A small but growing bunch of brewers is experimenting with bringing blooms into beers, finds Ella Buchan
Saturday 03 July 2021
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Flowers scramble around the shoreline of the East Neuk of Fife, Scotland. They peep from among rocks, burst into life on salt-sprayed heathers, push their way through hedgerows and add tiny yellow tips to gorse shrubs. And they’re sought out and delicately plucked, from verges and bluffs, for Futtle brewery’s small-batch wild ales, each of which is based on foraged botanicals.
The tiny farmhouse brewery, perched above this wild peninsula around an hour from Edinburgh, is one of a handful harnessing the power of blooms, buds and blossoms to bring new and unexpected flavour profiles to beer. The gorse – or whin, as they’re known in Scotland – flowers are macerated, cold, into a syrup that’s added to an organic wheat beer after the primary fermentation. The ale’s notes of toast, lemon and cloves are counterbalanced by a whisper of coconut imparted by the blooms – a subtle flavour that, says the microbrewery’s co-founder Lucy Hine, could so easily have been lost.
“The coconut is so delicate,” she explains. “It’s pungent when you have the flowers but can get vegetal really easy when you boil it, as many flowers can. A lot of flowers are so delicate and their flavours so difficult to capture, so it’s a lot of trial and error.”
Flowers and ale are no strangers, of course – most brews are made using the cone-like flowers of hops. Adding other florals, though, opens up seemingly endless possibilities and potential flavour profiles, which inevitably means there’s a lot that can go wrong. “Sometimes it won’t be until brew is properly conditioned that we know the results,” Lucy adds. “And sometimes the aromas come through later; it develops.”
Lucy and her partner Stephen Marshall, who founded the brewery here in 2018, spent two years experimenting before they had something they were happy with. As keen foragers around East Neuk’s moorland and marshes, it was natural to them to base their brewing around botanicals – despite the challenges that poses.
The process begins with gathering the buds, petals or seeds, which are then brewed into a tea or macerated into a neutral grain spirit “to see how they behave”. Often, Lucy admits, “it’s disappointing”. “Flowers can have an amazing aroma in your hands and it just doesn’t work in tea.”
When it does work, however, it’s glorious: a taste of the terroir and a sip of the season. Each brew is a one-off and seasonal, with past concoctions including a table beer with “aromatic” yarrow flowers, added to the mash tun with hops, and a gose with alexanders or horse parsley, picked while fresh and green. The flowers’ “pungent and spicy” quality balances the sour wheat beer, which is brewed with sea salt.
At the opposite end of the UK, near the village of Ponsanooth in Cornwall, Stuart Woodman is another committed botanical brewer. He teaches foraging and wild cooking, starting his brewery, Woodman’s Wild Ale, to occupy the long, quiet winter months – though his unique approach quickly won fans and propelled it into a full-time pursuit. As at Futtle, he begins each brew with a foraged ingredient that captures a time and place.
“From spring we get primroses coming out,” says Stuart. “We use those for a Patersbier [a session style as brewed by Belgian monks] with minimal hops. It’s a delicate floral character, so you need a yeast and style of beer that also has fruity, floral notes.”
Other seasonally driven beers include Mermaid’s Kiss, a gose with beach (or Japanese) rose petals and sea arrowgrass (a little like coriander), and a saison, Pissenlit, with a dandelion petal-infused syrup (like butterscotch, apparently). Stuart also makes a Belgian-style tripel, Three Trees, with cherry blossom, blackthorn leaves and rowan buds, the latter picked just before flowering, when they have a “real almond, marzipan flavour”. In the works are a dark, barrel-aged beer with gorse flowers, and a summer sour with elderflowers added at the end of the brew, like dry hopping, to “hit it with a huge dose of really fresh flowers”.
“Ideally you need to use the flowers very soon, and try to pick them when they have sunshine in the morning, to capture the essence of sunshine,” adds Stuart. “Foraged ingredients can really tie a beer to a place and a season.”
Few things are more indicative of the seasons than flowers. They signal, joyously, that spring is on its way, or that summer has reached its peak; they bring jewel coloured blooms in autumn and somehow emerge even through winter’s frost. And that’s exactly what these breweries want to encapsulate.
While incorporating floral botanicals into a beer is a delicate and, brewers admit, often difficult balance, these ingredients can bring something truly special and create beers that taste unlike anything else. The complex layers of naturally bitter, spicy, aromatic and peppery flavours is also perfect for low and no-alcohol brews.
Foraged ingredients can really tie a beer to a place and a season
Louise Avery founded L.A Brewery from her love of foraging, and believes florals are key to crafting complex alcohol-free drinks like her Sparkling English Rose, a delicate kombucha brew infused with rose petals and elderflower.
“I have always loved the seasonality of wild flowers and using them in food and drink,” says Louise. “Each flower and botanical has its own set of special taste properties, which is where an exacting process of experimentation is needed to work out precisely how to interact it with your own individual fermentation.
“While fresh rose petals can produce natural wine aromas, yellow gorse flowers have a coconut scent which infuses a gentle sweetness into a brew. Florals, if used correctly, add great flavour and depth to brews.”
Lowlander Botanical Beers, based in the Netherlands, also produces brews with low or no alcohol, although this wasn’t founder Frederik Kampman’s original intention. Because all of the brews are based on botanicals, many naturally made sense as lower ABV products. “Herbs, spices, fruits and florals can create a lot of flavour,” explains Frederik. “So we don’t need the alcohol to carry and deliver the flavours we want.”
Lowlander’s floral brews have included a pink-hued hibiscus ale and a white beer with elderflower, orange and chamomile. They've even produced a brew with spruce needles – and zero hops. And Frederik’s latest experiment is a spring-inspired (and very Dutch) tulip beer made with fresh flowers, like a cold brew. “I thought it would be predominately bitter but, depending on the type of flowers you use, it has a nice aroma,” he says. “They can be more citrusy or sweet.”
Frederik was inspired to use botanicals in brewing while working at a UK gin distillery. “I was in the botanical room with its cabinet of curiosities – jars of spices, fruits, herbs, buds – and just thought, wouldn’t it be great to see if I could integrate this into beer?”
A bit of digging revealed that using florals in brewing isn’t anything new, after all. It was common in the 18th century in trading cities, including Amsterdam, where spices and botanicals were coming in and out. Traders were often brewers, too, using botanicals to preserve beer for export (as with hops and IPAs). “I also found a book from the 1600s about galangal [like ginger] in brewing,” says Frederik. “Gin and genever distillers used botanicals to flavour their beer, too. In the past 100 years or so, all of that knowledge and experience has kind of gone.
“It’s nice now that it’s coming back. It gives so many interesting ways of creating flavour. You can do a lot with hops, but this creates a new frontier in brewing.”
Cover photo: Jacek Kuzemczak
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