Foraging Fun: Sumac Lemonade

Even those of us who are not intimately acquainted with the wide diversity of useful and beautiful plants that grace our rural and urban landscapes here in southern Ontario (or eastern North America in general for that mater) can at least recognize the staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, even if they do not know it by name. This characteristic, thicket-forming shrub in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae, which also includes such familiar species as mangoes, poison ivy and pistachios) can be found growing in a wide variety of different but open, sunny habitats including the edges of forests, along dry ridges, invading open meadows and bordering farm fields and railway corridors just to name a few.

Staghorn sumac can be easily identified especially in mid to late summer by it’s long terminal clusters of tightly packed fuzzy red seeds that last well into winter and only begin to lose their red glow and look tired come spring. The long pinnately compound leaflets with pale white undersides that look almost palm-like are also quite hard to miss and stand out from the surrounding foliage. Each individual specimen is short-lived but sends up new shoots from it’s invasive root system that can grow several feet in a single year, making this a very aggressive and successful species, quickly occupying new territory and shading out competitors. The alternating, angular pattern of growth near the ends of the branches coupled with the soft, velvety texture of young twigs vaguely resembles the antlers of a male deer, hence the common name staghorn. Continue reading “Foraging Fun: Sumac Lemonade”

Creeping Charlie ’14

There isn’t anything quite like enjoying a fresh, deeply aromatic creep in the spring. By ‘creep’ I am referring to ‘creeping Charlie’, one of the many curious, colorful and quirky names given to a plant I most often refer to as ground-ivy, the species Glechoma hederacea. It has enjoyed a long history in beer brewing, dating back centuries in northern Europe where the plant is indigenous. At times, ground-ivy altogether replaced hops in recipes when hops was unavailable or because the individual brewer preferred the flavor and other benefits of ground-ivy. So would it be a stretch to say that our familiar hop could be a substitute for ground-ivy? The plant also imbibes the ale with a great deal of medicinal potency, but I’ll take a look through that when I review this beer in a few weeks time.

Ground-ivy has been documented to help preserve beer, imbibe pleasant bittering flavors and qualities, and also help improve the clarity of the beer. I would like to believe that these claims are true, although the first beer that I made back in 2012 featuring ground-ivy also had hops in it, and so it was not a legitimate recipe where I could solely experience the unique aspects of ground-ivy. The second attempt, which I believe also had some hops in it, ended in disaster last year (2013) when the carboy it was fermenting in exploded. Just couldn’t handle the awesome I suppose. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again. Please. This time around, I’ll definitely get to know the beery nature this herb better and will very likely gather some again soon and preserve it to use in recipes throughout the summer, autumn and winter. It’s best harvested when in bloom, and that is pretty much all of May and June, so there is lots of time to make excuses to stake your claim to your share of nature’s bountiful riches.

brewingglechoma
Adding ground-ivy gradually at intervals throughout the boil achieves an even balance of bitterness, flavour and aromatic compounds being distilled into the beer, as well as preserving delicate volatile medicinal compounds but also accessing more heat-tollerant compounds.

Ground-ivy is a thin, wiry herbaceous plant with creeping stems, rounded opposite leaves and light to dark purple tubular flowers which appear in the axils of the leaves in spring. It has a shy but tenacious nature, with a tendency to clamber over surrounding vegetation and spread aggressively, announcing it’s subtleties for those who are curious enough to notice. Lightly shaded woodlands, partly sunny hillsides, open rocky or gravelly areas and cool sunny riversides are all environments suitable for ground-ivy. I don’t encounter this plant everywhere I travel, but where there is some there tends to be a lot. The stems are weak and easily break off at notes or by the roots, which makes gathering them not particularly labor intensive and efficient. I like having it around, it’s useful and somehow strangely alluring.

