A botanist and a brewery come together to save our wild places
By JULIE SCHOTT
Passion is a powerful force. With it, anything is possible, especially when people come together for the benefit of community and conservation. A common love of our area and her wild places is behind a local brewery and a botanist whose worlds may not have intersected without a shared love of these mountains and an understanding that they need protecting.
While Ryan Glenn may be young in years, he is an experienced brewer who has a knack for crafting outstanding beer. Humble talent is the best kind, and he’s got that. Ryan began honing his craft while working at a large brewery. Since this experience he has built his home in Cashiers as the sole brewer for Whiteside Brewing Company. He said he prefers a smaller brewery because he can give more attention to the details. “Doing it by myself means more quality control,” he explained.
Love of his craft comes through in the beer Ryan creates. When asked about his process, he said, “I like to challenge myself, try new things and have fun with it, doing something different. You never know when you’ll come up with the next big one—you’ve gotta progress.” His passion for exploring new flavor profiles is clear and drives him to never stop innovating, which is lucky for those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor one pint at a time.
The brewing process is much like cultivating a garden, it takes constant care and tending. The actual process takes about eight to ten hours followed by an eight-week period where you have to keep a close watch on fermentation and the yeast health. Yeast, which is what helps make beer, is a living organism that requires food and oxygen via wort, a sugary grain water. If you’d like to witness this process firsthand, all this magic happens out in the open, right inside the main dining area at Whiteside Brewing.
Whether you choose to gather inside or out, Whiteside has become a community gathering place, and community is at the heart of what they do. Giving back to the community that supports them is a priority.
Three years ago, they launched their Grub for Good program, which benefits local nonprofits by donating a percentage of sales during a specific time. They have also recently begun Trivia Nights hosted by and for the benefit of different area nonprofits.
Last summer Whiteside Brewing collaborated with Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust (HCLT) to craft a beer using botanicals sustainably foraged from a conserved HCLT property. This seasonal brew was aptly named “Feelin’ Pine,” a nod to the pitch pine (Pinus rigida) that was used. A percentage of the sales went to support the Land Trust’s mission to conserve the natural places we all love and need. When asked why they support protecting our natural resources, Ann Novitske, Business Development Manager for the brewery, said, “We live in a beautiful place. This area is so unique with a huge variety of species, waterfalls and nature, and it is the responsibility of each of us to help protect that. Ryan added, “I grew up hiking trails that were nothing like what we have on the plateau. Here our options for hiking and exploring are almost unlimited.”
If you didn’t get a chance to sample their last collaboration with HCLT, never fear, they are at it again! On tap now is a perfect winter ale crafted from sustainably foraged spicebush!
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is somewhat of a wonder shrub. Part of the laurel family, this native shrub provides food for a number of animals, including 20 species of birds, but it is deer resistant, making it a great option for landscaping. However, spicebush is dioecious, meaning the plants are either male or female so both sexes are needed to produce berries with viable seeds. It is also a host plant for the swallowtail butterfly. Its leaves and stems are very aromatic when crushed, revealing a spicy, citrus scent.
Spicebush has a long history of being used by those who came before us. Native Americans used it to treat colds, coughs, croup and other ailments, as well as to flavor foods, such as ahem, possum and groundhog. During the civil war, it was used as both a tea when coffee rations ran low and a “spring tonic.”
With its notes of pumpernickel, toffee, smoky wood, clove and peppery allspice, Ryan saw a new challenge and the opportunity for a tasty winter ale. But where to sustainably source it? The folks at HCLT knew the perfect place, a place like no other that just happens to be the home of a local legend.
Nestled in a cove in Jackson County sits a mountainside woodland with one of the finest and most extensive collections of native wildflowers found in our area. Over 50 species of wildflowers, including at least seven species of trillium, make Nodding Trillium Garden at the Pittillo Family Nature Preserve in Cullowhee, NC a true botanical treasure.
Decades in the making, this one-of-a-kind ecological collection has been curated by, and at the homestead of, renowned botanist, Dr. Dan Pittillo, who, himself, is a local treasure. He is one of the most venerated experts in the plants of our region, and he is an expert at interpreting the stories they tell about the health and status of the forests they call home.
As a Western NC native and retired WCU professor, Dr. Pittillo has been studying and exploring our forests and her flora his whole life. Nodding Trillium Garden is, in many ways, a living tribute not only to his life’s work exploring Appalachia but also to the woman he loved and their family.
Born in a small town just outside Asheville in 1938, Dan spent his childhood discovering the wonders of our wild places with the southern Appalachian Mountains as his playground. As his intrigue of our natural world grew, he soon discovered his passion for botany, a lifelong love affair that eventually led him to pursue his PhD at the University of Georgia (UGA), where he would meet his next love, his wife Jean.
Jean worked in the lab at UGA with Dan. He wanted to pursue her but thought she was already in a relationship with another man at their lab. When he learned that Jean’s friend was only that and not a romantic interest to her, he finally asked her on a date. Dan had found the woman he would eventually marry.
When Dan and his bride came back to NC, they settled on their land in Cullowhee and began to build their life together. It was here at their family homestead, in their mountainside woodland cove, that Dan and Jean would raise their family.
After settling into their new home, Dan started his career as a professor of botany at WCU. Over the next nearly 40 years, Dr. Pittillo earned a reputation as one of the top botanists and field ecologists in our region and beyond. He has taken part in countless botanical surveys throughout our region for the Biltmore Estate, Balsam Mountain Preserve, North Carolina Arboretum, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Like most academics, Dan’s thirst for knowledge has never been satiated. He has even conducted climate change studies on his family land in Cullowhee.
After collecting university herbarium specimens from the NC mountain region, he sometimes had a rhizome, which is a horizontal underground plant stem, that wasn’t going to be used. Instead of throwing it away, he would stick it in the ground on his property. His attitude was, if it grows, it grows. Well, let’s just say, they grew!
Over time, an impressive collection of plants started to flourish. As early as the 1970s, local school children, university students, and other members of the community visited the garden to view its trilliums and other spring flora. Their mountainside woodland blossomed into an extraordinary garden.
Sadly, in 2011, Jean passed away.
In 2012, the Pittillo family made the decision to conserve their family woodland and garden with HCLT by placing a conservation easement on the land, ensuring it would be protected forever. The Pittillo Family Nature Preserve and Nodding Trillium Garden is now dedicated to the memory of Jean Pittillo, who lived there for more than forty years and was greatly loved by family and community alike, a fitting legacy for a remarkable family.
As Dan spent his entire career studying and teaching people about our natural world, it is only fitting that he and the Pittillo family have graciously invited the public to walk the trails of their Preserve. It is worth noting that while all properties that HCLT conserves offer public benefit, this is the only privately held conservation easement that invites the public to come learn and explore.
It was from Dan’s garden that spicebush was sustainably foraged to make Whiteside Brewing’s latest creation, named in honor of a botanist who is making a huge impact on our mountains. Make sure to stop by Whiteside Brewing and try Pittillo’s Belgian Amber Ale before this limited batch runs out! A percentage of the proceeds will go to support HCLT’s conservation mission.
For more information about how to visit Nodding Trillium Garden and to learn more about the important work that HCLT is doing to save our wild places, visit www.hcltnc.org.