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Craft Beer Reaches New Depths As Mainers Brew A Batch From Seaweed
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Craft Beer Reaches New Depths As Mainers Brew A Batch From Seaweed

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Craft brewers like to experiment with different ingredients using fruits, spices, even oysters to make specialty beers. Now a brewery in Maine is trying seaweed. The state is home to an emerging seaweed aquaculture industry. One craft beer maker there is partnering with seaweed farmers. Maine Public Radio's Jay Field reports on Sea Belt scotch ale brewed with sugar kelp.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: Sarah Redmond is an activist for seaweed. She spends her days teaching people how to farm it just offshore.

SARAH REDMOND: We know that if we can figure out how to farm it on sea farms then we'll be able to provide more of a sustainable source of seaweeds for exciting new products.

FIELD: This summer, Redmond has been contributing a bit of her expertise to one of those new products.

DAVID CARLSON: What we've done so far is that we've mashed in the beer, meaning that we've steeped the grains for about an hour.

FIELD: It's a Wednesday afternoon, a little after 4 p.m., and owner David Carlson and his crew are getting ready to add a special ingredient to a new beer boiling away in one of the tanks at the Marshall Wharf Brewing Company on Maine's mid-coast. Marshall Wharf has a reputation for making some unconventional beers. A stout with locally sourced oysters, for example, and wheat-infused kolsch with jalapeno and habanero peppers. A few years ago, Carlson got inspired by a beer from Scotland, called Kelpie, made with seaweed.

CARLSON: If there's seaweed in Maine, that's a good product. Why not try putting it in the beer?

FIELD: Carlson digs into a plastic bag and pulls out handfuls of dried sugar kelp. He gives some to Sarah Redmond, and the two climb up to a small platform at the top of the tank.

CARLSON: All this has to go in, so there's nothing pretty about it. Just grab and toss.

FIELD: The brittle strips of seaweed disappear into the steam. In all, 6 pounds of dried kelp - the equivalent of 60 pounds of wet seaweed - go into this 200 gallon batch of scotch ale called Sea Belt. Now at this point, if you haven't thought this already, you may be saying to yourself, seaweed and beer - yuck.

CARLSON: We're taking a risk because when you build a recipe, you want to know everything that's going into it. You don't want to fly blind.

FIELD: Carlson knew he'd get some iodine from the sugar kelp and some salt to counterbalance the Scottish peat-smoked malt in the beer. But he worried that if the kelp introduced too much of a polysaccharide, called carrageenan, that the beer it would end up drinking like a milkshake. A few weeks later, the first batch is done, and it's time for a taste test.

SAM CALAGIONE: I can hear you guys. David, are you there?

CARLSON: I am. Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this.

FIELD: We're on a conference call with Sam Calagione. He founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware and has a reputation for using off-the-wall ingredients. Carlson cold called him to see if he'd give his expert opinion on Sea Belt. Calagione agreed, and Carlson shipped him some cans.

CALAGIONE: Pours a beautiful russet, sort of mahogany. All right, let's do this. That's a nice beer. I get a lot of caramel notes early in the taste.

FIELD: It's really good. More malty than hoppy, earthy like the scotch ale that it's based on, but a bit more salty thanks to the sugar kelp. Marshall Wharf Brewing Company will begin pouring Sea Belt scotch ale tonight at its pub in Belfast, Maine. For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

INSKEEP: Cheers. It's NPR News.

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