Alaska very often ends up being a transformative experience for people. There’s an allure to it. Bears and moose on the side of the road, mountains, the vastness of the land and water. So it was for Nicholas Ryan [they/them], CEO and brewer of Herbiery. It was in Homer, Alaska, situated at the beginning of the end, a gateway to Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Island chain where the tagline for Herbiery—“hop free brewing”—was born.
“Homer was where I first really connected with my desire to brew beer with herbs and spices,” Ryan said. They spent five months in Homer working an assortment of odd jobs as a canoe guide, landscaper, farmhand, and more.
But why no hops?
“I think it’s connecting more and more with the idea of queering beer, and as a queer person, as someone who identifies as non-binary outside of the binary options for gender, I’ve been connecting with some of that theory and thinking about how it can apply to my perspectives in other areas of my life. Trying not to hold the hammer, so that everything else looks like a nail,” Ryan explains.
Ryan said that their desire to not use hops represented a conscious choice and an inclination, as well as a way to highlight herbs, and the flavors they produce, that are often ignored.
“Or even denigrated from a position of hop superiority,” they said. “There’s this narrative around why hops are required that centers on purity, and some of these other scare quote words that carry a lot of real-life scare history behind them. Like the beer purity law that requires hops in Germany doesn’t require hops here in the U.S. and is often why people reference needing to use hops.”
The idea for Herbiery would take time to form after the desire to brew without hops was born.
“Even in Homer, it was still a couple of years after that I felt like I was able to really engage with the path to brewing beer and brewing without hops; it took a long time to confirm that that was even a real possibility that was allowed and not dangerous.”
It wasn’t until the fall of 2016 that Ryan began homebrewing. While attending the Herbal Academy of New England, Ryan began to learn more about using ginger, chai spices, honey, coconut water, and more—but never hops, not even once—during homebrewing.
“That’s where I learned about a lot of different herbs, mostly as remedies for various chronic issues and herbalism,” Ryan said. “I was learning about herbalism. A bit in the coursework talks about the history of herbalism and there was a bit about the intersection of herbalism and brewing.”
“That resonated with me and sort of connected all these various dots that I’ve been thinking about for a really long time. It just kept charging up this desire to do something with this information and get more information.”
After moving back to New Jersey to live with their parents, Ryan found their way to Madison.
“It was never like, ‘I brewed a beer, I’m going to start a brewery,’” Ryan said. “It was like this compilation of contexts coming together to eventually inspire me to try and do that, and so many different serendipitous interactions and pieces came together to make it happen. It was a long process.”
That process included living in a tent pitched in a friend’s yard, biking to different breweries to ask questions, hand out homebrew, and conduct sensory panels. Eventually, Ryan met Ale Asylum co-founder Dean Coffey. Ryan was able to work at Ale Asylum and gain an understanding of how a contract brewing arrangement could work.
The first beer Ryan brewed was a ginger beer, while the first commercial beer they brewed was the Zingibeer Ginger Lager in 2019. It tastes like a lot of other lagers, with clean breadiness and subtle notes of honey, but laced with just a touch of ginger throughout.
For the record, Ryan does not dislike hops.
“I’d also like to mention that it’s not that I’m against hops,” they said. “There’s definitely been pressure from marketing folks to be like ‘you should lean into it and be, like, mad about hops,’ or something and I’m not going to do that. I enjoy hoppy beers and don’t think they should go away.”
To create beers without hops, Ryan produces a lot of test batches at home. The right malts are important. Some of the locally sourced or foraged herbs are tested in teas. And scaling changes if it’s a certain root versus a flower. It’s a bit of science but also a bit of experience and guesswork to form a recipe.
“In the summertime, I can often find things growing on the side of the road and pull things off to make teas or add them to my homebrews,” Ryan said. “The homebrewing is where I sort of concrete the recipes and decide whether it’s going to work or not.”
None of the Herbiery’s current offerings are gruits, as some have confused. Gruits are traditionally defined as using a combo of specific herbs: mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, horehound, calluna heather, and sweet gale. Herbiery’s beers use a kaleidoscope of herbs and ingredients, which are listed on the can. Because the Herbiery’s beers do not use hops, they meet the FDA’s guidelines but do not need TTB approval. Instances of herbal beers can be found throughout history in the past thousands of years. Herbs even help by strengthening a beer’s shelf life and providing antiseptic qualities, too.
Ryan is ambitious and will continue to brew their beers and self-distribute in the Madison area. There is an idea of a taproom in Madison eventually.
“[I’m] sticking to the mission of producing hop-free beer,” Ryan said. “I’ve chosen to do it this way and so I’m going to continue doing it this way as long as it makes sense.”
“The flavors of the herbs and just the variety that there is – there’s so much out there. It’s very exciting to me. I’m excited to bring more beers out and I know I’d be able to do that better with space, so I’d love to produce more, and experiment more, and share that with people more.”
A look at Herbiery’s beer lineup:
Zingibeer Ginger Lager
Soft ginger on a bready, honey lager body that finishes with sweet lemon. You’d never be able to tell these beers don’t have hops. A tasty, well-balanced lager.
Oasis Honey Lager
Brimming with chai on the aroma and the flavor. Chai latte fans will enjoy this one. It’s a bit stronger than the rest of them, packing a chai spice wallop.
Sweet maple immediately flows over your palate. It is reeled in by lemon tea and honey notes. A touch of fenugreek in the finish and a creamy mouthfeel makes this my favorite of the bunch and a very well-done beer.
Great Sage Witbier
This tastes like a proper wit. The grapefruit and coriander flavors are the stars here.
Golden Coconut Milk Stout
This was my least favorite of the bunch – but I am not a coconut stout fan. Coconut milk, a subtle malty roast, a hint of black pepper, turmeric, and cardamom all hit the palate. The spices in each of these beers are expertly balanced and never overpowering. The flavor profiles are complex without being overbearing.