First of all, be kind: Give your vegetarian friends a warning before you decide to pour them some of your ant-beer.
Second, don’t forget to snap a few photos before you toss the ants in the kettle, since surely one of the benefits of brewing with insects would be enjoying that shock value. However, there may be another benefit: Apparently, these particular creepy-crawlies are actually pretty tasty.
Chicatanas is the common name for Atta mexicana, flying leafcutter ants in Mexico, where at certain times of the year the ants are especially fruitful and numerous. Local cooks harvest them, grind them up with spices, and cook them into moles or other sauces. Oaxaca might be the best place to try them, but in this wondrous age of convenience, you can even order chicatanas online—not cheaply, and not all year, but you can find them. (On oaxacanspice.com, for example, three ounces or 85 g will set you back $55.)
Descriptions of the chicatana flavor include earthy, nutty, bitter, and salty—just the thing for a big, rich stout or other dark beer to absorb. That’s the case with Chicatanazzz, a barrel-aged flying-ant stout recently produced by Forager Brewery in Rochester, Minnesota. (For whatever it’s worth, the tiny-batch ant stout is sitting pretty on Untappd with a rating of 4.35/5.)
Forager cofounder and head brewer Austin Jevne says the idea to use the ants originated in the kitchen. “At Forager, we have a great group of chefs,” he says. One of them, Elba Vasquez Pastrana, grew up in Mexico and received a kilo of chicatanas from her mother in May 2020. “She prepared a mole sauce with them to put over pork ribs, which was mind-blowing and delicious. She gave me a few of the raw ants to try, and their flavor was exciting, diverse, complex, and completely unique.”
Here’s how he describes the taste: “Spiced nuts smoked over an open fire, with deep, rich raw cocoa nibs and red-clay earth. Remember the popular 1980s mulch made from cocoa husks? Well, that nostalgic memory was conjured as soon as I open the package.”
That flavor inspired Jevne to try adding the ants to a beer. Pastrana’s mother sent five more kilos (about 11 pounds) of chicatanas. “She sent them directly from Oaxaca after they were foraged and roasted,” he says.
So, how to use the ants? They had to figure that out on their own. “Having never used an ingredient like this, and not knowing of anyone having done it before, we had no reference for the best process to use [with] these ants,” Jevne says.
They opted to get them into a richer beer—a decadent barrel-aged stout blend. “We were pioneering their usage in a way we felt would represent the product’s flavor profile properly, while pairing their characteristics with a beer that would lend an intensity, allowing their flavors to weave balance and coexist in harmony.”
They chose 53 gallons (200 liters) of stout that had been aging in a rye whiskey barrel, then they added 10 gallons (38 liters) of Nillerzzzzz (that’s five Zs), their barrel-aged vanilla stout of 13.6 percent ABV. “We then added five pounds (2.3 kg) per barrel of ground chicatanas to the tank and recirculated the beer on the ground ants until we thought the flavor intensity was where we wanted it,” Jevne says. “We then racked off the ants and packaged the beer.”
As it turns out, those ants weren’t quite ready to retire from their culinary career: “Our chef saved the ground ant paste that was left over,” Jevne says, “and has been experimenting with it. … More to come on that in future beer dinners.”
While Jevne admits that the beer sounds like a gimmick, he says “the intention is much deeper. This beer represents Forager’s exploration for flavor contributions from ingredients that reach farther than the traditional or hype flavors we see every day. I would personally think beers with Oreos and waffles added are much more gimmicky than this—but hey, call me crazy.”
It’s not an easy beer to explain, and not just because it has bugs in it. The bigger problem is that few people know what those bugs are supposed to taste like. “The struggle this beer has seen is that, in my assumption, only one or two of the people who have tried the beer have ever tried a raw chicatana,” Jevne says. “This means there is no point of reference for the flavor impact of the ants for them.”
However, that flavor impact “was massive,” Jevne says. “The beer took on everything about the chicatana experience, except the crunchy texture and little legs getting caught in your teeth. … We felt that this was a beautiful representation of what these ants could do for a beer and were astonished how well the flavor came through.”
Jevne says it won’t be the last chicatana beer to come from Forager. “We absolutely plan to make a beer with these again every year we can source them,” he says. “We will probably include a little bag containing a few ants with each bottle moving forward, so people can try the insect for flavor reference.
“If another insect comes to us with exciting flavors, we [will] happily try something else—but not to be gimmicky!”
He offers this advice for any brewers who want to brew with chicatanas or other insects: “Get to know the ingredients you plan to use and focus on a desired result,” he says. “Experimentation is a driving force in craft beer, so go out there and find some inspiration.”