BW: MARCH FEATURE
Salty, Sweet, Mysterious
How craft brewers came to love an arcane candy bar
WORDS / Caleb Jagoda
PHOTOS / Matt Robbins Photography
PHOTOS / Matt Robbins Photography
Ever heard of the Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll? Marshmallow nougat insides surrounded by a crunchy layer of peanuts and caramel — it sounds like something you’d find in your grandma’s purse, or piled atop a heavy glass bowl in the waiting lobby of a funeral home. It’s an odd candy bar, right? Like, who actually eats them? But for craft brewers, the Salted Nut Roll has become a rite of passage — a sweet and salty way of life.
While the candy bar’s history is shrouded in mystery, even among those who cherish it, here’s what we do know:
For one thing, it’s “a callback to just enjoying the simple things of life,” says Juno Choi, craft brewing specialist on Brewers Supply Group’s marketing team.
Brewers Supply Group, or BSG as they’re colloquially known, is the distribution and supply arm of Rahr Malting Co. in Minnesota, and they provide craft breweries across the country with the ingredients they need to brew beer. Namely, yeasts, sugars, flavoring, and — most important to this tale — grain. When craft breweries receive grain shipments from BSG, they have to unload huge, plastic-wrapped pallets containing 40-and-50-pound bags. And, this, my friends, is where the miracle comes into play: After unloading bag after bag and pallet after pallet of grain, the fortuitous, sweat-stained brewer stumbles across a bright red wrapper at the bottom.
Their hard work has paid off; they’ve been rewarded by the grain gods with a Salted Nut Roll.
“It was one of those things that when I first saw them, all of these veteran brewers were all excited, like, ‘Aw, Salted Nut Rolls! The Nut Rolls are here!,’” says John Bergeron, head brewer at Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire. “I was fortunate to work with a guy who let me have one right away, because he realized I had never had one — and that’s how you know you made it.”
Now an over-10-year vet, Bergeron’s started handing down the virtues of the Salted Nut Roll to his understudies, teaching them to respect and herald its simple joys. And when they don’t quite get it, he tells them to keep it to themselves.
Kayla Chetney, Bergeron’s assistant brewer at the Portsmouth Brewery, was a novice when she started, and thus, had never been initiated into Nut Roll customs. Giddy with excitement, he shoved a Nut Roll into her hands, passing down tradition. “She was like, ‘What the fuck is it?’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Just eat it!,’ and she took a bite of it and was like, ‘This is gross!’ I immediately told her, ‘Whenever we’re around other brewers, don’t say that. Just pretend you like it.’”
As Chapel + Main (Dover, NH) head brewer Dave Yarrington explains, the Salted Nut Roll is less something you like or don’t like, and more a gift that a brewer accepts graciously, with open arms and a grumbling stomach.
“If you work in a brewery, you’re usually hung over,” Yarrington says over the phone, laughing. “By like mid-morning you’re kinda like, ‘Man, I could really use fucking something in my stomach!’ Or like late-afternoon you’re like, ‘Man, I’m so tired. I can’t wait to get home. But — aw man! A Salted Nut Roll! Man that’d be great!’ I mean, certainly not everyone eats them. But then those people are suspect, you know what I’m saying?”
This is a commonly-held sentiment among craft brewers. In fact, most brewers that I discussed the Nut Roll with all had strong moral beliefs on how to treat the peanut-laden delicacy, so much so that there’s a pretty standard set of unwritten principles in place at breweries across New England.
Let’s coin these tenets The Salted Nut Roll Code of Ethics and Moralities — and they go something like this:
- Just like Yarrington says, nobody seems to exactly dislike the candy bar, but also, nobody seems to love it either — it’s more about enjoying the odd tradition. “I don’t know if anyone is like, ‘Oh, I love this,’” says Courtney Kaslow, brewer at Goodfire Brewing Co. in Portland. “It’s like, a specialty thing. So you’re like, ‘Oh, I can only have it right now—so I want it.’ But it does taste good; I think a lot of people do like it.”
Kaslow also explained meme culture’s embrace of the Nut Roll, to the point of it becoming a “hype-y,” overused joke on brewer social media accounts. While this might be beyond older brewers’ embrace of the Nut Roll, nearly everybody in the industry has fun with them one way or another.
“I had some of these experiences like seven years ago, but I think people are really jazzed about (Nut Rolls) even more so now,” Kaslow says. “It’s literally something that people love so much that my ex-boyfriend and I broke up, and he’s also a brewer but he didn’t like Salted Nut Rolls, so when he was trying to win me back he left a bag of Salted Nut Rolls at my house. Which I appreciated, but…”
- There’s a very definitive pecking order that dictates who gets a Salted Nut Roll and who doesn’t. Because only a handful of candy bars come in each grain shipment — and sometimes only one for smaller breweries like Yarrington’s Chapel + Main — only a select few receive a Nut Roll blessing. Seniority is a big factor, and so is the actual discovery of a Nut Roll. Whoever unloads the grain shipment usually gets dibs, but, of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
“I’m the one who opened the grain bags, so I get them — just kidding,” Kaslow says, reenacting a typical day divvying up Nut Rolls, “but I get one, and then we’ll see who else gets them today. Usually I didn’t want to have to deal with the politics of it, so I would just throw them all in the office and whoever got to it, got to it.