Ingredients

4 pounds liquid amber barley malt extract
5 ounces freshly gathered flowering shoots of ground-ivy
4 gallons water
0.5 powered Irish moss tablet
8 grams dried ale yeast
16 grams yeast nutrient

Instructions

1. Bring 1 (or 2) gallons of water to a boil.
2. Once boiling, remove from heat and stir in liquid amber barely malt extract until it is thoroughly dissolved. Return to heat and bring back to a boil.
3. Set timer for 30 minutes.
4. Add 1 ounce of freshly harvested ground-ivy, bruised slightly or coarsely chopped, every 10 minutes (30, 20, 10 and 0 mins.) for a total of 4 ounces at the end of the boil.
5. Add half a tablet of Irish moss 15 minutes from the end of the boil. Stir in briefly to help dissolve.
6. Remove from heat after 30 minutes of boiling and allow to cool with ground-ivy still in the wort to at least 100 °F before pouring into fermenter.
7. Fill fermenter partially with cold, clean water. Pour in the wort, straining the spent ground-ivy through a sieve, into the fermenter.
8. Alternate pouring in the cold water and wort until a total of 4 gallons is reached (this is so that the hot water does not shock and crack the glass carboy).  Stir to ensure an even mix.
9. Once the 4 gallons of wort is slightly warm to the touch, pitch dried ale yeast and yeast nutrient.
10. Before adding airlock, place remaining 1 ounce of ground-ivy in a cloth bundle and hang from clean string from the top of the fermenter.
11. Ferment until complete, 7-10 days. Bottle condition for 7-10 days at 16-19 degrees °C for 10-14 days.

* In case you are a home brewer yourself and you may be wondering why I don’t include original gravity readings or any of that slightly more technical and specific information in the recipe and instructions, there are most certainly reasons for this. This is because, number one, I don’t own a hydrometer. Two; there would be no point. The unconventional ingredients that I use wreak havoc on the formulas used to determine this information and therefore cannot be used reliably. For most people, consistency in terms of mathematics is important, but for the herbal brewer, specificities such as this are a fever dream and from my current understand would be almost impossible to determine short of working out new formulas which take into consideration the ways in which different herbs affect the density and gravity of the wort.

Wermuth Wormwood Ale

Wormwood is an herb famous for it’s wickedly bitter bite. There are few things, even in my experience sampling different wild and cultivated medicinal plants, that quite reach this level of bitterness. It’s a good one to turn your face inside out if that is the sort of weird experience that you’re after. Although not the most delightful flavor to brew up as a tea or for straightforward eating (although wormwood was apparently used in small amounts to season meats much like culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which also has a somewhat bitter flavor but is more aromatic and interesting I feel) when added to malt deepens the flavor and cuts out the molasses-like sweetness. Consequently, wormwood’s history in brewing traditions is almost as old as records of the herb itself, going back well into the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe and even older in the case of Chinese herbal literature.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a pungent-aromatic, stoutly branching wispy perennial herb with finely divided fern-like foliage that is covered in soft white hairs and bears inconspicuous yellow flowers. The species was originally found throughout Europe and Asia but was spread to North America and other places by early herbal missionaries. Since then, it has escaped cultivation and can be found in a variety of open, sunny positions in moist, rich or dry impoverished soils alike. In the Greater Toronto Area, wormwood does not seem to be as common as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which grows in the gravely shoulders of highways and on steep rocky embankments, looks similar although it’s leaves are green on the upper surface and divided in a different fashion.  The bitterness is more modest (although still wicked compared with many other herbs) in mugwort but the majoriy of the medicinal properties between the two species are shared.

Wermuth means ‘preserver of the mind’ and can be traced in it’s origins to the belief that wormwood had a stimulating and rejuvenating effect on the nervous system and improved memory. I think this also makes a good name for the beer: I love to resurrect ancient terms which conjure up relationships of language long passed. Our way of describing things and understanding our own personal definitions of reality have been changing at almost the same rate as our architecture, politics and technology. With each leap in innovation or theology, a new way of existing emerges which dispels the acceptance of an early method of understanding. Information may become outdated, but it most definitely does not stop being useful or intriguing, for what do we truly have other than the foundation of our history in the form of accumulated knowledge?

Wormwood possesses a wealth of medicinally active components that have a wide range of influences in our bodies. For the longest duration of it’s relationship with humans, wormwood has been prescribed as a vermifuge; a plant which kills internal parasites such as ring or roundworms; hence the origin of this species (most) common English name. The other area in which wormwood has a particularly powerful affect on is the digestive system. Chewing on or drinking an infusion of the extremely bitter leaves, flower buds and stems of wormwood stimulates the action of the saliva glands, liver, gallbladder and stomach. The production of saliva in the mouth, the flooding of digestive enzymes and bile from the liver and gallbladder and the production of stomach acid all help to prepare the body for digestion.

