Locust trees (and locust beer)

Honey locust branch in Autumn.

In the Uwharries, we enjoy a long season of fall color thanks to the diversity of species in our hardwood forests.  Sourwoods and dogwoods turn burgundy in early October.  Maples catch fire by the end of the month.  Sweetgums offer the full spectrum, from red to yellow to purple, sometimes on a single tree.  Even as late as Thanksgiving, our hillsides are still dotted with the stately gold and russet of hickories and oaks. 

And then there are the locust trees.  They look especially frumpy in fall.  Their dingy, tattered leaves shrivel and drop without attaining much color, leaving branches with unsightly thorns and pods.  Locust trees remind me of teenagers who swaddle themselves in black and sulk behind their piercings and tats and dare the world to love them.  And love them I do.

Two species of locust trees have become naturalized in the Uwharries.  The black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is native to the Appalachians, and the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) is native to the Midwest.  Being outside their preferred habitat, the trees in our region are usually small and gnarly.  They often grow in scraggly clumps along our forest margins and fence lines.  Their appearance belies the strength and durability of their wood.  Dense and rot-resistant, it’s prized for use as fence posts.

Black locust, also known as false acacia, blooms in late April in our region.  Whenever I see the dangling clusters of white flowers, I always wonder why they aren’t planted as ornamentals.  The French have imported the trees, and they produce some of that country’s finest honey.  Low in acid and high in fructose, it resists crystallization.  The yellow blooms of the honey locust aren’t as showy, and despite the trees' name, they aren’t used for commercial honey production.  Instead, the name refers to the long, sweet, fleshy pods that ripen in fall.  They’re often eaten by cattle and hogs.  They can also be used to make a drink called locust beer.  (It’s important not to substitute black locust pods, which Native Americans used as a purgative and emetic.  Not the sort of results you want from a refreshing beverage.) 

After my husband acquired an old wooden barrel at an estate sale years ago, our late neighbor, Herbert Hardister, put a bug in his ear about making locust beer. Eager for a recipe, my husband pressed Herbert for details.  He didn’t know how to make it himself, but he knew a man in Troy who did.  Claude Morris was in his 90s at the time.  He was still spry and his memory was sharp, but his recipe wasn’t exacting.  He told us to throw some crushed locust pods into our barrel, add some sugar or honey, cover it with water, then let it sit for a week or two.  He said some people liked to throw in a few persimmons and a cake of cornbread.  My husband especially liked the cornbread suggestion.  We knew this wouldn’t be a traditional beer made with barley and hops, but we weren’t sure what to expect.  Our brew turned out to be more of a mildly effervescent cider.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything we were particularly eager to drink.  I’m sorry we never had a chance to sample a batch that Mr. Morris had made. 

I recently wondered if a professional brewer had ever attempted locust beer, perhaps with more success than we had.  I contacted Sean Wilson at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham (www.fullsteam.ag).  They pride themselves on brewing beer with local ingredients.  They have one named for Dr. George Washington Carver, an enthusiast for the sweet potato as well as the peanut.  Each batch of their Carver Ale uses 250 pounds of our state vegetable.  Corn grits complement the typical grains in their El Toro Cream Ale. Experimental beers in their Forager series are brewed with ingredients gathered from the wild such as paw paws and persimmons. 

Sean said the recipe Mr. Morris had given us was similar to ones he’d seen on the internet.  He was intrigued, but he’d never followed through because he was afraid the concoction wouldn’t taste very good.  I wondered about adding persimmons and locust pods to a basic ale recipe as an alternative to the ubiquitous pumpkin ales we see from craft brewers this time of year.  I think this might have piqued Sean’s interest.  Last I heard from him, he was scouring the Triangle for a source of locust pods.  

A group of home brewers in the Uwharries is also experimenting with local ingredients.  They haven’t produced a locust beer – yet – but I don’t doubt one is coming.  I hope to report more on their efforts in a future article.  I think Mr. Morris would be pleased with this new generation of brewers for using what’s at hand and finding inspiration in the bounty of nature.  In doing so, they’re harkening back to the traditions of self-sufficient people in the Uwharries.

Ruth Ann Grissom

Click to download locust beer recipies.