Brewing Something Ancient into Something New

by | May 1, 2023 | 0 comments

  • Nicholas Ryan & Maddy McKeown

Herbiery endeavors to explore the possibility of beer brewed without hops, and we remain one of the only breweries worldwide to do so. That’s right, we don’t use the one ingredient most people associate with beer. This is purely a flavor choice as hops can be complementary to herbs but tend to steal the show. We want herbs to be center stage. Eschewing hops also means that a lot of people who don’t like beer, if what they really don’t like is hops, tend to like Herbiery beer. Our hearts beat faster when people tell us that.

You see, Herbiery has always been a form of expression, an exploration of possibility, a rediscovery of the past, and a reimagination of the future. Our ingredients are widely available and not new. We take these forgotten ingredients and filter them through a modern brewing process in partnership with local area breweries like Karben4 and Delta Beer Lab. Contract production is a core part of our brand and a way we foster community in the industry while finding less capital intensive ways to exist and to grow. This process allows us to focus on revitalizing methods long abandoned in commercial brewing, like steeping herbs in the boiling process, roasting seeds and roots to caramelize and effervesce, and gently infusing flowers into cooler liquids to preserve their volatile oils and aromatic expressions.

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Drawing from the origins of beer, Herbiery forges a new path forward in the modern beer industry, creating space for underrepresented communities in our welcoming taproom and unexplored flavor possibilities in our cans and kegs. Maddy and Nicholas embody the Herbiery brand with a total commitment to our ever-evolving truths as individuals and beer people.

Core Values 

Herbiery operates with the commitment to four core values:

Queerness / Integrity in Self and Opposition Creating a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC individuals will create a safe and welcoming space for all.

Autonomy Herbiery will give others the autonomy to make mistakes and the support to learn from them.

Continuous Learning Herbiery is committed to continuing education at all times and acknowledges that education happens all around us.

Nature The natural is something we cultivate inside ourselves and, through our actions, in our immediate surroundings.

Each recipe for Herbiery’s beer is personally developed by Herbiery’s founder Nicholas, drawing inspiration from their long history of homebrewing and the abundance of the natural world. As with any experimental process, not all recipes or home brews lead to success, and even the smallest of changes can produce enormously different outcomes. Through this process, Nicholas and Maddy commit themselves to continuous trial and error, the willingness to fail, and the autonomy to make mistakes, as core tenets of the Herbiery process. In turn, we extend this autonomy to the community around us. As a centuries-old practice, the collective cultural knowledge of brewing beer will never be held by a single individual. Rather, those who embark on the journey of brewing must rely on the knowledge of those around them and remain committed to continuous learning. Continuous learning is the taproot of Herbiery and will be cradled and supported through educational opportunities for our community, customers, employees, and beyond.

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Herbiery means beer created with a reckless commitment to regional grain and local herbal ingredient sourcing, growing these ingredients in-house when possible. Regional grain means partnering with malt houses like Maltwerks in Minnesota and Sugar Creek Malting Company in Indiana. We don’t believe it’s possible to brew, or drink, the same beer twice so every batch is unique. Quality and uniformity are not synonymous. We can try to recreate flavors for a consistent experience, but we are always willing to follow our hearts, hunches, and curiosity. This means our beers are individuals, just like each person drinking them, just like us.

Nicholas’ Story 

Herbiery really started in 2016. This was a time when Nicholas Ryan was reflecting on who they were and who they wanted to be in the world. A time when the stirrings of truth were bubbling up in the hidden spring at the center of their being. At this time, Nicholas was living with their two parents in North Central NJ and studying herbalism at the Herbal Academy of New England. Around this time was when they brewed their first beer; a ginger beer brewed without hops. This beer turned out so good that Nicholas knew they had to keep chasing new and interesting flavors; raspberries from their parents’ backyard, yarrow from the meadows nearby, and any other herbs which smelled or tasted good. Nicholas brewed and brewed and never with hops. Nicholas’s parents helped with the brewing and the drinking. There were a lot of reasons to brew without hops: opening up new pathways in an industry stuck in its ways, curiosity about flavor possibilities, and a reconnection with old ways of doing things. Brewing without hops ended up being a way to rewire associations with a brewing culture which never opened itself to Nicholas in any way that felt inviting. Beer was ubiquitous in their experience but as an ever present background radiation that could use some updating like lawns (why do we not grow food in our front yards?). Rediscovering ancient and mystical ways of brewing felt fresh and exciting.

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These brewing traditions were affirming too. Nicholas was realizing they were queer, and slowly realizing they’ve always been transgender. Always been; to put it this way is to recognize all the ways and the moments that indicated this from their early life onwards. Memories of alienation when their desire to hang out with “the girls” was met with chastisement from adults and ridicule from peers. They began enacting a facade of ‘boyness.’ Watching other students in school and mimicking their movements and tonality. Acting rather than being. Always seeking time alone to recharge from the exhausting act of wearing this mask. Recognition of others who were being othered and creating space to share with those marginalized kids was part of the way Nicholas dealt with their ostracization. Sitting alone at lunch led to sitting with the other people who sat alone and didn’t want to talk. The upcoming Herbiery taproom will hopefully be an extension of this attitude. A comfortable space for people, especially queer people, to be and exist together. Nicholas wore the mask well and lived with it for a long time. Second nature is a scary thing and not knowing what they were running from made it easier over time to think they were just an anxious boy. Never knowing that girlhood was an option.

