There’s a little-known legend that tells of a man on a spiritual journey. A spirit told the man to complete the journey without eating or drinking the entire way. And the man complied, until he came to a persimmon tree. He looked, and he could tell the persimmons were just ripe enough, so he started to eat. And he kept eating. He filled his belly to the point where he could eat no more. The spirit was angry, and told the man he would be punished -- turned into a small furry creature to roam the earth. Albeit - one that always knew when the persimmons were just ripe enough to eat. The spirit turned the man into a raccoon.
If there’s a raccoon in this story, his name is Sean Lilly Wilson.
Sean is the CEO of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. About four years ago, Sean decided Fullsteam was going to make a seasonal beer based on the flavor profile of a persimmon. Problem is, persimmons are notoriously problematic when it comes to taste.
"They have to be really ripe, but not too ripe," said Wilson. "You'll never eat another persimmon again if you eat one before it's ready. They taste like eating felt."
The other problem was that Sean didn’t know where to get any persimmons. Fullsteam is all about using Southern ingredients, and although persimmons are native to the South, most of the fruit you can buy at market is an Asian variety. So he put a call out to the community -- you bring us your Persimmons and we’ll pay you a market price for them. About $2.50 per pound. Enter, Angel Elliot.
"My husband an I call it a zombie fruit," says Elliot.
Elliot lives in rural Rougemont. She’s got a big persimmon tree in her yard which was good for making pudding -- she and her grandmother would make lots of it. But lord knows you can only eat so much persimmon pudding. So the Fullsteam opportunity seemed like a great alternative to tossing the the extra out.
Fullsteam calls its persimmon beer “First Frost”. The name comes from a supposed Powhatan tale that says persimmons are only good to eat after the first frost of the year, when they fall from the tree. So in order to have the beer ready for the fall, Fullsteam actually needs the fruit almost a year in advance, when they first ripen. About 20 people sell their persimmons to the brewery, some as much as a couple hundred pounds.
Angel’s process harkens back to the halcyon days of self-sufficiency. Simpler times, if you will. When the persimmons have zombied-out, she lays out a tarp and shakes the tree until they fall. She takes the fruit inside, gives them a cold water bath, and then trucks them down to Durham: to Fullsteam. Angel collects about 30 pounds of persimmons a year, so she probably makes about $75 from the process.
Once the persimmons get to Fullsteam, the process gets a lot more mechanical. Sean and his team split the persimmons into five pound bags and put them in a giant freezer for about 6 or 7 months. Then, when April rolls around, they start thawing the persimmons out. The mushier the persimmons are, the more flavor leaks out.
Then they dump the persimmons into a giant stainless steel brewing machine that, despite having three people explain it to me, I still don’t fully understand. There’s some spinning and mixing, a lot of heat and then cooling. It’s like Willy Wonka’s beer factory in there. Eventually the persimmon infused liquid winds up in a fermenter where it sits for weeks or months, the sugars break down into alcohol.
The beer will cost about $12 when it's released in the Fall. Wilson says it's important to cover the cost of making the beer (it's more labor-intensive than your typical beer), but Fullsteam likes to keep affordable enough that it doesn't become "elite." After all, the drink has its roots in the community, and it's nice to make it available for everyone.
This story is a collaboration with UNC-TV and Quest, a project in science journalism.