Office Brew: Nettle Ale
Words: Richard Croasdale
Photographs: James Taylor
Wednesday 18 July 2018
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I’d been wondering for several weeks what I’d do for my next turn on the office brew rota. I knew I didn’t want to brew yet another big, juicy IPA or imperial porter, and that I’d like to make something that was linked to the land and the seasons. The answer came to me when I fell off my bike on a cycle path, after a Friday evening in Edinburgh’s excellent Stockbridge Tap, as tried to free myself from a tangle of stinging nettles.
Although they’re a cousin of the hop plant, nettles don’t really share much in terms of character; fresh and spinachy in flavour, they’re a bona-fide super food, packed with vitamins, iron, antioxidants and beneficial minerals. It is possible to (and many people do) make nettle beer with just the plant and a tonne of shop-bought dextrose, in a similar way to making ginger beer. But we’re going to brew a proper grain wort for the base and then add the nettles for flavouring at the end of the boil. We don’t want our base beer to dominate, so will be shooting for a relatively low ABV and using subtle old world hops and light German malts. This should be a refreshing summer table beer.
I harvested my nettles at the end of a day learning bushcraft skills, with help from instructors Paul and Laura of Primal Bushcraft and Survival (see page 24), and it didn’t take long to fill a sack. Under Paul’s instructions, we only went for the very tips of the plants – this is where the best flavour is found, and it gives the plants a chance to grow back (there’s no shortage of nettles, but it’s still foraging best practice).
By the time I get my haul of lush greenery back to the office, the various beasties living in the nettles have woken up and infested the taxi. Oops. A good wash is probably in order.
The ever-helpful team at Edinburgh’s Brew Store has already provided all the necessary ingredients for brewing the base beer (including helping me devise a suitable recipe), so we’re ready to get going the very next day, while the nettles are still fresh.
Having helped my colleagues with quite a few ‘big’ beers in recent months, this relatively light recipe, with its 2kg malt bill (to produce around 11 litres of beer) and low original gravity feels like easy work. Not too much stirring during mashing in, not too much trub clogging up the Grainfather’s hop filter and stalling its pump, no super-sticky gunk to scrape up at the end. I love drinking sweet, unctuous stouts, but honestly, this is my kind of brewing.
The nettle tops feel like a lot of extra bulk going into the boil ten minutes before the end, but they quickly wilt to almost nothing and a lurid green foam forms on top (though mercifully this doesn’t translate to the beer). The usual malty fog that fills the office on brew day is infused with spinach and chlorophyll, but in a pleasant, outdoorsy way.
The boil over, it’s time to pump the wort out of the Grainfather, cold crash it using our fancy new chiller and fill the two small demijohns that are sterilised and waiting. This proves a little tricky, as the broad nettle leaves have formed a mulch that blocks the pump inlet. Stiring vigorously to create an impromptu whirlpool helps though, and things get moving again.
Peering through the demijohn, the beer looks thick and hazy, and I wonder how much of that lovely nettle protein (they’re 40% protein, nutrition fans) made it past all my efforts to remove it. I’m hoping most of it will settle out over the next few days. I’m also hoping that the sharp, vegetal slurp I took while measuring the original gravity isn’t representative of the final flavour; if I wanted a green juice smoothie I would have popped down to the Co-op.
I have faith in the magic of fermentation though, so watch this space for the full results.
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