By initiating this behavior prior to food consumption, fat, complex carbohydrates, protein, and many other nutrients are more thoroughly broken down which allows for better nutrient absorption when your food moves on into the small intestine. Consuming wormwood after a meal can likewise help ease indigestion, wind, diarrhea and constipation; the herb has a wonderfully restorative and nourishing effect on sluggish digestive systems and may be helpful for those who suffer low stomach acidity, irritable bowel syndrome or other such chronic diseases.* For more information on the specific medicinal uses of wormwood, consult Plants for A Future, one of my personal favorite online sources for reputable and scientifically sound plant based medicines.

Wormwood was not added to fermenting wort simply as a bitter substitute for hops when it was in short supply, but was introduced to the tradition of brewing for many different reasons. The entire herb is strongly insecticidal, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-septic, which not only helps the beer to keep for long periods of time but transfers those same virtues into the body through consumption, scrubbing clean the digestive and urinary systems of toxins, parasites and viruses as it passes through. The inebriating effects of wormwood were also thoroughly acknowledges centuries ago, as it was one of the main ingredients in the legendary drink absinthe, which also included hyssop, coriander, sweet flag, nutmeg, cinnamon, marjoram, mint, anise, fennel, juniper and parsley among others.

Not only was absinthe notoriously strong (traditionally 120 – 160 proof) but many of the herbal ingredients contained psychoactive compounds, thujone and wormwood included.* This gave absinthe a powerfully intoxicating effect on the human body which inspired heaps of anecdotal encounters with the ‘green fairy’ that many poetics and philosophers who apparently abused absinthe experienced centuries past in Western Europe. All of this considered, beers brewed with wormwood are not nearly as potent as 120+ liquors or invite the joyful possibilities of momentary insanity, hallucinations and other such disturbing side effects. However, wormwood beer was certainly well known to have a ‘competitive edge’ so to speak, which I am quite interested to experiment with. It makes me wonder, that as long as the appropriate doses of wormwood are thoroughly understood, why has interest in it has an ingredient in beer disappeared? Likely with prohibition of it as a feature of Absinthe, me thinks. It’s a shame, because there is lots of fun to be had here.

INGREDIENTS:

– 4 pounds liquid malt extract
– 1 pound raw wildflower honey
– 1/2 ounce dried wormwood herb
– 4 gallons water
– 10 grams brewer’s yeast.

I might substitute some fresh grain for the liquid malt extract if the opportunity presents itself, but I have never done sparging or any of the other necessary techniques of doing whole grain batches. If you are someone that happens to know quite a bit about that whole process, I would appreciate some pointers. I would like to move in the direction of doing whole grain batches, but there is quite a few things holding me back from that at this moment and so I can’t see myself doing it all the time until further notice, even though I would like to.

INSTRUCTIONS:

– Bring 1 gallon of water to a boil and add wormwood herb. Boil for 30 minutes.- Strain tea through malt extract and stir until completely dissolved.
– Allow wort to cool until approximately 100-110 °F.
– Strain wort once more into fermenter and add remaining 3 gallons cold water, stirring to combine. add yeast.
– Insert airlock and ferment for 7-10 days.
– Add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to each bottle and cap. Ready in 10-14 days.

*Wormwood, like many powerful medicinal herbs, should be respected and used with caution, only to be used on a regular basis under the supervision of a health care professional or herbalist. Wormwood contains thujone, a controlled substance in Canada, the United States, and many other countries around the world. Taken internally, high doses of thujone or the essential oil of wormwood can cause nausea, loss of coordination, insomnia or in more unfortunate circumstances, seizures, hallucinations and trigger epileptic fits. The sale of wormwood as a medicinal herb is not regulated, as the level of thujone in the herb is relatively low although poisonings throughout the world do still occur.

Thuja occidentalis, the eastern white-cedar tree, also contains thujone in it’s foliage and this plant also has a rich history of medicinal used among the first peoples on North America. Despite thT thujone received it’s chemical name for the genus name Thuja, the eastern white-cedar as a species is not controlled. It is common in the wild where suitable habitat exists and is a commonly cultivated evergreen hedge. Any reasonable dose of wormwood will not be enough to cause the negative side effects listed above, but wormwood is discouraged from being used on children, the elderly, and pregnant or breastfeeding women or if the individual has a history of seizures. As long as you are smart about it, then there is little risk. A little wormwood goes a long way.

