Herbiery Brewing eschews from hops in exchange for herbs

Herbiery is a hop-free brewery.
four different beers from Herbiery Brewing
Herbiery Brewing currently has four different types of beer. (Photo by Graham Gardner)

Nick Ryan, founder and brewmaster of Herbiery Brewing, has always done things a little differently. Before he started Herbiery Brewing, a hop-free brewery — eschewing hops completely in favor of botanical ingredients like sage and lemon verbena — Ryan followed many other paths.

Graduating from Western Illinois University in 2012 with a degree in law enforcement, he worked in a warehouse in Chicago and ran a nonprofit in Minneapolis before moving to Homer, Alaska, where he landscaped, was a bike mechanic and worked at a vegetable farm.

It was while living in Minneapolis that Ryan became interested in herbalism, but Alaska’s wilderness really pushed that passion over the edge.

“Everybody there interacts with the land very directly,” Ryan says. “I wanted to be more connected.”

When Ryan met Lasse Holmes, a homebrewer and one of the founders of Alaska’s Homer Brewing Co., something clicked. Instead of using hops, Holmes was homebrewing with local plants and herbs that could be found in the wild. Traditionally called “gruits,” these hopless ales date back to the Middle Ages before Reinheitsgebot, a German purity law, dictated in 1516 that only water, barley and hops could be used in pure “beer.”

By the 15th century, hops had become a popular beer ingredient; in addition to acting as a preservative, hops are bitter, helping to balance beer’s sweetness. Today, many beer drinkers are now on a first-name basis with a few varieties of hops, which have reached a certain celebrity status in the beer world.

“There is a rich and intense history behind why hops are sort of the dominant thing in beer right now,” Ryan says. “But I don’t think deviating from that is in any way a dead end.”

Knowing Ryan was interested in hop-free beer, a friend suggested a book, “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers” by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Buhner, an herbalist, writes about plant intelligence and how to use herbs for different medicinal properties.

“It was intriguing,” Ryan says. “It seems like a return and an advancement to focus on herbs.”

Ryan left Alaska for rural New Jersey, where his parents were living, and enrolled in herbalism courses through the Herbal Academy of New England. Ryan also started homebrewing. Living close to meadows and fields, he would often forage for plants while out on long runs. He started making beer with ingredients he had harvested, including yarrow, goldenrod, burdock root, rosemary and raspberries.

Sharing his beer with family and friends, Ryan says he started to hear something over and over again. “People would say, ‘I don’t like beer but I really like this,’ ” Ryan says. “It made me think how beer has been siloed into hops as an ingredient and how that alienates some people who just don’t like the flavor.” Ryan says that by removing hops from the equation, he has been able to create new flavor “associations.” “It’s really fun and the combinations are endless,” Ryan says.

After a year in New Jersey, Ryan moved to Madison in the fall of 2017. He spent the first four years of his life living near Stevens Point, so the move marked a return to the state.

“I knew I needed to get back to people and community, and Madison seemed like a good place to start a brewery,” he says. Ryan took a job at Ale Asylum and started working on his plans. He interviewed brewers, did research and made decisions.

“I was thinking about whether I wanted my own space and [was] leaning against it. I knew I wanted to contract brew,” he says. With a connection already made, Ale Asylum was Ryan’s choice. “Nick had other options for contract brewing,” says Chris Riphenburg, head brewer at Ale Asylum. “He worked for us for a few months last summer — I would imagine it was during that time he was vetting us.”

Ryan also needed a name for his brewery. “I wanted to make up a word,” Ryan says. He landed on Herbiery, which combines “herb” and “bier.” Ryan says it also has a double meaning: “I like that ‘her’ starts the word because when beer was a cottage brewing thing — and even farther back — beer was brewed by women, almost exclusively,” he says.

Under the name Herbiery Brewing, Ryan brewed his first two batches of beer, Zingibeer Ginger Lager and Great Sage Wit, in July 2019. Brewing two batches at a time, Ryan packages his beer in cans (look for the labels with woodland scenes available at many area stores, including Cork ’ n Bottle, Steve’s Wine|Beer|Spirits on Junction Road and Trixie’s Liquor) and barrels. Herbiery released two more beers this past December — Golden Coconut Milk Stout brewed with turmeric, cardamom, black caraway seeds, cinnamon and coconut milk and Oasis Honey Lager made with Gentle Breeze Honey and a masala chai spice blend from Macha Tea Co.

Look for several new flavors this spring, including Maypole Saison, a farmhouse ale brewed with Wisconsin maple syrup and fresh pine, and Lemon Spice, a pale ale with lemon verbena and cayenne pepper.

And expect the botanical flavors of Herbiery Brewing to keep evolving from there. “It’s been really fun. It’s been a lot of work,” Ryan says. “Especially brewing without hops, I am reading FDA regulations for two hours sometimes looking for that word that tells me that I can do what I’m doing.”

Ryan says a highlight was pouring at the Great Lakes Brew Fest in Racine last summer and getting to share his beer with hundreds of people. “Everybody was excited and curious,” Ryan says. “Those conversations give me energy, bring me back to center and keep me going.”

Erica Krug is a Madison-based writer.