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Spice Lessons

Formulating, sampling, describing, reformulating, sampling again—the lessons Forbidden Root’s BJ Pichman learned perfecting first Forbidden Root and later Fernetic are equally useful when making a beer with just a few spices or, in fact, one with none.

Stan Hieronymus January 09, 2018

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Randy Mosher’s job title at Forbidden Root Restaurant & Brewery (Chicago) is creative partner and alchemist. Robert Finkel’s title is founder and rootmaster. BJ Pichman’s title is head brewer. Among his responsibilities is making sure nothing gets lost in translation.

Consider Fernetic—a beer Forbidden Root brewed in collaboration with Fernet-Branca, the Italian company that has been producing its intensely bitter brand of fernet (an Italian bitter aromatic liqueur) since 1845. It contains more than twenty herbs and spices. A team of six spent an afternoon at the Chicago brewery, sampling different mixtures of even more ingredients, before finding just the flavor that suited them all.

Mosher, who has been writing about how to use tinctures and recipe formulation for more than twenty-five years, took his notes and did the math. He handed the calculations to Pichman and told him, “Here are the numbers. You have to give it the sanity check.” Pichman made some adjustments, in particular considering the size of the pile of star anise that would be added and discarding a portion.

The first pass was 95 percent of what Mosher and Pichman wanted in Fernetic. The second was spot on. Asked if this confirms that Pichman has learned to speak “Mosher,” the alchemist replies, “I’ll say it’s a moving target, and we’re all growing together.”

Not Done Until It’s Right

The first beer that Pichman worked on with Mosher was a root-beer beer that shares its name with the brewery. It was equally as complicated as Fernetic, and the recipe took several months longer to finalize. Those two beers are outliers. Although Forbidden Root opened—initially the beer was brewed under contract, and the brewpub came on line in 2016—as the first botanical brewery in Chicago, the brewpub’s beer menu is a mixture of recognizable styles and beers brewed with some—but never as many as Fernetic and Forbidden Root—herbs and spices. The best-selling beer, as at so many other places, is an IPA.

“BJ’s done a great job for us, and the beers just get better and better. We have a mix between these very complex and highly botanical brews and ultra simple styles such as Kölsch and Pils,” Mosher says.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the lessons learned perfecting first Forbidden Root and later Fernetic are equally useful when making a beer with just a few spices or, in fact, one with none. “Whether it is a crazy collaboration with twenty botanicals or a new IPA, we’re not done until it is right,” Pichman says.

Pichman got to know Mosher when he joined the Chicago Beer Society, a club for both homebrewers and beer enthusiasts, in 2006. He was sitting at the bar at Goose Island’s Clybourn brewpub before a meeting when he saw Mosher walk in. “There’s the guy who wrote Radical Brewing,” he thought to himself. Then he noticed Ray Daniels, author of Designing Great Beers (and since, the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program). “I was starstruck. I thought, oh, shit, I can have Randy and Ray and Steve Hamburg (cask ale expert and now director of the Cask Marque program in the United States) taste my beers,” he says.

They expanded his vocabulary. Pichman would hand Mosher a beer, “He’d say a word; I’d say, ‘Yes.’ Then I could figure out what was wrong with it.”

Prototype Bench Testing

In 2012, Mosher asked Pichman if he would like to brew pilot batches for a new project. Finkel, who in an earlier life had founded a private investment firm, had contacted Mosher because he wanted to make, and sell, a beer that tasted like root beer. It would not be as simple as digging out a recipe from an earlier century. For hundreds of years, Native Americans used all parts of the sassafras tree for culinary and medicinal purposes, and later colonial brewers made root beer with the roots. However, in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration banned safrole, which is found in the root-bark, after determining it is a carcinogenic. That made naming the beer Forbidden Root easy; creating it was somewhat more difficult.

It took Mosher and Pichman more than a half dozen passes, blending twenty botanicals to match the flavor sassafras provides. The approach, basically prototype bench testing, was much the same they would use later to design Fernetic. Mosher created blends in five groups—minty/herbal, deep spicy, sharp spicy, balsamic, and perfume/creamy—with several herbs or spices in each one. Sharp spicy, for instance, included cardamom, black pepper, ginger, and capsicum. The flavorings were a mixture of diluted essential oils, flavor extracts, and calibrated tinctures. Mosher explains it is important that all of these contain either known quantities of aromatic oils or a specific amount of a whole herb, so calculations can be made from the final mix to finalize a recipe.

“When you sit down with a bunch of people, you can’t have twenty separate things,” he says.

Eduardo Branca, a sixth-generation member of the family that lays claim to inventing fernet, was one of six at the table helping determine the formula for Fernetic. The secrecy enveloping the recipe for Fernet-Branca is part of its origin story, including that the five most secret ingredients are mixed in a sealed room. The family provided enough details that Mosher could eliminate a few ingredients (for instance, because some were so bitter) and create flavoring groups.

It took only three tries to agree on what the beer would taste like. “I never thought we’d walk away that quickly,” Pichman says.

Not every beer begins like Fernetic or Forbidden Root, targeting a specific end flavor. Sometimes a single ingredient is the starting place. “How does it taste? Is it good on its own?” they will ask themselves. They may decide on an interesting variation on a classic style. They created Cola Brau after Finkel bought some concentrated Korean plum juice while shopping late at night on the Internet.

They started with a porter base, bench testing it with the plum juice and Mosher’s cola spice blend (nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and citrus peel). “Since you never really know how things such as plum juice will come through in the finished beer, we reserved the right to dose to taste post-fermentation. And in this case, it was needed,” Pichman explains. They also added additional lime peel and nutmeg.

“It helps when you have a partner who only sleeps four hours a night and knows people all over the world,” says Mosher, talking about Finkel. “We had a pick of a dozen and a half gingers,” says Pichman, discussing the development of Sublime Ginger, a 3.8 percent ABV wheat beer made with ginger, fresh key lime juice, honeybush, and lemon myrtle (as well as Motueka hops).

The Challenge of Botanicals

Forbidden Root is not as focused on botanic beers as when it took that as its name. In fact, Pichman has brewed Forbidden Root, the beer, only one time since the pub opened in 2016. Part of the reason might be that Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer “sucked up the conversation.” Mosher and Pichman were already brewing pilot batches of Forbidden Root before they heard about the brand, which was about to be a national success, if only briefly. “Once the market had those beers, drinkers didn’t know what to think,” Pichman says. Forbidden Root did not taste at all like the sweet and boozy NYFRB. “One of the negative reviews was that Forbidden Root tasted like beer,” Pichman says, laughing.

Mosher suggests Forbidden Root may return, but “not straight up.” He talks candidly about the challenges of selling beers flavored with botanicals. “People are intimidated by the flavors, or they feel dumb because they haven’t heard of them,” he says. Complex beers such as Fernetic or simpler ones are changing that, but Forbidden Root isn’t looking for shortcuts.

“This is not a side project. We are not going to take a winning recipe and just add spices to it,” Pichman says. “We’re not afraid to fail. We’re going to do it again. We’re going to do it again. We’re going to do it again. It’s our job.”

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