The background story of our Autumn 2021 lager is a bit wild actually. So, we’ll give a concise version of the story here, followed by a longer account for those so inclined to post up for a while to dig in.

Here at Hanabi, we are interested in grain exploration. Just like with grapes and wine, each variety of grain has a unique character. Lager conveys a very honest expression of a grain’s spirit, and as an added bonus, it is refreshing and pleasurable to drink!

We’ve been hunting for a very ancient and rare heirloom variety of barley named Bere (pronounced ‘bear’), once a favorite of the Vikings, for about five years now. The chase has led us to some distant places, and then right back home again, in an undeniable circle of uncanny, “meant-to-be” circumstances. There are only about 40 acres of Bere grown in the world today, and early this year, the stars aligned and we managed to secure enough of this extremely special variety of barley to brew a Hanabi Lager release.

The Bere used for our Autumn 2021 was sourced from the Palouse Heritage Grain Project and was sprouted by LINC Malt, both located in eastern Washington. We made a Helles-style lager, a light and very drinkable style of beer similar to Pilsner. It was brewed in late April, and after nearly four months of lagering time in the tanks, and another month in bottle to complete the integration of components, this very special batch is finally ready.

This is a beer of incredible complexity and power despite its light style, owing to the unique character of Bere. With huge aromas of ancient cereal grains, a fresh and balancing mintiness from the noble hop flowers, and a crisp finish, this beer is intended to carry us into the contemplative, glorious days of Autumn. We hope that you dig it!

The live offer email will be coming next week to welcome in the Autumn season. So, please stay tuned!

We are wishing you all an excellent harvest season and look forward to reconnecting on the other side. With much respect, your support of the Hanabi Lager project is very much appreciated.

The long-form account of our ‘Hunt for Bere’ – A story of fortuitous circumstances

 This will unabashedly be a saga-length rendition of our hunt for the Bere, a short digression about heirloom fruits and vegetables in general, and more, for those interesting in such things.

The term heirloom (or heritage) is generally used to describe varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains that were popular prior to the end of World War II, when modern fertilizers and sprays became commonplace. We are interested in heritage grains for a couple of reasons: (1) their flavor is often superior to newer varieties that were largely bred for productivity and easy handling and (2) they are naturally hearty and disease-resistant, since they were selected before the assistance of modern chemistry was a possibility. While heirlooms often yield less, have shorter shelf lives, and can be uncooperative with mechanized farm equipment, we believe that the extra effort is worth it in terms of flavor, nutrition, and sustainability. 

Bere is perhaps the mother of all heirloom barleys, literally. It is likely the oldest variety of barley still commercially grown in the world, having been cultivated in the Northern Isles of Scotland for at least 5,000 years. Historians believe that the name Bere came from Old English and Scandinavian words for barley (boer, bygg). In fact, it is very likely the barley that ultimately gave beer its name. The point is that Bere is as heirloom as it gets. It’s half-wild, and completely different than modern barley types. 

Today, it is extremely rare, with only about 40 acres of it left in the world. Bere has long been prized by communities in the Orkney Islands for its intensely flavored (but tiny) berries, and they have quietly kept it going since Neolithic times. And, as we would eventually come to find out, some forward-thinking family farmers at Palouse Heritage Grain Project have brought this variety to North America and are growing it here now as well. 

 Bere was revered by the Vikings, who spread it around northern Europe in their travels. Owing to my family’s Scandinavian heritage, it’s always felt like the barley of my people who sailed around the North Sea. Jenn and I have hoped to brew with it eventually for sentimental reasons for some time now. Because it is so rare, and as far as we knew, only really grown in Scotland these days, it was a distant dream to someday get to work with it. That said, we’re always up for a challenge and sometime around the New Year, we got hot on the hunt again, and incredibly, everything began to fall into place…

Back in December, Jenn and I were up in the San Juan Islands where I grew up, visiting family for the annual post-harvest off-the-grid holiday pilgrimage. We made a giant 8-foot-long kraft paper calendar to help us sketch out what 2021 would look like for Hanabi Lager, to dream up the brews that lay ahead of us. As we started to pencil in the varieties of barley that we were hoping to use for each seasonal lager brew, it dawned on us that if we wanted to work with Bere anytime in the next several years, we’d need to start the lengthy process of organizing seed stock, partnering with a farmer and maltster to grow and prepare it, and then finally, plan experimental brews to figure out the best approach to this ancient and finnicky grain.  

