Plant a Backyard Beer Garden

Spring is here and for many homebrewers, it’s time to plant a beer garden. You won’t find lederhosen or German oompah bands in this type of beer garden. What you will find are fresh ingredients to spice up your homebrew. Brewers throughout history have added herbs and spices to beer. “For thousands of years people made perfectly wonderful beer out of whatever was available,” says Randy Mosher, author of “Radical Brewing” (2004, Brewers Publications).

The obvious choices for a brewer’s garden are hops (Humulus lupulus) and barley (Hordeum spp.). In this article, I’ll focus on herbs and spices that are relatively easy to grow and use.

For the Belgian-style Brewer

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is one of the two common spices found in a Belgian witbier, the other being orange peel. Some saisons are also spiced with coriander (although the “spice” in many saisons is a function of the yeast). Coriander is the fruit of the coriander or cilantro plant and has a sweet, peppery, orange-like scent and flavor. Colloquially, most people refer to these fruits as seeds.

Coriander/cilantro, which grows to approximately 24 inches high, thrives in bright sunlight and can be grown anywhere in the US or southern Canada. Both seeds and seedlings are readily available at most nurseries. There are different kinds of coriander, all with different flavors. Indian coriander is the type most homebrewers plant. Coriander can be planted in your garden or in containers after the threat of frost has passed. The plant matures within 60–75 days and — if you keep resowing seeds — you can harvest coriander throughout the entire growing season.

Harvested fruits can be dried in the sun or in a food dehydrator. They should then be stored in a cool, dry place. The “seeds” can be lightly roasted, to bring out their flavor, or used as is. Coriander (unroasted) is used in witbiers and saisons at a rate of up to 1 oz. (28 g) per 5 gallons (19 L), although it will be strongly spicy at the top end of this range. For a less spicy beer, use 0.25–0.5 oz. (7-14 g) per 5 gallons (19 L). The fruits can be added near the end of the boil — for the final 10-15 minutes — added after the boil and steeped 15 minutes before cooling or added in secondary.

Growing Gruit

In the medieval period, before the widespread use of hops, some beers were spiced with gruit. Gruit is a mixture of spices, usually containing sweet gale, yarrow and wild rosemary. Supplemen-tary spices — such as juniper berries, ginger, rosemary, nutmeg, cinnamon, aniseed, mugwort, heather, woodruff or lavender — may also have been used.

Two of the common spices in historical gruit — wild rosemary (Rhododendron tomentosum, formerly Ledum palustre) and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) — are now known to be toxic. In addition, both yarrow and sweet gale are not recommended for pregnant women. (Of course, pregnant women shouldn’t be drinking strong, medieval-style beers, so this shouldn’t be a practical concern.)

Some of the other spices in gruit are difficult to grow in North America, but can be found at your average supermarket or a well-stocked homebrew shop. The remaining ingredients can be grown with little difficulty in most places in the US. These include the big two — sweet gale and yarrow — plus ginger, rosemary, woodruff and lavender. Some of these plants can be grown in containers, if you don’t have a garden, and some of the herbs have potential uses in other beers besides gruitbiers.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is a bushy shrub that should be planted at one end of your garden since the plant can reach a height of 4–6 feet (1.2–1.8 m). “Also known as bog myrtle, it has a millennia-old connection with beer, and unlike some other ancient beer herbs, actually has an enjoyable aroma,” says Mosher. “The leaves and seed heads are used — I have to say the seed heads are far superior to the leaves in my experience.”

Sweet gale is sold at nurseries and thrives in Northern states. Because of the cooler climate needed, brewers in southern states should ensure the plant is at least partially shaded and well watered. The strong aroma stands up well to a complex ale. If you use fresh leaves off your sweet gale shrub, up to 3.0 oz. (85 g)  can be used for dry “hopping.” Up to 1.5 oz. (43 g) of dried leaves can be boiled. Using sweet gale in your brewing process adds an astringent flavor to the final product, so prepare to pucker when sipping this bitter beer.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolim) is a fernlike herb that spreads like wildfire in the garden, but taking the time to tend the unruly plant pays off in a crisp, bitter flavor for your homebrew. Yarrow flourishes in bright sunlight, and even if you forget to water it for an extended period, the plant will very likely continue to grow (and spread!).

Yarrow grows to 3 feet (0.91 m) high, and all parts of the plant, including the small white, pink or red flowers, the leaves and the stem can be used in the brewing process to add bitterness and a pungent odor. In fact, yarrow is so bitter that the taste is unpleasant when the herb is eaten directly. But as we know, what’s “too bitter” raw is often perfect for brewing. Yarrow was commonly used in the brewing process before hops became the bittering agent of choice. Use up to 1 oz. (28 g) fresh leaves or half as much dried material late in the boil.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is an exotic, pungent root and a centuries-old staple of flavorful beer. British brewers used ginger as early as the 1700s! Ginger is easy to obtain and grow. Once hot weather arrives, at least 75 °F (24 °C), go to your nearest grocery store and purchase some ginger root. Place the root in warm water for one night, then plant the soaked root in your garden just below the soil’s surface. Grassy stems will sprout up, and both the stems and roots may be used in your homebrew.

