Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver on the Power of African Ancient Grain Fonio, And “Brewing For Impact” Initiative

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Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver on the Power of African Ancient Grain Fonio, And “Brewing For Impact” Initiative

In honor of his more than three decades in the American craft beer industry, and in recognition of the rapidly transforming state of global agriculture in the wake of climate change, Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver is embarking on a new campaign to highlight one of the world’s most impressively hardy, but widely unknown grains: Fonio. Joined by his colleagues at Brooklyn Brewery and seven other global brewing icons, the “Brewing for Impact” campaign will illustrate the use of fonio within the craft beer world via a series of monthly beer releases made with fonio from each brewery–including Maison Kalao from Senegal, Thornbridge from the UK, Omnipollo from Sweden, Carlsberg from Denmark, Russian River from the US, Jing-A from China, and Guinness from Scotland.

Fonio is an ancient, West African grain that has been cultivated on the continent for more than 5,000 years. And yet, even the James Beard-winning Oliver, the man who wrote the first serious book on beer-food pairing, The Brewmaster’s Table, was unaware of its existence until a few years ago. Speaking with Paste, he described what makes fonio such a special and unusual grain, both in the context of agriculture and craft beer brewing.

“I only first heard about fonio five or six years ago,” Oliver explained. “We were doing a fundraiser for the Museum of Food and Drink, where I was on the board. There I met chef Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef, who also has a company with partners called Yolele. What they do is import African ingredients into the United States and bring them to American tables, in the way couscous or quinoa ended up on American tables in the last 20 years, but with a somewhat different model. He was telling me about this grain named fonio, and I was fascinated because I know a lot of grains in brewing for 35 years, but I had never heard of this. But it’s been in West Africa for 5,000 years!”

To those familiar with agriculture, the thing that immediately stands out about fonio is how tough the plant is, and how reliably it will grow in even the most stressful conditions. As Oliver put it: “The most fascinating thing is that fonio requires no inputs. No fertilizer, no pesticide, no fungicide, no irrigation, nothing. It will grow two crops every year at the edge of the desert, where it might only rain twice a year. It’s one of the great crops of that part of the world, but it was taken out by European powers when they came in. The people there were self-sufficient with their food because of fonio, and that’s the last thing colonists want. So they put in western grains, which do not grow well in these environments and require lots of input. But fonio will just grow, in places nothing else will grow.”

The goal, then, in raising awareness of fonio and its uses, is not to convince others to begin growing the grain in the wide-open spaces of a place like the U.S., but to support a revitalized fonio-growing industry in Africa, especially as climate change makes agriculture in many arid countries more difficult than ever. In doing so, Oliver says Pierre Thiam’s Yolele has already helped to bring self-sufficiency back to thousands of people in Africa now growing fonio. As he puts it, “we don’t want what happened to quinoa to happen to fonio,” for the industry to simply be “extracted” from its place of origin for our benefit.

As for the beer side of the equation, though, fonio turns out to make an unexpectedly unique brewing component. Whereas regular, cooked grains of fonio (they’re very small, even compared with the likes of couscous) is said to have a delicately nutty or earthy flavor, the fermented sugars gained from the grain are radically different and very exciting for Oliver as brewmaster.

“From a brewing point of view, the flavor profile from fonio was completely different from what we expected,” he said. “Fonio, when fermented, kind of smells and tastes like white wine, gewürztraminer, lychee, or tropical fruit characteristics. Which turns out, works really well in almost everything.”

It’s for that reason that Brooklyn Brewery’s offering in the “Brewing for Impact” campaign is a new pale ale brewed with fonio, allowing the fruit-forward notes of the unique grain to meld with a hop-forward profile. Several other breweries are also incorporating fonio into hop-forward beer styles, though a few are also brewing styles such as Belgian blonde ale, pilsner and even a few stouts. Suffice to say, we’re pretty curious how Guinness’ “Fonio Stout” is going to taste, but we’ll have to wait until November to sample that one.

The Brewing for Impact campaign kicks off in April with the release of Maison Kalao’s beer, and continues with the schedule posted below. We’ll be looking forward to tasting what fonio can bring to the beer world.

April – Maison Kalao (Senegal): The “Brooklyn A Dakar” Pilsner, coming in April, is the latest from a newer lineage of fonio beers at Maison Kalao, initiated after witnessing Oliver’s innovative use of the grain grown in their own country.

May – Thornbridge (UK): Launching in May, Thornbridge Brewery introduces the world’s first Pale Ale – Cask Beer made with fonio. This blend of tradition and innovation celebrates a 15-year friendship, rooted in Oliver’s admiration for British cask ale, the tradition that sparked his brewing career.

June – Omnipollo (Sweden): Omnipollo’s “Blacker Chocolate Stout,” set for release in June, reimagines the first beer Oliver ever brewed for Brooklyn Brewery – “Black Chocolate Stout” – with a focus on fonio’s sustainability.

July – Carlsberg Laboratory (Denmark): The launch of a 100% fonio beer in July is a collaboration with Carlsberg Research Lab, showcasing both Carlsberg’s and Garrett’s enthusiasm for pioneering sustainable brewing practices and exploring fonio’s potential in new frontiers of beer.

August – Russian River (US): Russian River’s Fonio Belgian blonde ale emerges from the deep friendship between Garrett and the owners of Russian River, Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo, and their shared commitment to excellence coupled with a desire to explore being more sustainable in brewing.

September – Brooklyn Brewery (US): In September, Brooklyn Brewery adds to its impressive fonio beer lineup with a new pale ale brewed with fonio, embodying the “Brewing for Impact” ethos and Oliver’s continued innovation with the grain.

October – Jing-A (China): Releasing in October, the West Coast IPA made with fonio underscores a unique connection between Oliver and Jing-A – who first introduced Garrett to Beijing’s brewing culture – while exploring the historical significance of native grains like fonio.

November – Guinness (US): Guinness’s “Fonio Stout,” launching in November, highlights Garrett’s long-time adoration and respect for the iconic brand – who have deep roots in Africa and around the world – and reflects his personal ties to Ireland—both a major source of inspiration throughout his brewing career.

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