Meadow in a bottle
You may remember my four-part series of photo-essays on meadow plants and butterflies back at the beginning of July (start here). That first morning I ventured out with my camera, I was feeling especially creative, and I think my photos reflect that to some extent. Half-way along, I happened on the mountain mint, which I intended to harvest a bit of for tea, and noticed it was growing amidst the flowering yarrow—one of my long-time favorite brewing herbs. Why not try brewing with both of them, I thought.
Up until that moment, I’d been intending to make some kind of very standard beer style—an IPA or a porter—and simply substitute yarrow for the usual hops, largely as a proof of concept. I knew from my own experience as well as from the literature that yarrow was an exceedingly reliable hops substitute, and that its leaves were better for bittering and its flowering tops for imparting aroma, but I’d always mixed one or the other in with lots of other things as part of various gruit mixes. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what it could do by itself? But now I had a new and more poetic idea: a summer meadow ale. And the more thought about it, the more fun I thought it might be to try and capture the essence of our flowering meadow—to put its genius loci in a bottle.
I didn’t entirely abandon the first strategy, though. I dried some yarrow leaves to use as one would bittering hops, so I could save the tops for the end of the boil as one would with aroma hops. I found a pint of dried lemon balm from July of last year that I didn’t know I had, so that had to go into the mix, and roasted dandelion roots seemed appropriately meadowy as well. My friend Lucy gave me a pint of dried red raspberry leaves from her garden, and since their flavor is kind of subtle, I decided to add them when most of the fermentation was complete to give them as much of a chance against the mint and yarrow as possible. I also added a cup of fresh wild bergamot leaves from my own garden at the same time, for the same reason.
The beer exceeded my expectations and then some. I’ve posted the recipe. To repeat just a bit of what I wrote there: Despite my years of herbal brewing this was, believe it or not, the first I’ve ever brewed with mint, but it won’t be the last. Now I can see why the Russians are so fond of mint-flavored beer. I always figured it would taste too much like chewing gum or mouthwash, but nothing could be further than the truth: malt and mint seem made for each other. Nor does the mint overwhelm the other flavors, which I notice more strongly the farther down I get into a bottle. The earthy, nutty flavor of the dandelion root (or is it the Victory malt?) slowly emerges, as does the bergamot and the yarrow. I’m not sure I can detect the other herbs, but I invited Lucy to stop by this afternoon and give her assessment, since she has particularly acute taste buds. She is, like me, a big fan of mountain mint, and agreed that it went well with the malt. But she said there was also a strong layer of what she described as smokiness or muskiness—a complicated mix of flavors with “something foxy to it.” I’ll drink to that.