The Hills Have Ingredients

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Michael Bowers likes to know the Latin names of the plants he sees in the Boise Foothills, and keeps an encyclopedia of species in his head. On a warm morning in Military Reserve, the head bartender at The Modern Hotel and Bar was in search of buds from Populus nigra—the black cottonwood—to use in an experimental collaborative beer with Woodland Empire Ale Craft.

"I feel a little Judge-y sometimes," he said, referring to Judge Holden, a character in Cormac McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian, who often collects and sketches specimens of plants and artifacts.

The parallel between Bowers and "The Judge"—a character famous for his grim words and deeds—ends with them both being avid collectors. When he treads off trail, Bowers is careful with underbrush and rarely picks more than one cottonwood bud from a single branch, so as not to prevent the tree from flowering.

In a thicketed grove near a creek, he looked down after stumbling—literally—across the mother lode: a patch of fallen branches covered in buds swollen with greasy, mustard-colored sap that stained Bowers' gloved fingers and gave off the scent of a summertime float down the Boise River.

Bowers had never collected the buds from fallen branches before.

"You learn something new every time you come out," he said.

These particular cottonwood buds were destined for the latest Foothills Experimental Series, a one-off specialty beer made with foraged local ingredients by Woodland Empire Ale Craft. In the past, beers in the series have included hyssop and rose hips in runs of one barrel (20-30 gallons).

For this batch, set for release in April, Woodland Empire Founder Rob Landerman will use a mix of floral, peppery hops and the cottonwood buds to brew an otherwise traditional pilsner with a "Boise spring aroma." On account of their strong scent, a few of the buds would go a long way toward producing the terroir he desired.

"We won't need as much to make the beer," Landerman said. "We're also going to use [the cottonwood buds] in place of hops."

Landerman said he lets Bowers do "the legwork" of finding ingredients for the collaborative brews, and they typically forage together. When Bowers presented the buds to Landerman and his team, they unanimously decided to brew a pilsner.

"The beer ideas jump out at us when we smell and taste the raw material," Landerman said.

It didn't take Bowers long to pick enough buds to fill a sample container to take back to The Modern. As they mature, the buds build up sap and emit their unmistakable odor. Even with its lid secured in Bowers' SUV, the container seemed to jump the atmosphere ahead by a season.

The collaboration has been a fruitful one for Bowers, who said he appreciates being able to serve exclusive beverages at The Modern and work with locals to make something new and unusual. It helps that he and Landerman share the same taste.

"Rob and I share an aesthetic as far as food and drink are concerned," he said.

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