Beyond the IPA
The Old World Ales of Propolis Brewing
BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF
Though it may seem a blasphemous omission for a Northwest brewery, you won’t find an IPA at Propolis Brewing in Port Townsend. Ditto porter, stout, amber, pale, and pilsner. Instead, many of the names on the labels sound as though they’re pulled from nomenclature in a botany field guide: Granum, Zephyros, Achillea, Wendas, Urtica.
That’s because Propolis is anything but your typical brewery. Their beers incorporate herbs and wild-foraged ingredients like spruce tips, berries, flowers, and other plants, crafted in the style of French and Belgian farmhouse ales, as well as Old World brewing styles that were common in beer-making’s infancy.
The brewery, which launched in 2012, is a result of the passions of husband-and-wife team Robert Horner and Piper Corbett. Horner, an architect and public artist with a background in biology and archaeology, says he started home brewing over a decade ago.
“I had really expensive taste in beer and wanted to save money to make payments on my student loans. I really liked Belgian farmhouse ales, and I was also really into herbs. I was researching the long history of ale, and it was all about herbs. Even the word for unfermented beer, wort, is the old English word for herb.”
Before hops were common, herbs were thrown in the kettle to balance the sweetness of the grain sugar. Horner, who was born in England, also drew inspiration from the heather and nettle ales once common there.
Corbett, a Port Townsend native, has long had a passion for locally foraged plants. As a high school exchange student in Belgium, she developed an interest in farmhouse beers, many of which aren’t widely available outside of the town they’re made in. Propolis, then, checks two boxes: “To take that sense of place and infuse it with the beer,” she says, “and to try to chase that elusive memory of tasting my first Belgian beer.”
Horner and Corbett started brewing on a tiny, one-barrel system in a garage in Port Townsend, trekking to Seattle each weekend to cover four farmers’ markets between the two of them. Over time, they increased their capacity to a two- and then three-barrel system, filling their small space with myriad barrels for aging their concoctions.
This past fall, Propolis moved its brewing operation into a 15-barrel brewery carved out of a warehouse just a few blocks from downtown Port Townsend. The space also has room for the business’s first tasting room, where visitors can taste samples in view of the brewing space.
“It’s been one of those games where, on a small system, we were spinning our wheels,” says Corbett. “We needed to grow to something more sustainable. We’ve taken little steps, but this next step for us is really big because we have had a tremendous amount of demand and great reception.”
The growth is a testament to the following the couple has built, as are the awards they’ve snagged: In 2015’s Washington Beer Awards, Propolis won gold and silver in the American-Style Brett Beer category, and bronze for Herb and Spiced Beer. And their Beltane beer won gold in the American-Style Brett Beer category at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival.
Even when they were brewing on the threebarrel system, Propolis released an astounding array of beers, with around 30 available at any given time, reflecting what was growing when the beer was made: There’s the Borage, a golden saison brewed with borage flowers; Wendas, made with wild heather flowers; Prunus, made with wild cherries; and the long list of herb-based beers, including Grewit — a play on the word gruit, an Old World style that incorporates a range of different herbs. Propolis’s version has 11.
Some beers are available year-round, while others are sold until they’re gone a few months later. Asked how they come up with the flavor combinations, Corbett quips: “Obsession. You need only walk in the woods to be inspired here.”
The couple prides themselves on using the highest quality ingredients available, including organic grains and organic hops. “We grow a lot of herbs and work with farmers to grow herbs that go into our ales,” Horner says. “We use the best ingredients we can because it’s the environmentally responsible thing to do and it creates the best-tasting product.”
They also partner with a seed-saving organization, to which they donate leftover seeds from pressing wild berries like huckleberries. The seeds are archived and available for replanting in restoration areas.
Many of the beers are barrel-aged for as long as a year, during which they develop complexity and a wine-like dryness. Propolis often uses Brettanomyces yeast (commonly referred to by brewers as Brett), a genus often found on the skins of fruit. It’s common in Belgian styles and imparts a complexity and funk that has become a signature of many farmhouse-style beers.
“Our focus from the beginning was to do something different from what the other breweries were doing,” Horner says. Corbett is quick to chime in: “And reflects our sense of place. You can make beer and send it out the door and it’s the same beer that is produced everywhere. But this is our home, and you can’t make this beer unless you live here. That’s what makes it special.”
“People could compare 2014 to 2015 and taste the difference, just like with a grape. We appreciate and cultivate that. It’s important to strive for balance but also to recognize that the variables are the beauty.”
The labels also offer food-pairing suggestions and a tasting diagram, depicting which flavors to expect: warm, citrus, herbal, floral, spicy, bready, toffee, sour, and others, as well as a recommendation on how long to age the beer (sometimes for up to two more years) in its bottle. You can certainly open it before then, but the beer will continue to ferment for a third or fourth time. “It’s getting carbonation, developing the flavors, and taking some time to get to know itself,” Corbett explains. “It’s still alive, with great microorganisms.” Each bottle is also corked, capped, and waxed for security.
Perhaps Corbett and Horner’s Old World beers can start a new tradition here, helping to create a beer culture that recognizes the terroir of the place it was made — right down to a town-size level.
“This beer is about ceremony and appreciating what is around you,” Corbett says. “You don’t travel to Belgium to drink a mass-produced beer. You go to the little farm town that’s a mile away from another one but has a totally different beer reflecting a pocket of the world. And if we encourage that in the beer industry, then we’re not in competition with each other.”
Megan Hill is a Seattle-based food and travel writer. Read more from her at meganhillfreelancewriter.com