In a lighter beer, the addition of ginger could add an exotic, Asian flavor. Darker beers made with ginger could be crafted as gingerbread holiday brews, along with spices from the grocery store such as nutmeg and cinnamon.

If you live in a cooler climate (that drops below 50 °F/10 °C during the winter), you will need to move your ginger plant indoors during the winter, then replant outside once temperatures are greater than 50 °F (10 °C). Placing your cultivated plant outdoors during this cooler period will spur the plant to produce more tubers in the upcoming spring. You can continue to propagate the ginger plant indefinitely — providing an endless supply of ginger for years to come.

Woodruff (Asperula odorata) is a low-growing plant that produces small, white flowers and is often used in the production of pot-pourri. “Although it has no aroma when fresh, when it’s dried it has a subtle cinnamon/vanilla sort of aroma,” says Mosher.

The pungent leaves of the woodruff plant are used in the brewing process. You can dry “hop” with fresh leaves and dried leaves can be used, at a rate of 0.25 oz. (7 g) per 5 gallons (19 L) in the boil. Using woodruff results in a lime-green tint to the beer. To create a traditional woodruff-flavored Berliner Weisse, the woodruff is added to a simple sugar syrup and the syrup is added to the finished beer right into the glass.

Seeds are readily available, and nurseries generally sell woodruff seedlings during the spring and summer months. The plant grows well in partial shade with plenty of water. To prevent woodruff, which is often used as a ground cover, from spreading throughout your entire garden, place each clipping into soil that has been packed into an empty coffee can; then bury the container so that the top edge of the can is two inches above the soil surface.

The strong piney aroma of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) can stand up to just about any beer foundation, dark or light. The unique flavor of rosemary, created by its essential oils such as pinene and eucalyptol (if that’s any indicator of the flavor!), causes the plant to be a favorite ingredient in the culinary world. The oils are contained in the stem and leaves, so those parts of the rosemary plant should be used when creating a “woodsy” beer.

Many ancient rituals such as weddings included rosemary in some form because throughout history, rosemary symbolized fidelity between lovers. With this in mind, you could craft a rosemary brew as a gift for your special someone along with a note explaining the beer’s symbolic qualities.

Rosemary is readily available at nurseries and thrives in bright sunlight. The plant should be brought indoors during the winter if you live in a cold climate (below freezing). Use up to 2 oz. (56 g) of fresh leaves late in the boil or as dry “hops” in secondary or keg.

The distinctive scent of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), a woodsy, rosemary-like aroma with sweet and flowery undertones, is concentrated in the essential oils stored in the plant’s stem. These pungent stems can add both flavor and fragrance to your homebrew, especially witbiers. The head of the plant, which features light purple-to-silver colored flowers when in bloom, can also be used in the brewing process.

Lavender does not typically exceed 3 feet (0.91 m) in height, and prefers bright sunlight. Although categorized as a perennial, some types of lavender will grow for only two to three years.

The pungent nature of the essential oils in lavender can add loads of flavor to beer — to the point that the lavender-influence can overtake the basic underlying beer. Use up to 0.75 oz. (21 g) of leaves late in the boil or for dry “hopping.” As an added bonus, fresh lavender sprigs can be used as a colorful garnish.

Make Mine Minty

When considering popular beer flavors, mint (Mentha spp.) does not likely jump to mind. But it does in Japan, where the herb is used to flavor beers offered at trendy bars and restaurants.

With more than 500 varieties of mint, you must first decide which type you’d like to use. Four distinctive types are peppermint, which features a crisp, cool taste like a candy cane; spearmint, which has a minty taste tempered with a mild, almost licorice-like flavor; apple mint, which offers a sweeter version of the standard peppermint flavor with overtones of fruit; and chocolate mint combines a traditional peppermint flavor with, you guessed it, chocolate. Of these types, apple mint is the least likely to overtake your garden.

Speaking of the tempting taste-combination of mint and chocolate, any type of mint can be paired with chocolate —either chocolate malt or actual chocolate, in the form of cacao nibs or cocoa powder — in beer.

Mint is grown most easily from seedlings, which are readily available at nurseries nationwide. This herb is so easily grown that your main concern will be restraining the plant rather than helping it to grow. Like Woodruff, you could plant the seedlings in containers such as empty coffee cans.

The minty flavor of any mint plant is concentrated in the leaves. Fresh leaves can be used for dry “hopping,” or up to 1.0 oz. (28 g) per 5 gallons (19 L) dried leaves can be added to the boil.

An Oriental Touch

The name lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) says it all when it comes to describing this lemon flavored-and-scented herb. Lemongrass adds zest to Asian dishes such as seafood soups and chicken recipes. The lemony scent is pungent and oozes from both the grass blades and the bulb. The grass blades can be sliced to release more flavor, and the bulbs can be bruised or minced.

This herb is available both at nurseries and Asian markets. Since the plant grows from a bulb, the easiest way to add this exotic herb to your garden is to purchase a small plant and sink it into the soil. Otherwise, you can clip a bulb off an existing plant, cover the bulb in “rooting hormone” (a powder available at nurseries), then plant the bulb in moist sand in a pot. Bring lemon grass plants indoors if threat of frost exists. Fresh stalks of lemongrass can be dry “hopped” at rates of up to 3.0 oz. (85 g) per 5 gallons (19 L).

Issue: March-April 2006