“There 100 percent is (a pecking order)!” she continued. “We had a guy who worked on the canning line who would take them out of our grain orders that we hadn’t opened yet, and we were like, ‘Dude … you don’t get that. I have to unload all of these grain bags, I get it! And if there’s multiple, then whoever can have them. But you don’t get to steal them from the grain bags.’”
Bergeron also recounted coworkers breaching the Nut Roll Code of Conduct; newbies digging through unopened grain pallets hoping to catch a flash of red and receiving a stern talking to, packaging guys demanding Nut Rolls with unearned authority. Traditions are steeped in respect — and the Nut Roll is no different.
“I did work with a packaging guy who gave me a hard time and called me ‘The King of the Nut Rolls,’” Bergeron says, exasperated, “because I didn’t give him one once, and he was like, ‘What, you just get to decide?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, I do.’ He used to hold his hand out and wait for one, and I was like, ‘That’s not how this works.’ … Everybody kinda works on the honor system. You know that you just grab one — you’re not gonna grab two.”
- Nobody seems to know when, where, how, or why the tradition of the Salted Nut Roll started, and nobody seems to care. As a seasoned veteran who joined the New England craft scene in 2001 at Smuttynose Brewing Co., Yarrington’s first-hand knowledge of the Nut Roll’s approximate timeline is unusually rare. By his calculations (who can say for sure?), Nut Rolls started popping up in grain shipments right around 2001 or 2002. But this is a known unknown for most; the majority of brewers accept them, love them, and don’t ask questions.
“It’s almost like, I would rather not know how it got started,” Bergeron says with an audible awe. “Like I would rather live in that realm of it being just a complete mystery and leave it at that. It’s like being a little kid and believing in Santa Claus. I’m just gonna accept this, that when this day rolls around, I’m getting presents from this mysterious person. So now it’s just these Nut Rolls, they just show up.”
This aura of mystery permeates everything about the Salted Nut Roll. It’s become what Choi calls a “if you know, you know” situation, even for the limited knowledge brewers do have on the Nut Roll. Yarrington’s been brewing for over 25 years and even he doesn’t have a clue about the Nut Roll’s origin story, conjecturing that it was probably a joke, but then again maybe not, or maybe that Pearson’s Candy Company are a parent company of BSG … or maybe not.
“It may be really common in the Midwest, I have no idea,” he says. “Some people out there may have heard of this. But I’m from the East Coast, so no, I’d never heard of it before getting into brewing. And when they first started to show up, it was like, ‘What the fuck’s a Salted Nut Roll?’ It just sounds so dumb … It’s definitely not something you’d come up with these days — you wouldn’t call it that either.”
Even when I began my research into the Salted Nut Roll, it seemed like I might come up empty-handed. Pearson’s Candy Company declined to comment for the story, and for a couple weeks I couldn’t get ahold of anyone at BSG. I couldn’t help but wonder … Is this some sort of elaborate gag put on by the brewing supply industry? Are they secretly putting performance-enhancing substances in these “candy bars” to make their brewers — unbeknownst to them — work harder and more efficiently, thus brewing more beer, ordering more grain, and eating more Salted Nut Rolls? Was I losing my mind? Are Salted Nut Rolls even real???
My wild conspiracy theories were put to rest when Choi reached out and happily agreed to talk to me on behalf of BSG. As it turns out, there’s no grand conspiracy behind the Nut Roll, and to clear things up for Dave, Pearson’s isn’t a parent company of BSG. Rather, Pearson’s and BSG are simply two companies that both share “a long and storied history in the state of Minnesota,” as Choi puts it. Rahr Malting, BSG’s true parent company, is coming up on their 175th anniversary this year, and Pearson’s on its 110th of manufacturing its own products. The two companies don’t even have a sponsorship deal — they just like to help each other out, and decided to embrace the way brewers ran with it.
“Back in the day we used to have our company newsletter called, ‘The Salted Nut Roll,’” Choi says to me over the phone, “but we weren’t really promoting it to the public or to our customers — it was just a treat, and really the customers have been the ones that have been elevating the Nut Roll, to the point where we have Salted Nut Roll beer in lots of different variations and homages. It’s been pretty cool and just a pleasure how this candy bar has become so ubiquitous in the craft brewing scene.”
*WARNING: Any brewers who don’t want to know the history of the Salted Nut Roll, and wish for its mystery and their ignorance to remain intact, should stop reading here.*
As Choi recalls, the Salted Nut Roll started when BSG was Mid-America Brewing Supply, and a warehouse manager started putting hard candies in grain shipments as tokens of appreciation to the company’s customers. At some point, this evolved into the Salted Nut Roll — most likely due to Pearson’s mutually-rich Minnesotan roots — and the rest, as they say, is history.