Dreamer’s Amber Ale – Review

Compared with the rest of my increasingly lengthy list of experimental herbal beers, I find that my most recent Dreamer’s amber ale is the most tame in terms of flavor. I was hoping for that actually, so that my recipes would be more appealing to the average beer-drinker but still have the characteristics that separate it from the average and mundane. There is still enough of that lovable herbal funk too, which is great, and has unofficially become my personal touch and signature style. You can’t really go wrong with trying different herbs in beer, and I have only experimented with one or two recipes from what I remember that I wouldn’t have been perfectly happy to hoard all 5 gallons to myself. But that’s not what homebrewing is all about. I have received some fantastic reviews and feedback from friends and acquaintances among others, which demonstrates that there is potential for herbal beers to step back into the spotlight as they once were many centuries ago. Healing medicinal beers were once celebrated for both their therapeutic value and complex, diverse personalities.

The flavor is well rounded, balanced and fairly neutral which I am very pleased with. Many of my past herbal or gruit beers were always slightly on the sweet side, which isn’t a bad thing, but gets boring when you are generally a fan of more bitter IPA style ales and you continuously produce mildly sweet beers. I would love to make an herbal IPA sometime, perhaps to finally welcome this season’s delayed spring? I’ll focus on that in the weeks to come. I still have lots of Winter Sprucer (featuring white and blue spruce needles, chamomile flowers and hops) and Gotlandsdricka (brewed with 3 pounds of juniper boughs without hops) to keep me company over the next month or so. The aroma is sweet, resinous and akin to rose hips or raspberries. The flavor is slightly bitter with a hint of tartness and subtly floral.

An instant favorite. I could easily drink this all night, no problem. Wouldn’t get bored a single bit. I am definitely going to try this recipe again be adding more hops and Dreamer’s Delight to really see what kind of intensity I can produce from this mix of herbs and hops. Just as a re-cap, Dreamer’s Delight tea, which is the base mix of herbs featured in this beer and also the name’s sake, is made up of mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), catnip (Nepeta cataria), rose hips (Rosa sp.), peppermint (Metha x piperita),  ginkgo leaf (Ginkgo biloba) and valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). You can read about the wealth of medicinal benefits that compliment this most delicious of night caps and the methodology that went into brewing it right HERE.

Dreamer’s Amber Ale

Artemisia vulgarisDreamer’s Delight was one of at least 5 or 6 different organic herbal tea mixes that one of my good friends designed and sold at the campus of Sir Sanford Fleming in 2010-12, where I went to college to study ecosystem management. I briefly took up the tail-end of this limited time endeavor and sold many-a-remedies to the students on campus and beyond. Despite greatly enjoying my time at college and coming out of it with quite a brand new outlook on pretty much everything and many hopefully life-long relationships, my attitude towards the program’s name has soured a smidgen.

Ecosystem management? That’s a little conceited. I highly doubt we can consider ourselves curators of the forces that have shaped us into what we are today, both as individuals and as a species. We can certainly act upon the environment in both positive and negative ways, however I find that these methods of describing and articulating the natural world are highly subjective regarding their outcomes. We can make a difference, that’s for sure, but I personally think it’s inappropriate to substitute ‘management’ in place of ‘subjective alteration’.

Dreamer’s Delight is a mixture of more or less equal parts of the following herbs: mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), catnip (Nepeta cataria), rose hips (Rosa sp.), peppermint (Metha x piperita),  ginkgo leaf (Ginkgo biloba) and valerian root (Valeriana officinalis). As an herbal tea, the flavor is quite complex and floral, but also deep and bitter if left to steep long enough. I am hoping that this earthy bitterness will compliment the more mild English Fuggle hops that I added throughout the boil along with the tea but be sharpened by the more pungent Cascade hops added 5 minutes from the end of the boil.

There is quite a lot to be said about the medicinal and therapeutic properties of all the herbs featured in Dreamer’s Delight, so I’ll try to keep it short. Peppermint is a classic stomachic and digestive aid but is also great for treating respiratory congestion and sore throats. The leaves of the ancient ginkgo tree have become one of the most studied herbal medicines of all time, and are confirmed to improve circulation, enhance brain function and cognitive abilities and have the potential to possibly treat or prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or dementia. Rose hips are gently sweet and nutritious, containing more vitamin C than oranges or apples. Chamomile is a very well known and respected sedative and nerve tonic, but it is also a potent antiinflammatory and antispasmodic. The roots of valerian are strongly pungent scented and in addition to be being wonderfully sedative and digestive are a nervous system depressant, helping to recover those inflicted with insomnia and the debilitating effects of chronic stress and anxiety. Catnip leaves and flowering tops encourage relaxation and sleep and also act as tonics upon the nervous and digestive systems.

