Foraging with Forager

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Forager Brewing’s Austin Jevne foraging for black cap raspberries near Elba, Minnesota // Photo by Joseph Alton

While Austin Jevne picks black cap raspberries, he reminisces about his childhood days spent at his family’s cabin in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and how he learned to apply just the right amount of pressure to pluck the berries from the shrubs.

Back then—and even today—the Forager Brewing Co. head brewer and co-owner ate plenty of what he foraged with his grandmother and cousins before the berries made it into their buckets. Today, what he doesn’t eat goes into his sour beers.

Jevne admits that his foraging escapades lead to 13-hour workdays (or longer), and a somewhat ineffective way of doing things. “Do we need to go out and do this? No, not at all,” Jevne says as he drops a handful of berries into a bucket attached to his belt via the handle. “It’s actually kind of foolish that we do; we’re spending a lot of our time out here when there are things we still need to be doing back at the brewery.”

While that could be seen as a negative, this willingness to spend the extra time away from the brewhouse solidifies Jevne’s push to honor both the brewery’s moniker, as well as the flavor of the beer he’s making. “It does give us a different flavor, a different potential for the direction our beer can go, and it makes it more connected to us as brewers with our personalities,” Jevne says.

Knowing where to pick fresh berries is the culmination of a lifetime of learning. Along with his northern Wisconsin excursions, Jevne grew up near Lake Wingra and the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Arbortetum, a 1,260-acre wonderland of restored ecosystems bursting with over 300 species of native plants. He also gained crucial foraging knowledge while working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a trout creel clerk for nine months.

That job led Jevne to discover certain parts of rivers he’d previously not known about, including the “secret river” from which he was foraging berries at Whitewater State Park in Winona County during the last week of June. That knowledge has helped him find an assortment of berries and elderberry flowers for beers.

But foraging isn’t an exact science. It can’t be. “You let the seasons dictate the natural progression of the beer,” Jevne says. “You got to prep, but you can’t prep for what mother nature decides to give you.”

That can mean possible disappointment for fans of a certain Forager beer. For example, a late frost may keep a mulberry sour from appearing at the brewery this year; Jevne doesn’t like to use substitutes, such as puree, just to have those beers on tap.

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Black cap raspberries foraged near Elba, Minnesota // Photo by Joseph Alton

One thing he can do, though, is have his base beer ready to go for whatever is ready to pick. “Right now we’ve got three base sours that are pretty much ready to go,” Jevne says. “We just have to get the right blends from the barrels and then pick the fruit additions that will help bring those beers to an area I don’t think we’d be able to get without the fruit and barrel blending.”

This is the first time since opening that Forager’s team has been able to gather in the woods to forage berries, so Jevne is still getting his foraging process down. Right now the head brewer has just one rule for his team: to collect the berries they see flourishing. He showed that mentality while picking black cap raspberries, grabbing plenty of ripe gooseberries that he may or may not use in another beer. “That’s what’s nice about being out in the woods: there’s just a lot options for a lot of different things,” Jevne says.

As for the black cap raspberries (all picked over a week), they will be frozen before being used in Funky Dangerfield, a Flanders red ale, and possibly two more sours. There’s even a chance that patrons at Forager will be able to drink a beer with these particular berries come August. If all goes to plan, visitors may even be able to take home 750-milliliter bottles of Jevne’s foraged-berry sours soon.

In the meantime, in spite of the long days, prickly branches, poisonous wild parsnip around berry bushes that will burn your skin, and sometimes barren bushes, Jevne knows that his team are holding true to Forager’s credo. “It’s a huge part of why I named the company Forager—we wanted to do this, be this kind of company that actually went out and did things by hand, be connected to nature and these farms,” Jevne says. “It’s important to the identity of the brand to be out here doing this and let people know this is how we work, who we are, and what we care about.”

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