Richard Croasdale looks at the tradition and practice of foraging in beer, and seeks advice on creating your own foraged brews

Beer and the practice of foraging for wild ingredients go way back. Before farming and organized cultivation, and long before the science and art of brewing was laid down and defined, our ancestors were taking what they needed from the land and using it in their fermented drinks. Indeed, the time during which beer hasn’t included foraged ingredients is relatively short, and the current practice of using only cultivated grain a historical anomaly.

Because the truth is that farming, foraging and brewing have happened side-by-side for millennia, as Monica Wilde, foraging teacher and research herbalist explains.

“We started farming in Scotland 6000-8000 years ago,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean we suddenly gave up foraging. For thousands of years, farming simply meant the ability to gather and store winter calories so you didn’t starve to death. But people still went out and foraged for plants for taste and for nutrition – the two things happened side-by-side.

“So it was only when people migrated into the cities in large numbers that foraging wasn’t part of their diet. Probably people in the middle of London from the 1500s onwards. So, the period when we weren’t foraging as well as farming has actually been quite short.”

But why? Today we tend to see any additions to our beer as being primarily about taste and character, yet for much of its history the inclusion of foraged ingredients was as much about the purported health benefits. In much the same way as tisane teas provide a herbal remedy for specific moods and ailments, our ancestors would once have brewed beer for health, often with the aim of generally strengthening the constitution.

“Beer wasn’t ever used as a major cure, but it was seen as a way of maintaining general heath. Even very recently, stout was the first thing given to a woman after she’d given birth and during breastfeeding. A lot of the popular recipes would have been seen as good for cleansing your blood or stimulating your liver… They might not have been able to explain the mechanism, but our ancestors would have been quite sophisticated in terms of which part of the body it affected and what effect it had.”

Traditionally, foraging (like brewing) would have been something ordinary people did to provide for themselves and their families. Knowledge of what is good at specific times of the year – knowledge which is now lost to many of us – would have been key to this.

“It’s not just the species of plant that are seasonal, but also which parts of the plant you should harvest adifferent times of the year,” explains Monica. “Most plants will give you three or four yields: leaf, flower, seed and root. An oak leaf picked in May and one picked just before autumn are going to be quite different. Likewise, if you harvest young roots in the spring they’re quite light, whereas the ones with the most flavour are first-year roots picked around the autumn, around the time of the first frosts.

“Think about it from the point of view of the plant’s own energy. In the Spring, the energy is going into the leaf, so that’s the tastiest part. Then it moves onto reproduction and the stems become fibrous. You’ve then got the flowers that are at the sweetest and tastiest when they’re trying to attract bees. Then the seed, and as the winter comes the seeds lose their flavour, and then the energy - and the flavour - returns to its roots.”

Foraged ingredients are a great way to create an unusual character

Foraged ingredients are making a comeback in brewing though, with ingredients like hog weed and even seaweed (Monica is a great advocate of the health benefits of seaweed) finding their way into experimental craft beers. While not all historical foraged beers would have been full bodied, grain-based brews – many Victorian recipes consist of herbs, refined sugar and yeast – these ingredients can be used as an additive to impart unusual flavours and aromas to various conventional beer styles.

Monica is an avid home brewer, and says that anyone can experiment with foraged ingredients in their own beers, usually added alongside (or in place of) hops during the boil. Nettles, ground ivy (also known as ale leaf, for obvious reasons) yarrow and bitter horehound are all abundant and good places to start. Most people can also identify elder, the flowers of which are great for adding to lager, while the berries work well in ales. Even some kitchen herbs such as borage and calendula add an interesting extra dimension to a home brew.

“The great thing about beer is that there are no rules, and foraged ingredients are a great way to create an unusual character. Even if there are ingredients that you want to experiment with, but the season is wrong, you can buy packets of dried herbs which work well. I’d obviously love to see foraging bought back into our beer culture, as it’s a great aspect of brewing tradition that we’d almost completely lost sight of.”

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