From Scratch: The Wild World Of Brewers Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon

 In ALIVE, Feature, Food, Food, Landscapes, People

There is a mesmeric quality to the Interstates that traverse stretches of the Midwest—the stubbled fields in early November, the trees stippled in shades of amber and gold—such that, if you’ve successfully quieted your GPS to better enjoy this meditative state, you can sail right past your exit. And should this happen three times in a row on a stretch of Highway I-64—as it slides across southern Illinois so you eventually arrive an hour late to your destination—one can only hope that destination is Scratch Brewery, to meet proprietors Marika Josephson and Aaron Kleidon.

Once exiting the highway, the remainder of the drive will be mindless: a few winding miles and sharp turns beyond the nearest town of Ava, Illinois (population less than 700), the tiny brewpub doesn’t bother much with signage despite its being, if not in the middle of nowhere, very much in the middle of farmland. (Non-local patrons enjoy the allure of being “off the beaten path,” Kleidon admits, but mostly, Josephson shrugs, “Street signs are expensive.”)

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If you’re coming on a Tuesday morning when Scratch is closed, you’re coming to taste the farmhouse beer, brewed with ingredients almost exclusively foraged (oak leaves, chanterelles) and locally cultivated (chocolate mint, hops)—very much, from scratch. This is beer with terroir: beer that doesn’t just change with the seasons, but according to last week’s weather. Not “weird beer,” Kleidon insists, but beer that simply tastes like where it is from—and it’s been drawing visitors from just up the road to across the country for nearly five years.

For you, preoccupied traveler, Scratch’s offerings unfold more subtly. First, there’s the smell of the surrounding woods, wet and fecund in its decay. Then there’s the firm handshake of Marika Josephson, the co-founder who, though already hours into today’s brew and overseeing a concrete delivery, seems unconcerned with—maybe unaware of—your tardiness. There’s the Tupperware full of lavender she urges you to sniff before it fulfills its boozy destiny in one of the kettles, which, perched in the narrow passageway that doubles as the brewery’s kitchen, look more like overgrown stock pots than commercial brewing equipment. And there’s the little sprig of berries clinging to the sock cap of the other co-owner, Aaron Kleidon, a stowaway from the acreage behind the brewery, perhaps, where Kleidon has built a tiny house for himself.

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These homespun details seem accidental at first; enchantments, borne of a need to be enchanted. But much about this business is a happy accident of sorts, from their location—those wooded acres were bought from Kleidon’s family when all other potential rental properties fell through, despite the necessity of building this place from the ground up—to their inherently mercurial product, whose heavily foraged provenance almost precludes duplication.

Even their origin story centers on a chance meeting. Josephson, originally from San Diego, was finishing her dissertation for a Ph.D. in philosophy when she followed a boyfriend (now her husband) to the Carbondale, Illinois, area. Fascinated by linguistics and a lover of literature, she’d been reticent to leave he burgeoning career in publishing, but now she figured, “When in Rome.” Or, as she’d learned years prior as a college study-abroad student, “When in Bologna.” She’d enrolled in a year-long program in Italy that required students to find their own apartments and take regular university courses conducted entirely in Italian—despite her being so shy that merely making conversation with strangers seemed like an impossible challenge. But she flourished, and the experience taught her the value of fully committing to herself and her community, wherever it might be.

Dropped into the foreign terrain of southern Illinois, Josephson got some rock-climbing shoes, went on float trips down the Mississippi and explored the forests around her new home. When she couldn’t find the craft beer she’d taken for granted elsewhere, she decided to make it herself.

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Cue Kleidon, a photographer who’d just returned to his hometown of Ava. He’d spent a couple years working in a darkroom in Chicago printing artist portfolios before the call of the wild—specifically fly-fishing and snowboarding—had drawn him to Colorado. There, he’d worked at an airport and used his standby privileges to fly around the world. But back where he most belonged, back in the beloved woods he’d trolled since childhood, mushroom hunting with his family and collecting medicinal herbs as an annual summer job, he couldn’t help but wonder: why was it that the special, the well-crafted, the artisanal, seemed reserved for big cities, while rural places like his home had to make due with the commercial and mass-produced?

So when Kleidon walked into a weekly gathering held at a nearby liquor store with a concoction he’d infused with wild persimmons and sassafras, Josephson—also in attendance—thought, “That’s what I want to brew.”

It wasn’t long before they’d independently created wish lists for a theoretical brewery, and their vision overlapped almost completely: to create a spot that was simultaneously the combination of everywhere they’d loved from their travels and uniquely grounded in place—this place, these woods. It would support the local economy—sourcing their building materials from nearby junkyards and farm auctions, crops from neighboring farmers and art from local painters.

Scratch would be a showcase for Kleidon and Josephson’s talents: his knowledge of local flora and her skill at recipe development naturally divided their primary roles into forager-in-chief and brewmaster.

best craft beer midwest scratch brewing ava illinois alive magazine

His photography and her writing later culminated in a 2016 book called “The Homebrewer’s Almanac,” in which Kleidon contributed portraits of paw paw fruit and Josephson, ever the philosopher, quoted Plato to argue against industrialized food processes. Kleidon’s handiness means that he is forever adding to the property, de-constructing an abandoned late 19th-century log cabin, for example, and rebuilding it as what will likely serve as a gazebo when he’s done.

Josephson’s high GRE math score means that she always has one eye on the books, figuring out how to maximize their brewing efficiency, and overseeing the day’s concrete delivery that will expand their brewhouse operation.

All of which suggests, of course, that there’s nothing particularly accidental about Kleidon and Josephson’s co-creations—from their beer to the community they’ve fostered—aside from the wild, creative impulse that drives any artistic endeavor. The urge to make something they can be proud of, for and from the place in which they’ve found themselves, extends in every direction, from the enormous stained glass piece on the ceiling that, when pressed, Josephson admits she made herself, to the smokehouse they converted from an old icehouse to cold smoke grain, bread and even coffee beans, just in case it might turn up something useful.

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You never know. After using nearly every part of the cedar tree in probably 50 different beers, just last night Kleidon picked some cedar berries that were, Josephson reports, shocking in their sweetness. To still be surprised almost five years into operations—by nature, by what they can make with what’s available—that’s the allure. Because although they’ve achieved nearly everything on their lists, there’s one goal they’re still chasing: to make a beer that tastes like the woods smell. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” Kleidon admits. “But we’re moving in the right direction.”

Read this recipe for homemade sourdough bread from Scratch Brewery.

This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 1, 2018. Purchase Issue 1 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photo credit: Attilio D’Agostino.

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