Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is probably one of my favorite native perennial medicinal herbs. It was one of the first plants that I learned to identify with confidence, and it is a common sight in many parts of the northern hemisphere, found virtually right across the top of our world. One of the chief medicinal applications of yarrow has been to both as a topical disinfectant and to stop profuse bleeding when wounded. It’s these compounded characteristics of the plant which earned it its genus name Achillea. Achilles is a warrior in Greek mythology who was believed to have treated the injuries his soldiers sustained in battle by applying a poultice of crushed yarrow leaves.
Indigenous peoples, where ever they have access to this plant, developed surprisingly similar medicinal and therapeutic traditions for yarrow, many of which have been proven by modern science including it’s ability to increase perspiration and thin the blood. Folk medicinal proclaims yarrow to be almost something of a cure-all, and many of this proposed medicinal attributes I can personally vouch for either directly or indirectly including it’s effectiveness for soothing sore throats, relieving nasal congestion, easing headaches and discouraging/relieving symptoms of indigestion and nausea.
Yarrow is quite an easy plant to identify, mainly because there are very few plants that one could mistake it for, but also because it is characteristic enough to be obvious and distinct, especially when in flower. Nothing really looks like it. Yarrow has alternate growing lacy, finely divided (millefolium = thousand-leaved) leaves which are widest near the middle of the blade and have a pungent, resinous and floral scent when bruised. Most of the leaves are produced at the base of the plant, particularly when young. Anywhere from mid June to early September, depending on the region, the plant will send out tall stalks bearing smaller and more congested leaves below a large, widely branched flat-topped cluster of many small composite flowers with white ‘petals’.
Yarrow grows in a variety of disturbed habitats usually in well-drained sandy soils such as those found in fallow fields, grassy meadows, forest edges, along partially shaded streams and increasingly in urban situations including sandy or gravelly roadsides, between parking blocks or from gaps in broken pavement. The plants are perennial and so once a couple of years old will produce at least one crop of flowers every summer, occasionally two if the first flush of flowers are cut as soon as they mature. The upper portion of the flower stalk is the part of the plant commonly used medicinally and for brewing, although the fresh leaves in spring will also do.
Yarrow also has a rich and ancient history as an ingredient in beer which may even out-date hops (Humulus lupulus) as an additive to fermented malted grains. Yarrow has strong antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties which make it a perfect preservative for beer but it also imparts a characteristic bitterness and unique floral, resinous aroma and flavor to the finished drink. There are already a few beers on the open market that I have sampled which include yarrow as an ingredient, many of which mask it’s unique attributed when featured with many different herbs all added in small amounts or only featured as a minor component to the overall flavor profile. I think yarrow finally deserves it’s moment in the spotlight and ought to be the central focus.
4 gallons water
1/2 pound liquid amber barley malt extract
3 pounds dry light barley malt extract
2 ounces recently dried flowering tops or 4 ounces fresh flowering tops
3 ounces Amarillo hops
1 ounce Tettnang hops
8 grams dried ale yeast
16 grams yeast nutrient
1. Bring 1-1.5 gallons of water to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in liquid barley malt extract until fully incorporation. Return to heat and bring back to a full boil.
2. Add 1/4 of the yarrow flowering tops and 1.5 ounces of Amarillo hops. Briefly stir to incorporate. Set time to 60 minutes.
3. At the 15 minute mark, add another 1/4 of your yarrow flowering tops and 1 ounce of Amarillo hops.
4. At the 10 minute mark, add 1/2 ounce of Tettnang hops and remaining 1/2 ounce of Amarillo hops.
5. At the 0 minute mark, add the remaining 1/2 ounce of Tettnang hops and 1/4 of your yarrow flowering tops.
6. Allow the yarrow tops and hops to steep in the hot wort until at least 90-100° F.
7. Strain hot wort into the fermenter a little bit at a time, alternating with cool water until the total amount of diluted wort is 4 gallons.
8. Add yeast nutrient, dried ale yeast and the last 1/4 of the yarrow flowering tops to infuse into the wort as it ferments. Insert airlock and ferment until complete, about a week or 10 days.