”
Jester King Brewery Le Petit Prince
“Jester King is a brewery I consider a colleague and contemporary, and Le Petit Prince for me is the essence of terroir in the Americas. I was lucky enough to have it at the brewery and to understand their water while I was there. This is a beer that drove home to me how powerful a water profile can be. Jester King’s water is so chalky, and this beer is so naked—at 3 percent ABV, it’s just the absolute basic ingredients coming together and making something that expresses Jester King and their part of Texas.
“Historically, so many beer styles were made out of necessity of what the water profile provided. That’s kind of gotten lost to our modern knowledge and ability to change water. I love that Jester King has just embraced their water profile and made it a part of the character of their beer in a way that’s distinctive and characterful. Our water isn’t as characterful—I don’t think we could celebrate our water profile here so much—but it made me think more about water, to the degree that I wanted to keep out as many water additions as possible in our brewing—just to stay true to what the pure ingredients were.
“Jester King is a brewery that inspires me constantly and pushes me to be a better brewer.”
(San Diego, California)
“I hadn’t decided on this last beer when we started this conversation, but I decided just now. Stone IPA was my hometown beer. I grew up 10 miles from the original facility in Carlsbad. My dad put bottles of Arrogant Bastard in my uncle’s Christmas stocking for so many years.
“Truthfully, a West Coast IPA from Port Brewing or Karl Strauss or Stone or AleSmith takes me back to San Diego. It tastes like San Diego. I had a 25th anniversary AleSmith IPA a few weeks ago, and I had to sit down because it felt like I was home. I went out and bought another four-pack a day later—which I never do—because it was so comforting.
“I love a West Coast IPA. We almost always have an IPA in our refrigerator at my house. I do like hops quite a bit, and also, when we started Scratch, we decided not to brew an IPA because there were so many great IPAs out there, I didn’t need to brew an IPA. The fact that there were great IPAs out there freed me up to brew something other than an IPA. That’s what drove me to do something different.
“I’m not a milkshake-IPA or hazy-IPA person—I love the bitterness, and I’m a bitter person for sure. I love amaro. I don’t shy away from bitter and love the smell of just the right amount of hops.
“If I weren’t constrained by the framework of this story, I’d certainly include Brasserie de la Senne’s Taras Boulba in my six-pack. Yvan de Baets is one of the most interesting humans and greatest brewers that’s alive and working right now, and I’m inspired every time I talk to him. Every time I walk away from a conversation with him, I walk away with another idea. He’s a genius.”