Foraging for a Better Beer

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Watch as a Durham, NC brewery makes persimmon beer from foraging to fermentation.

I’m not normally a drinker of fruity beers.

An occasional orange slice is one thing, but beer infused with raspberry, strawberry, or pear is not my thing. Give me a malty or hoppy beer, just please leave the fruit out of it.

Or at least that’s what I used to say.

After being introduced to First Frost, Fullsteam Brewery’s persimmon beer, I can confirm that not all fruity beers are created equal.


Fullsteam Brewery, located in Durham, North Carolina, specializes in what they call “plow to pint” beer. That basically means they use local ingredients (including sweet potatoes) in their beer making. On my last visit, their “yeast wrangler” was on her way to a local park to collect pollen samples for in-house yeast production. They use local ingredients because it helps area farmers, it makes their beer uniquely “Southern,” and it’s a great way to distinguish and market their products.

Fullsteam Brewery pays community members $2.50 per pound for native, foraged persimmons.
Persimmons ripen around the first frost of the year, when they often fall to the ground.  Photos by David Huppert

A few years ago Fullsteam’s Chief Executive Optimist -- yes, that’s on his business card -- Sean Lilly Wilson decided to brew a beer with persimmons, an abundant fruit in the South. But obtaining enough persimmons proved problematic. The specific variety they needed (Diospyros Virginiana), with its cinnamon and apricot notes, is most commonly found in people’s backyards. So they did what any modern brewery would do: they reached out via Facebook and Twitter, asking people to forage for persimmons. From Raleigh to Rougemont, people were shaking persimmon trees, collecting the fallen fruit, and selling them to Fullsteam for market rate ($2.50 a pound).

As food prices soar and people search for a way to reduce waste and connect with the land, foraging - a hippie-naturalist version of dumpster diving - has seen a bump in popularity across the country. There are countless blogs, books, apps, and even restaurants that specialize in collecting wild specimens for edible and medicinal purposes. Today’s foragers are not your typical mushroom hunters of yesteryear, combing the woods in search of the perfect chanterelles. Today’s foragers are often urban, sophisticated, and, very often, beer-minded. Which brings us back to Fullsteam’s persimmon partnership.

Fullsteam Brewery pays community members, including Angel Elliott of Rougemont, N.C.,  $2.50 per pound for native, foraged persimmons.

Last year’s batch of First Frost beer included 550 pounds of native persimmons. Asked if Fullsteam could make the beer without the community support, Mr. Optimist gave an emphatic “no.” They simply don’t have the resources to go into the woods and collect all those persimmons themselves.

While Fullsteam admits to supplementing the community-foraged persimmons with commercial varieties, they believe the community is an indispensable ingredient. Their Forager initiative is as much about using local ingredients as it is connecting people with the land. If this sounds like PR green-washing, just spend an afternoon in the tavern talking to employees and patrons. It seems everyone is a backyard gardener, chicken keeper, or farmer’s market shopper. In Durham, buying local is more than a bumper sticker slogan.

And as far as taste goes, well, I found myself too wrapped up in the legend of the fruit -- they said it’s ripest just before the first frost -- and the history of the beer to pay too much attention to its flavor profile. I like my beer cold and uncomplicated. And this one tasted like beer. Community beer. With hints of foraging and pumpkin. Good enough for me.