The addition of mugwort herb is what makes this herbal recipe even more intriguing. This robust and aggressive perennial bearing wispy, finely laced and silvery-sided foliage from long, arching branches is a native of Europe that is thoroughly saturated in both favorable and hateful folklore. It’s chief medicinal properties reside with the herb’s bitterness, which aids in digestion by stimulating the excretion of digestive enzymes from the liver and gallbladder. Tannins, which are responsible for the bitter taste, also act in the stomach and intestines to tone and strengthen inflamed, swollen or ulcerous tissues. This same restorative property is transferred to the uterus, where it reduces inflammation and excess bleeding that is sometimes associated with menses. If taken on a regular basis, mugwort acts as a tonic to the female reproductive system; restoring regularity if absent and reducing pain.

Dreamer's 1In addition to all this, mugwort has a widely varied effect on our ability to dream. Some individuals report after drinking a cup of mugwort tea that their ability to recall dreams improved, sometimes lasting for up to 2 weeks after drinking the tea. The lucid quality of dreams was also affected; some users admitting that they were better able to control or manipulate the outcome of the dream in which they were experiencing. Alternatively, some users reported no affect on the quality of their dreams whatsoever. The potency of mugwort on this feature of our sleep patterns is remarkably complex and may never be adequately understood, but it is certainly curious and fascinating in it’s actions and most certainly has the potential to enhance an individual’s perspectives and appreciation of life through dream exploration. All the better if this medicinal property, as well as all the others, is translated over to the fermented version of this herbal ensemble.

Ingredients

– 4 gallons water
– 3 liters liquid dark barely malt extract
– 60 grams Fuggle hops (20 grams added at 30, 20 and 10 minutes into the boil)
– 10 grams Cascade hops (added in last 5 minutes of boil)
– 4 ounces Dreamer’s Delight herbal tea (1 ounce added at 30, 20 and 10 minutes into the boil; 1 ounce added to wort and allowed to steep while cooling)
– 1 Irish moss tablet (helps with clarity)
– 7 grams brewing yeast

Instructions

Note: This time around, I decided to add the majority of the ingredients to the boiling wort gradually, which will hopefully result in a wide and complex extraction of both the bitter tannins and lighter, delicate flavors and aromas that are quickly boiled off.

Dreamer's 2Bring approximately one gallon of water to a boil. Once boiling, remove from heat and add liquid dark barely malt extract, stirring until thoroughly dissolved. Bring back to a boil, set timer for 30 minutes and start. Immediately 20 grams of Fuggle hops and 1 ounce of Dreamer’s Delight herbal tea, adding the same amount of both ingredients at 20 minutes left in the boil and again at 10 minutes left in the boil. At 15 minutes remaining in the boil, add the Irish moss tablet and stir until completely dissolved. At 5 minutes remaining, add the 10 grams of Cascade hops. Remember to stir occasionally to prevent the malt burning and keep the herbs and hops in suspension as they tend to float on the surface.

Once the boil is complete, remove from heat and stir in last remaining ounce of Dreamer’s Delight. Place in a preferably cool or cold location (such as outside if it’s winter like it is right now) and allow the wort to cool and steep until at least 120-100° F. Now strain the wort into your fermenter* about a quarter gallon at a time and alternating with the addition of room temperature water. This will allow the wort and water to best mix together. Once a level of 4 gallons is reached in your fermenter, pitch the yeast and insert airlock.

* In hindsight it would have been a brilliant idea to place all of the tea and hops in a muslin bag that hung inside of the boiling wort, because trying to strain out all of that tea and hop ‘tailings’ when transferring everything into the fermenter took forever, was embarrassingly messy and an overall miserable experience at best. So I would highly recommend investing in the muslin bags. they aren’t very expensive and if you feel like cleaning them out afterwards they are somewhat reusable for at least 1 or 2 more batches before they get incredibly nasty and taint the flavor of beers that have contrasting flavor profiles. Or, you could be creative and improvise with some sort of giant tea strainer.