So first, we called a seedbank in the Midwest who advertised that they had Bere seeds available. Secretly we hoped that they would have more than just a tiny quantity since we need several thousand pounds to brew a Hanabi Lager release. The alternative is to begin with a handful of seeds and over several years, build it up (grow, harvest, replant all the seed, repeat) until we had enough to brew with. The kind woman on the phone was excited that we wanted to work with Bere, and informed us that she could provide us about a teaspoon of seeds. When we pushed to see if she might have more than that to spare, she told us that we should contact her supplier, and perhaps they could help. She mentioned that it was a company way out west, from a place called Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada. When she mentioned this, my eyes lit up…it was interesting coincidence number one in our quest for the Bere. 

When I was just 14 years old (I had been brewing with my uncle since I was about 10), we had pulled into Ganges Harbor on Salt Spring Island on a family sailing excursion. I was hiking around and on the edge of town found a homebrew supply house, a cabin out in the woods and up a gravel driveway. Chatting with the proprietor, I decided that it was time to brew myself. So, I came rowing back to the boat with a load of barley and hops, and my folks just rolled their eyes. We came to an agreement that I would only brew for the family and community members ‘of age’, and that I would be able to retain just enough beer to taste and learn from, so that I could constantly be improving the methods. How strange that our quest for Bere, some 25 years later, would bring us right back to Salt Spring Island where the obsession with brewing all began!

So, I called the grower on Salt Spring, and he was excited to talk with another Bere barley enthusiast. It felt like talking with a long-lost brother or something, as the Bere community is extremely small after all. Although he could only offer us a small amount of seed, he introduced us to his supplier, a champion of Bere barley and fellow brewer, who goes by the name ‘Ghetto Yogi’, also from Salt Spring. I wrote Ghetto Yogi a long-winded note, explaining our search for Bere. He writes back and says that he could sell us a few pounds of seed, but that we would have some challenges in getting it; the international border was closed due to Covid, and seed importation with the USDA is not an easy feat. But, this was the most Bere barley that we had yet been able to discover in North America, and it was a good hot lead. 

A few nights later, feeling captivated by the hunt, I decided to stay late at the winery. Everyone had gone home, and I was just searching and searching in the great wide open inter-web for a break on this barley. After several hours, I came across a newspaper article that mentioned a heritage grain festival in eastern Washington that mentioned Bere, along with the farmers who grew it, two brothers, Don and Richard Scheuerman. 

I immediately write Don a very long note explaining my family’s Scandinavian background, our search for Bere, and how excited we were to discover his Palouse Heritage Grain project and all of the interesting varieties of heirloom cereal grains that they were growing out there. Less than 24 hours later he writes back an equally long note, very positive, and says that we need to talk straight away, that there was much to discuss. We discovered that we were both early risers, so decided to chat at 0500. So, the next morning, I was up at 0330, made coffee, reviewed my notes about Bere, and then gave Don a call. This was January 24th, 2021. 

We talked for about six hours…certainly the longest phone conversation that I’ve ever had. Sparing you-all the long and winding road, the essence of the situation was that Don’s family was among the first pioneers to settle in the Palouse in eastern Washington, and had been farming grain there since 1883. The most recent generation at the family farm had decided to forge a new path; they sought to demonstrate the sustainability of growing higher-value, wholesome heirloom grains instead of the commodity grain varieties that now dominate the agricultural landscape. They have scoured the globe for some of the most delicious, wholesome, interesting heirloom varieties of wheat, barley, and spelt, and now grow these back home on the family farm. Folks like Anson Mills and Blue Hill Farm in New York are big fans (and customers) of their work. And now, Hanabi Lager is to! 

Don informed me in this conversation that he had enough Bere barley on-hand for us to brew a full-scale Hanabi release. This was very unexpected, incredible news! Until that morning, we thought that we were several years away from that possibility, and suddenly, we were talking about loading a truck within a couple of weeks. Don’s grain was sprouted (malted) with their partner LINC Malt, to prepare it for brewing, and we got straight into brewing with it on the pilot system in February. By late April, we raised steam for the kettles in the big brewery to create the Autumn 2021 Bere Helles lager. 

It’s been an exciting journey to find ourselves amidst a tiny community of like-minded farmers, maltsters, brewers, bakers, chefs, and distillers, a network that stretches around the world, who are interested in reviving and championing heritage grain varieties that have been nearly forgotten in modern times. Bere is a particularly exciting example, and while it is certainly finicky in the brewhouse, just as in the field, the flavor concentration is truly unlike anything that we’ve worked with before. We are very proud to be stewards of this ancient and very special grain, and we hope that you love it as much as we do!