Healthy beer may sound like a contradiction, but to Robert Horner and Piper Corbett of Propolis Brewing in Port Townsend, Washington, it doesn't have to be.
Corbett and Horner (and another partner, who has since left) opened Propolis in February 2013 with the idea of brewing Old World-inspired, clean, healthful ales brewed with locally sourced herbs and spices—ones that may be good for you, and your liver, even. It made sense to Horner, a homebrewer of eight years with a good love of herbs, and his partner Piper Corbett, who grew up in Port Townsend and blends her own teas and is passionate about sourcing local ingredients for their beers.
"We want to create food and beer that's really delicious, and there's ceremony in that, there's sanctity in that. It's OK if it's not a billion dollar market. It's OK just to take time and craft something really well," says Corbett.
Interest in herbal ales and gruits does seem to be growing. There's Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth, NH, who brew gruits with locally sourced herbs alongside more mainstream beers, and the Beers Made by Walking project, which challenges brewers to brew beers inspired by walks through the woods and the city. But while Propolis is focused on herbal ales, and 95 percent of ingredients for their beer are certified organic, Horner says they don't want to corner themselves into that group.
"We'd like to see interest in herbal brewing expand, but we don't want to put ourselves in that category. So much of what we're doing is influenced by place, French-Belgian brewing, the countryside, old England, Old World. Our ales, they're herbal, but they have a lot more in common with a Westmalle or Dupont than most of the gruits on market," says Horner.
They release 24 beers a year, two each month, following the availability of herbs and fruits (like a pumpkin beer actually released in October), and the seasons, from Spruce saison in the springtime to dark winter evergreen ale for the darker months.
It's fitting that Port Townsend, WA, an old Victorian seaport on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, is the perfect blend of Old and New Worlds. Corbett's description makes it sound rather dreamy (and a Google image search confirms it), with an abundance of gardens, farms, old fruit-bearing trees, "and when you look up it's the Olympic Mountains."
They grow about 70 percent of the herbs used in their beers, and harvest or forage fruits, herbs, and plants from the woods and local farms. For Prunus, a blended sour cherry ale, Corbett picked about 350 pounds of Port Townsend wild cherries. Urtica, a nettle ale brewed for springtime, is brewed with nettle gathered from a "deep, healthy forest." Nettle ales were once brewed as a springtime tonic, according to Horner.
Propolis is, in many ways, the antithesis to the super-fresh extra-hoppy West Coast IPAs that are popular in the region. Corbett and Horner say that bottle conditioning is a priority, allowing for live beer that evolves and can be appreciated as it ages. Every bottle is printed with the month and year of the release so drinkers can check the bottling date and cellar notes—recommendations for aging the beer.
The operation is tiny: they brew about three barrels a week on a one-barrel system, although they hope to expand one day with space for a tasting room and the ability to brew meads on site, another passion of both Corbett and Horner.
You can find Propolis' beers—packaged in 750-mL bottle-conditioned wax-dipped bottles—in the Olympic Peninsula/Seattle/Tacoma/North Sound region and in Portland, OR. Bottles are also available for purchase online.
As for the beers, I found them to be mellow, earthy, and pleasant. They would pair well with food, complementing a meal but not overwhelming it, and indeed every beer comes with recommended food pairings.
Here's my take on three of their seasonal herbal ales.
Litha, a golden ale brewed with herbs, has a subtle aroma—earthy, yeasty, and lemony—and the flavor follows suit with a nice grassiness and dry finish. It's effervescent but not mouth-prickling and easy to drink. Mellow and balanced, I'd reach for this to pair with a cool meal—salad or cheese and charcuterie—on a humid summer day.
The hallmarks flavors of standard pumpkin beers—cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves—are not present in this farmhouse pumpkin ale, brewed with herbs and spices and actual pumpkins grown by Corbett and Horner. Muddled amber in appearance, it pours with a huge head and leaves nice lacing on the glass. Pumpkin is hard to detect in taste and aroma, but there is a slight vegetal flavor, a nice tartness, and bubbly mouthfeel. I'd take this over an over-spiced canned pumpkin beer any day.
Sahti is an intriguing style, a traditional Finnish ale brewed with juniper berries, the mash often filtered through a contraption of juniper twigs lining a wooden trough called a kuurna. Propolis' take is complex and hearty, dark reddish-brown and cloudy in appearance with aromas of bready malt, yeast, and a bit of pepper spiciness. Pine and juniper come through in the flavor, but are backed by more Belgian yeastiness and a dry finish. A great fall to winter transition beer and recommended for anyone who enjoys dubbels.
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