But why the Salted Nut Roll? Why not another Pearson’s Candy product?
“I think, really, it was kind of the ideal candy bar to include,” Choi says. “It won’t melt, it’s packed with nutritious short and long-term energy — it’s got the nougat in there for the quick energy and it’s got the peanuts for the sort-of long energy — and it just caught on in popularity.”
So there you have it. It’s not that the Salted Nut Roll’s necessarily kept a secret — rather, those who know about the Nut Roll keep it to themselves and don’t explain its esoteric sweet-and-salty ways to every average Joe who waltzes into a brewery. But, then again, there are those rare, nearly-spiritual, ritual-like instances when a group of outsiders can become inducted …
Bergeron, who’s an avid backpacker and hiker, once found himself with a huge store of extra Nut Rolls and decided to bring a load of them in his backpack on an overnight hiking trip. Setting up shop for the night at a public tenting site with an abundance of strangers, Bergeron sliced up Nut Rolls and passed them around the campfire, divvying up slivers of history, tradition, hard work, memes, laughs, and the appreciation for the simple joys of life.
No, they aren’t PayDays, they’re Salted Nut Rolls, and as brewers, we get them in grain shipments …
“I got to share it with people,” he says. “I wonder if they talked about it after: ‘We met this brewer in the woods and he gave us Salted Nut Rolls and he just disappeared.’
“If you’re having a shit day and you get a Salted Nut Roll, it kinda makes everything better.”
SALTED NUT ROLL — REVIEWED!
The beat on the Salted Nut Roll is that it’s a working man’s snack; in New England, you can mostly only find it at hardware stores and in grain shipments for breweries. Luckily for me, there’s an Aubuchon a mile from my apartment in Dover with a whole array of candy bars below the register. So that’s how, on one brisk January afternoon, I found myself picking out a new ice scraper and buying two Salted Nut Rolls to put all the brewer’s hubbub to the test.
The Nut Roll actually lived up to the hype.
I didn’t really buy into all the talk that it was a legitimately filling snack; I’d never had a candy bar that made my stomach feel good, so why would a Salted Nut Roll be any different? Well, it’s less of a candy bar and more of a portable-trail-mix. A thick layer of peanuts comprises its outside layer and hits you with a wave of salty; then, after working through the crunch, the sweetness of the caramelized nougat comes into play and evens the score for a sweet-and-salty contrast.
Not to mention that two Salted Nut Rolls only run you $1.50, a ridiculously cheap price for a legitimately filling snack.
Although it’s got a weird and outdated name, and a suspiciously-mysterious history, the Salted Nut Roll is simple, satisfying, and way more substantial than you might expect. Stop by your local hardware store and give it a go — just don’t go digging through any grain pallets, and you should be good.
WHAT ABOUT AN “EDIBLE” NUT ROLL?
When Jennifer King isn’t being a good sport as our model on the cover and here in this feature, she’s the head of Baked East, an edibles manufacturer in Maine’s medical weed industry, creating treats like her signature Fruit Chews that are infused with full-spectrum hash rosin designed to provide whole-body benefits. She has a legacy in specialty foods, with a family that founded Stonewall Kitchen, one of Maine’s true grassroots success stories.
“I grew up in the specialty food industry,” she says. “I learned from a young age what is deemed high quality and what’s not. … I used to literally state home from school just cooking.”
So, how does the Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll fare?
“These are delicious,” she says, right after her first bit for the camera. “It’s like a homestyle Cow Tale meets nutty.” A Cow Tale is apparently an old-timey caramel-cream candy. She knows her stuff.
At one point between shots she apologizes: “Sorry. I’m actually eating this. … It’s a classic. It’s homestyle. Look at this — low ingredients. There’s really not that much on here. Most candies have a big list of stuff you’ve never heard of.”
Later, noting that Baked East prides itself on avoiding corn syrup and artificial dyes and sweeteners, King says, “I would use any of these ingredients. In my personal life, I wouldn’t want that much soy, but these are all ingredients that people are comfortable with and know. This doesn’t have any food dyes in it. This is an energy-based snack; this carries nutrition.”
She’s dropping into professional mode: “Yeah, the cream base. The peanuts are the number one ingredient. That’s a major energy source for a lot of people. This is an amazing energy bar. This is still around for a reason. They haven’t touched this for a reason.”
Okay, but how would it fare as an edible? Could this be infused?
“Oh, totally,” King says. “I have a caramel-based recipe that could be exactly this. I could even infuse the cream filling.” But she settles on the caramel. “You do a line of the cream, weigh out the caramel and then pour it over the cream, rolling it until it’s in a cylinder. Then the caramel would be tacky enough to pick up the peanuts.”
Perfect for medical. Maybe 100mg per bar?
For recreational, it would be harder, she reasons, because you have to have portion sizes with no more than 10mg per portion. “But you could cut the bar up and use those little packages,” she says. “Like the Halloween Snickers and Three Musketeers? That would be perfect.”
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