Like so many people, the pandemic provided an intense time for self-reflection removed from the need to perform a gender in public. This led Nicholas to more fully grow into an acceptance of themselves. They had used drinking in the past as a coping mechanism to escape the deep-seeded trauma of acting as a type of person they didn’t want to be. Nicholas found moderation in drinking alongside their medical transition. Being able to access HRT and transition publicly was life saving for Nicholas. They have consequently been able to engage with drinking as an enjoyable act rather than a coping mechanism. Learning that pre-industrial brewers in many, often indigenous, brewing cultures, through our modern lens on gender, were women or femme-coded people felt warm and inviting as a mystical pathway towards feeling at home in this craft. This questioning of long-held beliefs in gender complemented Nicholas’s questioning of the long-held belief that hops are a necessary or required ingredient in beer. Friends and family were saying, “I don’t like beer but I like this,” “I’ve never tasted anything like this before,” and “I would buy this.” In 2018, after two years of intense herbal study and beery experimentation, Nicholas moved to Madison and incorporated Herbiery.

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Maddy’s Story 

Maddy never pictured joining the beer industry, but through a serendipitous turn of events, the opportunity to join Herbiery was one they couldn’t pass up. In November of 2022, for the second time in their four years in Madison, they found themselves trudging through a corporate tech job, feeling uninspired and disconnected from the community. Simultaneously, they were taking the nerve wracking first steps toward a medical transition, researching hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, setting up appointments with doctors, and collecting insights from friends who’d already taken these steps. They had first come out as nonbinary a year before, after time spent in isolation during the pandemic allowed them to deconstruct the assigned gender they had been performing day-to-day for most of my life. After much consideration and research, they felt ready to take the next steps in their own path to claim and connect with their transness.

They had known of Nicholas’ Herbiery project for a few years, but when they heard Nicholas was opening a taproom and looking for help, they couldn’t shake the idea of joining them. For days after they heard the news, they struggled to focus on their desk job and talked about the opportunity to any friends who would listen. Understandably, Maddy was apprehensive to leave their job that provided the stable income, health insurance, and the flexibility they would need to continue pursuing their medical transition. However, their curiosity eventually won, and they met with Nicholas on a Friday in November to talk about Herbiery, the taproom space, and what they were looking for in a business partner.

Quigley

Maddy was hooked immediately. Nicholas’ excitement was contagious and the opportunity checked a lot of the boxes that had been missing in previous roles. They wanted to be involved, but just needed to figure out how they could make it work while keeping their current job for as long as possible. Maddy and Nicholas set up a meeting for the following Thursday, and they walked away with a lot to consider. Could they justify giving up the stability of their corporate job for the uncertainty of joining a small business? Would they struggle to progress in their transition if they lost the health insurance tied to their job? On the other hand, would it be possible to experience the full joy of their medical transition in a job where their nonbinary identity went unacknowledged?

The following Monday, Maddy’s burden of deciding between joining Herbiery or staying at their corporate job disappeared, as their company laid off more than 300 people, including Maddy. They struggled to keep from smiling in the meeting where the company’s director delivered the news. Under any other circumstances, they would have been devastated, but the universe seemed to align perfectly, pointing them toward Herbiery. Thanks to a generous severance, they now had the time, income buffer, and two months of health insurance coverage necessary to comfortably dedicate their time to Herbiery and transition into their new role.

Almost six months in, they never question whether it was the right choice. Getting to work every day with someone that celebrates queer and trans identities has reaffirmed Maddy’s commitment to themselves and continues to root them in the Madison community. As Herbiery continues to grow with new beers, partnerships with bars and restaurants, and a physical location, they are eager to witness the evolution of Nicholas and Maddy as individuals and a collective alongside it.

Forward Fertility

Herbiery Origins 

Nicholas and Maddy met through mutual friends in the winter of 2018, around the same time that Nicholas was researching brewery permits and working at Ale Asylum, and shortly after Maddy moved to Madison. It would be four more years before they would work together on Herbiery. For those years, Nicholas managed the business alone, through the coronavirus pandemic and a rapidly changing beer industry landscape, but this proved to be unsustainable for the company and the health of its dedicated founder. In the spring of 2022, Nicholas set their sights on opening a physical location for Herbiery, as a space to root the beer and our values in Madison’s community. In the fall of 2022, with 2023 right around the corner, Maddy and Nicholas reconnected and began collaborating to manage the business’ retail sales, production, and eventual taproom opening.

Taproom & What’s Next 

After working diligently for the past year, they are excited to open Herbiery’s first physical location this spring at 2015 Winnebago Street, Suite 101, in Madison. The Herbiery Taproom is a modest space—just 900 square feet—and exudes warmth and whimsy, to welcome anyone who may step in. A mural from local artist Audifax adorns the west wall and exudes a sense of connection to the whimsical Wisconsin landscape. Lavender bar stools, comfortable green patio chairs, a floral couch and lounge chairs, and honeycomb yellow table tops under a sky blue ceiling and soft lighting. A riverine bar, tastefully dyed blue and made from the wood of ash trees. Taproom offerings include eight Herbiery taps and two rotating guest taps. In addition to beer, the taproom offers a rotating list of three seasonal, homemade mocktails, sourced from the finest local ingredients. As for food, Herbiery plans to offer snacks and small plates, including vegetarian options.

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