Brewing With Ants: Brazilian Brewers Get Creative with a Local Delicacy

Zymology by | Mar 2014 | Issue #86

Every October, outside of Brazil’s São Paulo, legions of female leafcutter ants emerge from the ground, spread their wings and fly somewhere to start a new colony. That’s if they aren’t caught by the locals first. In a tradition that started with indigenous Brazilians, these saúva ants are de-winged and fried up, their large posteriors full of crunchy protein.

What do the ants taste like, you ask? Lemongrass with hints of ginger and cardamom, says Brazil’s celebrity chef Alex Atala, owner of São Paulo’s haute cuisine hotspot D.O.M., where an eight-course tasting menu including ants costs about $250. Atala has put the “ant” in restaurant for years: served fried and alone, whole on pineapple cubes, or as a fine powder on shrimp. And where intrepid chefs go, brewers will follow.

The story of the world’s first Leafcutter Ant Saison starts in the days leading up to São Paulo’s O Mercado, an epic gastronomy fair that brings together more than 20,000 foodies, chefs, restaurateurs and a handful of brewers. Homebrew shop owners Elso Rigon, Alessandro Morais and David Figueira, along with their friend, doctor and beer sommelier Marcelo Cury, knew they could stand out at such a huge event by brewing a beer outside for passersby to see, but the question was: What kind of beer?

When their friend and beer bar owner Paulo Leite brought back some fat-bottomed ants from the Amazon, they had their answer: a Saison with figs, cassava paste and saúva ants. Given how skeptical they all were about how it would turn out, the group decided on a 5-liter batch, which is a little less than a gallon and a half.

At the festival, people wandered past their stall, asking them why they were making soup outside. “When we told them we were making beer, people got really excited,” says Rigon. “It’s really rare to see that here. People don’t know how to homebrew.” That’s why Rigon and his friends started the Lamas Brew Shop in 2012. They now have two locations, one in the backroom of Empório Sagarana beer bar, in a quiet São Paulo neighborhood.

Using mostly Pilsen malt with a bit of roasted and rye malts, they brought up the gravity even further with the addition of the fig paste. At the end of the boil, they added the cassava extract for bitterness. Then they threw a handful of ants in the whirlpool, along with Simcoe hops. The rest of the ants were added one day before bottling during a stage they dubbed “dry-anting.”

The result? A 7.8-percent Saison with a lemongrass aroma and bitter spiciness you can feel on the lips. Rigon and his friends were impressed, and chalked the lemongrass aroma up to the leafcutter ants, and the spiciness to the cassava. Though the addition of the saúva ants probably did very little to the flavor, they imparted the citrusy aroma. Not a vegetarian beer, but delicious all the same.

“We never imagined it would be as successful as it’s become,” says Rigon, shaking his head. “Now we’re planning on brewing it again in a much larger batch.” As for commerciability, not for a while. Brazil has strict animal product laws, even forbidding the use of honey in beer.

In the United States, however, innovative brewers are eager to use unorthodox ingredients. “I’m actually dying to brew with bugs,” says Butch Heilshorn, co-owner of Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth, N.H. “It’s a crazy thought to Americans, but people eat bugs all over the rest of the world. Why not brew with them?”

For five years, Heilshorn has been brewing—and, for the past two years, selling—beers with herbs like wormwood, horehound and black locust, and even stranger ingredients like pig heads and bear meat. “For us, this is not about being wacky or some shallow series of sensational stunts just to get some attention,” he says. “We are interested in exploring and innovating to stretch the rather tight boundaries of beer brewing.”

LEAFCUTTER ANT SAISON RECIPE
OG: 1.083 | FG: 1.024

Malt
1 kg Pilsen malt
0.3 kg Carafa III malt
0.6 kg rye malt

Mash
After mashing and recirculating, bring to a boil. Add 1 generous dollop of fig preserves at boil.

Hops & Spices
7 oz dark cassava paste | 45 minutes
0.33 oz Simcoe hops | 50 minutes
1.7 oz of saúva ants at whirlpool

Yeast
White Labs Belgian Saison 565

Notes
Ferment 10 days at 78.8°F. Secondary 15 days at 50°F. Add 1 oz saúva ants 1 day before bottling.

 

Correction: August 10, 2016
An earlier version of this story excluded Marcelo Cury, he was among the group that brewed Leafcutter Ant Saison for O Mercado.