Herbal brewing tips

If you’re new to brewing, John Palmer has generously put the first edition of his definitive guide How to Brew online. Charlie Papazian’s Complete Joy of Homebrewing is equally good (and what I learned from). Most American homebrewing recipes — and beer-making kits — are geared toward five-gallon recipes, but for experimental brewers as well as for those with smaller kitchens, smaller batches may be a better idea. When I’m in the UK, in my partner’s small row house, I make beer in 12-liter (approximately 3-gallon) batches, in part because it means I can save on equipment and storage space. (It’s actually possible to chill the wort down to yeast-pitching temperature in half an hour just by immersing the pot in a bathtub of cold water! And sparging and boiling are much simpler, too.) Regardless, if you’re experimenting with a bunch of freaky ingredients, you need to ask yourself: if this goes wrong, am I really prepared to drink 40 PINTS of the stuff?

Some points to remember in composing a good herbal beer recipe:

  • Always research every herb you use, paying attention to its medicinal properties and side effects, if any. Hops for example stimulate estrogen production and are soporific. Don’t just rely on the internet; get a hold of reliable guide books such as the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.
  • Familiarize yourself with standard foraging practices, such as: don’t gather near a road (because of lead from decades of leaded gasoline), make sure you have permission and aren’t depleting the resource, and pay attention to the quality of the plant, which can vary from site to site and from hour to hour. Foraging classes are available in many cities now.
  • Many plants exhibit just as much variation in taste as one finds among different varieties of hops, so don’t assume that following a recipe will always give satisfactory results. Mika Laitinen in Viking Age Brew talks about a Finnish brewer who came to Philadelphia to assist a brewery there in making authentic sahti, and was appalled by the taste of the juniper available from local trees (in an arboretum)… from the very same species he used back home. I’m sure it wasn’t a bad taste, just not at all what he was used to.
  • Just because you’ve ordered something from an herbal supply company, even one with the word “brewers” in its name, doesn’t mean it’s fit to add to your beer. Dried blossoms and leaves can lose a lot of flavor as they age.
  • Whether foraging your own or buying from someone else, keep track of the age of your herbs, and store them in a cool, dry place, ideally in sealed, sanitary containers.
  • Most herbs can be used fresh, and doing so may impart a completely different quality to the beer. This is why some brewers grow their own hops, for example. Other herbs may require special processing, e.g. oven-roasting roots.
  • If you have a good nose and taste buds, a sniff test or infusion may be enough to suggest how an herb will taste in brew, but a simple liqueur with a neutral tasting spirit is how the pros do it, I’m told.
  • Make sure you include a known antiseptic, such as hops, juniper, mugwort, yarrow, meadowsweet, or myrica gale—unless you’re brewing for a big party of Ren faire types, and it will all be drunk right away. Many Renaissance and Medieval beers were like the village beers of Africa, mean to be drunk communally and quickly, so herbs were optional and only for taste.
  • Many bitter herbs in leaf form benefit from a change of water to minimize harshness, in an infusion separate from the wort.
  • You can treat any flavorful bitter similarly to hops, adding some at the beginning of the boil for a more pronounced bittering effect, and some at or near the end of the boil and/or in the secondary (“dry hopping”).
  • Many of the more delicate flavor-elements are carried off by the carbon dioxide (the other major byproduct of fermentation), so putting some or even most of your herbs in your fermentation vessel during primary and/or secondary fermentation, or introducing more herbs at bottling time, helps counteract this effect.
  • Some herbs interact with alcohol to produce synergistic effects, such as licorice and calamus–another good reason for “dry hopping”.
  • Sometimes less is more (I have a difficult time with this one).
  • You can make a good gruit blend with stuff that’s growing right where you live. Though imported spices have been used to flavor beer for centuries, most major brewing herbs were extremely common, local trees, shrubs and weeds. So my feeling is, Americans should experiment with native plants as much as possible (while not scorning the “green immigrants”). Early European colonists quickly adapted their brewing practices to the local pharmacopoeia, making beer with such natives as sassafras, various spruces, and wild sarsaparilla, and in my own back forty I’ve discovered that sweetfern is a terrific all-round antiseptic and flavoring agent.
  • Any culinary herb can be added to beer — and commercially available herbs and spices meant for cooking are much less likely to be unacceptably astringent, as may happen with herbs marketed for medicinal use. Traditional recipes intended for soft drinks or herbal tea blends are a great jumping-off point for your own recipes.
  • A vast number of herbs and spices are used in liqueurs and spirits; I have a hunch that secret Renaissance gruit blends were the origin of secret liqueur recipes such as Bénédictine. Amy Stewart’s book The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks is a fantastic resource.
  • Speaking of books, herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers is kind of unavoidable, but should be used with caution, as it perpetuates a number of historical myths, contains a certain amount of woo, and completely neglects the malt side of brewing — but also includes lots of great old recipes and is a treasure trove of ethnographic material difficult to find elsewhere.
  • Most herbs are ridiculously easy to grow: they’re perennials, they have very few pests—even the deer leave them alone—and many of them actually prefer stony, infertile ground. This is especially true of the salvias and the artemisias.
  • One to two ounces of any given dried herb is a good average quantity for a 5-gallon batch of beer (but of course there are plenty of exceptions).

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