There was a long time when nature was humanity’s supermarket, pharmacy, and even homebrewing store. When our ancestors wanted a beer they first had to gather and process grain to provide sugar, capture wild yeast to convert that sugar into alcohol, and forage seasonings to balance both the residual sweetness and questionable fermentation character. Luckily obtaining consistent grains, yeasts, and hops from around the world is now as easy as driving to a local shop, or clicking a few computer keys. However, there is still that prehistoric appeal of wandering through a local forest, marsh, beach, meadow, or backyard collecting ingredients for a batch of beer!
Beyond the romance, there are other reasons to consider brewing with wild ingredients. First, they’re free! At $20 per pound, chanterelle mushroom beer sounds like something for the homebrewing one-percenters, but Denny Conn ages a 5.5 gallon (21 L) batch of Wee Shroomy on two foraged pounds (0.9 kg) of the usually costly fungus (imparting a fruity-apricot scent that melds with the rich wee heavy maltiness – see his book Experimental Brewing for the recipe). Wild ingredients encourage seasonal brewing, adding excitement to the yearly brewing cycle. Truly local ingredients provide a sense of place as well. Fresh prickly pears, mulberries, salmonberries, and pawpaws aren’t fruits that brewers everywhere have access to.
Cooking with wild ingredients is a popular concept at some of the best restaurants in the world (e.g., Noma in Denmark and The Willows Inn in Washington). Rather than import luxurious black truffles and saffron, these chefs are cooking gourmet meals with ingredients they can sometimes find growing by the side of the road.
There are several craft breweries specializing in brewing foraged beers. I’ve been especially impressed by Scratch Brewing Co. (Ava, Illinois). My favorite was their Burdock Sahti (brewed with eastern red cedar branches — a juniper relative, roasted burdock root, and soured with Lactobacillus).
Foraging is not something to be taken lightly. You cannot simply grab anything that smells nice to toss into your beer, or this might be your fate: “First they took my blood. Then they put a tube through my throat and into my stomach, to empty out my belly. Then some laxatives were put back in. The cardiac failure was known to occur […] so they put me in Intensive Care for 24 hours.” This poster to the /r/TIFU (Today I F’d Up) sub-Reddit had brewed a beer with trimmings from a shrub he thought was pine, but was instead poisonous Taxus. Luckily he made a full recovery, but the message is clear: If you have any doubt about what you are picking, don’t brew with it!
The best way to begin foraging is to go with a local guide who specializes in edible plants. They’ll know the seasons, how to positively identify plants, and where to look for them. Lacking a guide, a book on foraging in your region is the best option. Even researching local history can provide insight on what earlier residents cooked and brewed. Stephen Harrod Buhner’s encyclopedic Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation is a valuable supplement for suggestions on incorporating many wild ingredients into beer.
Another resource is the organization Beers Made by Walking, which leads brewers on hikes to gather ingredients and inspiration. Started in 2011, they have now worked with 45 craft breweries. For example TRiNiTY Brewing’s (Colorado Springs, Colorado) deliciously delicate Mr. Saison was brewed with mustard seed, lemongrass, and rose hips inspired by a hike in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado.
For the rest of the article, I’ll assume you’ve taken the crucial step of ensuring the safety of ingredients you forage.
North America had several native hop species before Europeans arrived and started brewing beer. Some of these native hops crossed with imported European varieties giving many modern American commercial varieties some of their unique characteristics. Wild hops are most commonly found in the northern US, but some species like Humulus lupulus var. neomexicanus grow further south. Neomexicanus varieties (e.g., multihead) are now commercially grown, for those of us who can’t forage for them.
If you do stumble upon wild hops, you may need to schedule a return visit when they are mature. Once they are ready to harvest, rub a few cones between your hands to gauge the aroma before picking. The major drawback of wild hops is their unknown alpha acid content. Alpha acid tests take effort or money. An easy solution is to bitter with commercial hops and save the wild hops for flavor and aroma.
