Tucked away at the end of a back road outside Ava, Illinois, is a microbrewery so good, in such an idyllic setting, it has managed to elevate my entire perception of the region where I grew up.
I first learned about Scratch Brewing Company last fall, when I attended a friend’s birthday party at Hangar 9 in Carbondale, and his sister bought me a hickory-based sour beer from Scratch that was easily the most glorious thing I’d ever tasted.
Ron and I finally made it out to Scratch’s tasting room this summer and proceeded to fall in love with the brewery and its surroundings.
The first thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they make everything from seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, many of which they grow on-site or forage from the nearby forest. This practice leads to far more diverse and interesting flavors than you find at breweries that rely almost exclusively on hops to flavor their beer.
The second thing that delighted me about Scratch was the fact they aren’t afraid to experiment with less common types of beer. This means you’ll almost certainly find a sour or two on tap when you walk in, and they might have a rauchbier, a heavy or some other less-common variety available as well.
The brewers’ commitment to local ingredients extends to the yeasts they use: Instead of commercially produced yeasts, they use sourdough starter to ferment their beer and make their pizza crust rise. This not only guarantees a unique, hyperlocal flavor, but it allows me to drink Scratch products without triggering sinus headaches. (Apparently I’ve developed an allergy to certain strains of yeast in the past year or so, but I’ve been exposed to Southern Illinois’ indigenous yeasts for 41 years, so my immune system doesn’t freak out when it encounters them.)
After three trips, however, I’ve found my favorite thing about Scratch might not be the excellent food or the world-class beer, but the surroundings. The tasting room is tucked into the woods, with a big, rambling herb garden out front and tiny lizards darting between the rocks in the retaining walls next to the walkway that leads into the building.
Indoors, a beautifully rendered mural of a Piasa bird graces one wall, dried herbs hang from the rafters and fill jars lining another wall, and local artists’ influence can be seen everywhere.
It’s a remarkable place, and one that has the same effect on me as a trip to Dave Dardis’ not-so-secret garden in Makanda: It makes me more aware and more appreciative of what my home area has to offer. Between Scratch and a recent trip to Shawnee Trails in Carbondale, I’m just about ready to invest in a pair of trail shoes and let my next New Year’s resolution revolve around exploring the forests of Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri every chance I get.