Its flavor has been likened to candy cane, pine tar, even mouthwash — sometimes a combination of all three. Its industry appeal has earned it a nickname as the “bartender’s handshake.” It is the most widely consumed amaro in the world: Fernet-Branca. And now it’s available in craft beer form.
This January, the Italian liquor producer teamed up with Forbidden Root, a botanical brewery out of Chicago, to release Fernetic. It’s an 8.4 percent black ale brewed with a handful of the same 27 herbs and spices familiar to its namesake spirit. As a result, rhubarb, saffron, and hints of wormwood make cameo appearances before surrendering to a coffee and peppermint-laced finish.
That it tastes quite unlike any other beer is to be expected. Fernet-Branca — perhaps the well-known of the amaros, the family of herbal Italian digestifs — has kept its family recipe a guarded secret for over 170 years, and this is the brand’s first official foray into brewing. (The collaboration happened after Edoardo Branca, the sixth-generation steward of the family-owned brand, visited Chicago and happened to tour the Forbidden Root brewery. As BJ Pichman, its head brewer says, “There was no way that we were going to let him out of there without an invitation to collaborate on a beer.”)
But more surprising to drinkers might be the broader category Fernetic represents. So-called botanical beers are an emerging trend in the craft beer landscape, yet this ancient style actually traces its lineage back over thousands of years: Everything that’s old is eventually new again.
What is botanical beer?
“A botanical beer is one that is built around the flavor — herbs, roots, and spices,” explains BJ Pichman, “layering two to 20 different ingredients to create a whole new experience.” Fernetic itself contains more than 20 flavor notes, but Pichman warns of pitfalls as the botanical category becomes increasingly crowded with brewers’ experiments. “Some think that if they simply add vanilla to a stout, it will be a botanic beer. We look at that as more of a ‘classic style plus extra’ approach, versus building the entire experience around a concept or flavor combination.”
Pichman revels in the creative freedom afforded by botanicals, which encourage thinking outside traditional beer recipes. “I love that botanical brewing gives me an outlet to express ideas with more than just the four basic ingredients,” he says, referring to yeast, barley, hops, and water. Those components have been compulsory for over 500 years, the result of the Reinheitsgebot, a German purity law enacted in 1516. Before that time, brewers used whatever flavoring agents they could find.
“Most ancient recipes we brew existed before hops become the de facto slicing agent in beer,” says Sam Calagione, founder and CEO of Dogfish Head in Milton, Delaware. Calagione pioneered the modern botanical beer revival with the release of Midas Touch — what it calls a beer/wine/mead hybrid — in the late ‘90s. “Based on molecular evidence we found in a 2,700-year-old tomb believed to have belonged to King Midas, we brewed this beer with honey, saffron, and grapes,” he says. “At Dogfish Head, we have always believed that the Reinheitsgebot is nothing more than a relatively modern form of art censorship.”
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of botanic beer is a departure from hops as the primary flavoring agent. But it’s important to remember that hops, now ubiquitous in beer, were initially introduced to brewing for reasons aside from pure taste. “We talk now about drinking hopped beers super fresh,” points out Jimmy Carbone, host of Beer Sessions Radio, a popular podcast out of New York. “But one reason for the rise of hops in beers was so the beers would hold up better for shipping and storage,” acting as a preservative of sorts.
Carbone also pegs the botanical style’s rising popularity to the larger locavore trend. “There’s a farm-to-glass movement,” he says. “Brewers are making beer using locally farmed or foraged ingredients, looking for different flavors. Historically, homebrewers have used locally grown ingredients in their brews; dandelion and ginger were always popular, affordable, and readily available.”
For a good history lesson, Carbone suggests exploring Sahti, an ancient Finnish beer fermented with actual juniper branches. He’s similarly fond of Leann Fraoch — brewed from Scottish heather according to an impossibly old Gaelic recipe, guarded by a clandestine fraternal order known as “the Brotherhood.” According to Carbone, the latter features “floral-peaty aroma, full malt character, and a spicy herbal finish; this beer allows you to literally pour 4,000 years of Scottish history in a glass.” One sip reveals a heritage to which modern botanical brewers hope to reconnect.
Marrying beer with Fernet
Back in present-day Chicago, Forbidden Root approached the challenge of recreating a closely guarded formula, as outsiders. “We knew the Branca recipe was a secret and we respected that,” Pichman says. “So it was on us to come up with a laundry list of herbs, roots, and spices that would evoke the essence of Fernet-Branca. Some of the key players in the ingredients are wormwood, gentian, saffron, rhubarb, galangal, and peppermint. It is every bit as curious and satisfying as Fernet, but in an approachable beer way.”
In the end, the brewery succeeded in pleasing its collaborative partner as well as the local beer community. The former was proud to affix its brand trademark to the label, and the latter wasted no time in depleting the bottles from shelves. “The demand has been intense,” observes Pichman. “We only brewed a very small batch of it and sold out immediately — as in two and a half hours,” he says. Forbidden Root plans to brew “another small batch soon for another market or two” — that batch could be ready as soon as March — and then, Pichman says, “maybe make it an annual thing.”
Forbidden Root will have plenty of support from Fernet, it would seem. “I am extremely proud of Fernetic,” says Edoardo Branca. “Amaro and craft beer fans alike will now get to experience something that has never been done before.” Pichman echoes the sentiment, applying it to the burgeoning category as a whole. While providing a flavorful portal into the past, he sees botanical beers for the unlimited possibilities they present in the future. “I don’t know that we’ll ever run out of new ideas,” he says. “What’s more exciting than that?”