Despite being considered weeds, dandelions are easy to identify, plentiful, and have several culinary uses. There is even a history of country wines flavored with dandelion flowers. The biggest challenge can be finding flowers to pick that haven’t been sprayed with pesticide or herbicide. My friend Nathan Zeender brews Right Proper’s (Washington, DC) Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine, a Berliner weisse with both dandelion flowers and their roasted roots for mild earthy-bitterness to complement the Chinook and Centennial dry-hopping. Other popular flowers to brew with include chamomile, lavender, and heather.
Rather than the entire flowers, you can brew with nectar. Fruit blossoms are especially aromatic, but the nectars of many non-edible plants can add wonderful aromatics to a beer. The problem is that nectar is very dilute and a noticeable flavor can require gallons of it concentrated down to thick sugary syrup. To make matters even more difficult, boiling drives off the elusive aromatics. Rather than attempt the laborious fanning by hand, employ a hive of bees to do the work for you.
I’ve brewed with wild mulberries and beach plums. One pound of mulberries per gallon (0.12 kg/L) added a deep crimson color and a jammy/earthy fruitiness to a spontaneously fermented beer (as detailed in my “American Wild Ales: Running Feral Fermentations at Home” story from the September 2012 BYO). The tiny beach plums were more assertive, adding rich plum and cherry notes to a dark sour. Tasting the fruit to determine when its flavor peaks is essential (generally ripe or even slightly over-ripe is ideal).
The same rules for cultivated fruit apply to wild fruit, the later the addition the more flavor is retained. If you want local microbes to influence your fermentation then select fruits that are damaged and add them at pitching. 1
Herbs and Spices
The most potentially hazardous categories are the seasonings. Herbs are the green/leafy parts of plants and spices are pretty much everything else — bark, seeds, etc. Many plants have evolved to produce highly flavor- and chemically-active compounds to dissuade animals from eating them (try a tablespoon of peppercorns or a salad made with rosemary in place of lettuce). Through the centuries humans have learned to dilute these compounds with blander foods to render both more pleasant.
In 2014, for their second anniversary, Societe Brewing Co. (San Diego, California) brewed The Gleaner, a saison with sagebrush, a hardier cousin of sage that grows rampant in southern California. Mike V. Sardina, of Societe Brewing, said it took only 1.5 oz. (43 g) of dried stem-on sagebrush added late in the boil in 20 bbl (.0024 oz. per gallon/0.018 g per L) to provide a noticeable herbal tinge to the pale Belgian base. If you don’t know how aggressive a seasoning will be, the safest option is to make either a tea (by steeping in hot water) or tincture (by infusing in room-temperature vodka) that you can dose into the beer to taste at packaging.
Spruce is a traditional beer seasoning. New growth harvested in the spring is best, right as the brown coats are falling off. These pale green tips have a lighter citrusy flavor, rather than the harsh resiny flavor of older growth. Once clipped, spruce tips can be vacuum-packed and frozen like hops until needed. I found their contribution to be long-lasting and refreshing in an India pale gruit I brewed with 1 pint (0.47 L) at 60 minutes and 1.25 pints (0.57 L) at flameout in 5 gallons (19 L).
Get Out There!
There are so many topics in brewing that are universal. We can talk about the way mash pH, alpha acid isomerization, or pitching rate influences beers brewed in Seattle and Sao Paulo with little distinction. Foraged beer isn’t about copying what someone else has already brewed, it’s about being inspired by what is available beyond the walls. It is an excuse to stroll along the beach with your beer buddies and ask that magical question “Can I make beer with that?” Seaweed? Driftwood? Mollusks?
1 Mortimer, Robert, Polsinelli, Mario. 1999. “On the origins of wine yeast.” Research in Microbiology, 150(3):199–204. doi: 10.1016/ S0923-2508(99)80036-9.