A home brewer’s guide to “wild-crafting” gruit and botanical beers

 

 

It’s a great fantasy to think we could go foraging in the wilderness to source all of the ingredients to brew botanical or gruit beer. Well it isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. It really boils down to practicality and economics. While you could “wild-craft” every ingredient it may end up being more trouble than it’s worth. A big part of the reason is sugar. As you know, brewing beer is all about working with sugars (fermentables) since they are needed as food for the bacteria to facilitate fermentation. There are 2 kinds of fermentables: simple fermentables and those that must be converted from starch.

 

By far the handiest source of fermentables are store-bought options like table sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, corn or maple syrup, beets, malted barley or malt extract. If you were in a situation where no store-bought products were available, you could potentially wild-craft substitutes. You could use tree sap, juniper berries or possibly some sort of fruit. Fruit can cause “off flavor” problems and juniper berries aren’t always easy to come by. Tree sap is time consuming to collect but otherwise a good option if you’re in an area that has the right types of trees in abundance. There are also certain roots and tubers that would work after converting their starches to sugar. Even insect sugars could be used, ever heard of Bug Beer? Me either but you never know….it might just replace IPA as the next craft brew sensation!

 

Yeast is another ingredient that can be wild-crafted but may make more sense to purchase, especially early on in your botanical brewing career. Wild yeast is everywhere. It grows on certain berries and tree barks and it’s easy to capture and start your own cultures. I guess they wouldn't call it wild yeast if it wasn’t unruly and unpredictable and that’s why it may be prudent to buy brewer’s yeast. With wild yeast you just never know what you’re going to get.

 

The point I want to make here is about “economies of scale”. It simply refers to the economic advantages that are gained by increased production. By purchasing some of your ingredients, those most difficult or time consuming to wild-craft, you enable increased production. More production means you need to buy more supplies and that means potentially lower prices per unit as you buy in larger bulk. If there was a class called “Beer Economics 101” (and there should be) this simple concept would be in the first chapter of your study guide. I suppose that’s why I wanted to touch on it in this article.

 

The bottom line is this: don’t get too hung up on wild-crafting all of your ingredients. If you’re making sage beer, forage for the sage. Mugwort beer, go pick yourself some mugwort. Worry only about wild-crafting your herbal ingredients, whatever they may be. Trust me you’ll have enough other stuff to worry about. At this point it’s most important to experiment, find your niche and perfect your “flagship” product. As you become more confident with your foraging and sourcing skills you can dabble more into replacing some of your store bought ingredients with those you wild-craft. Who knows…. maybe a 100% wild-crafted brew will be your niche in the world of craft brewing!

 

There’s amazingly wide variety of potentially wild-crafted primary ingredients you could use in the making of beer. Pardon the pun but brewing beer boils down to these 4 principal ingredients: sugar, water, herb, yeast……that’s it. Hops is the most commonly used herb but only in fairly recent history has that been the case. You can thank the “beer purity laws” of Germany for that. Hops do grow in the wild and therefore can be wild-crafted but there’s no shortage of beers made from hops. For our purposes we’ll put hops to the side since we want to brew boldly unique and interesting beers with herbs typically not seen in commercial brewing.

 

Although I list “herb” as one of the four primary ingredients I am using it as a general term to mean anything you put in your beer besides sugar, water or yeast. I break “herb” down into four sub-categories: plants, roots, trees and seaweed.

 

I highly recommend purchasing a foraging app like “Wild Edibles” by “Wildman” Steve Brill. It’s inexpensive, has detailed descriptions, photos and a “positive ID checklist” for all of a plants characteristic in any given season. The app also gives critical information about which plants may have poisonous look-alikes and which don’t so you may just want to avoid the former all together.

 

 If you’re an experienced forager you already have a good idea what potential stock you’ll encounter in your local area. If not, you can you can go afield to take photos and collect specimens for later identification and take your app into the bush on your tablet or smart phone. A good app like the “Wildman's” will have a plant identifier. You enter some basic data like location, plant type, etc. and you’ll get photos for comparison. I haven’t found it yet but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if there was an app that allowed you to simply take a picture of the plant and “viola” instant ID!

 

Many of the herbaceous materials you’ll harvest have surprising, even amazing medicinal and nutritional qualities. It pays to research your ingredients and understand as much as possible about what characteristics they’ll impart to your brew.  There is a book by Stephen Herrod Buhner called:

 

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, the Art of Ancient Fermentation      

 

It is an absolute must have for anyone contemplating brewing artisanal herbal beers as a business or not. It’s full of ancient and modern recipes and lore and a darn good read!

Published by Bill Hoover