No matter where you live and what season it is there are things to be foraged. Let’s take a look at what’s waiting in the wild and how to add it to your next brew.
There are a few rules when foraging for ingredients to add to your brew:
- Be safe (no mystery ingredients)
- Be thoughtful (leave no trace and harvest responsibly)
- Brew seasonally and pair ingredients with appropriate beer flavors
The first thing to consider when looking for wild things to add to the kettle is of course what’s available. It depends on where you live. We’ll cover the most common ingredients and some odd ones. And also make sure to hit some that are easily found anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere.
When setting out to forage a wild ingredient for consumption, make absolutely sure to identify your target ingredient correctly. Another safety issue is the use of herbicide and pesticides. Make sure that you aren’t foraging in areas where harmful chemicals are used.
This is a classic ingredient in many Scandanavian beer styles. There are many varieties of juniper that will work well in brewing. Juniperus communis (common juniper) is, as its name suggests, widely available. When used in brewing, expect to get aromas and flavors like pine, orange citrus, and gin.
Make sure you know which variety you are using because certain ones are known to be toxic. Here is a list of some toxic and edible varieties of juniper berries from gardeningknowhow.com.
Once you know that you’re using a safe type of juniper, you can use everything from the bark to the berries. Bark can be added early in the boil and will give you some menthol-like flavors. This is best used in darker beer styles as it goes well with some roasty malt notes.
The most commonly used portion of Juniper in brewing are the branches. In Norway, juniper is traditionally used to line the bottom of a mash tun and serves as a filter. Even just doing this will impart a significant amount of Juniper character into your beer.
You can also layer branch additions throughout the brewing process. Use small branches (8-12 inches long). Add branches when heating your mash water, into the mash, throughout the boil and save a large addition for flameout. Doing so will give you a complex and full juniper expression. One branch for each addition is enough, with the exception of using more (4-6) at flameout.
Juniper berries pack a punch. They give the most gin-like flavors. Make a tincture by soaking them in vodka. Or toss them into the kettle. Use these judiciously as too many will overwhelm your beer. One ounce of berries added in the last 5 minute of the boil is a good starting place.
Both berries and branches will impart flavors that work well with “C” hops. Try adding some to your next IPA and use a couple of the following hop varieties: Citra, Centennial, Cascade, and Chinook
The humble dandelion. It’s just a weed and is so common that you’d be crazy to brew with it right? Yes you’re crazy and that’s ok.
Dandelion is one of the best forageable brewing ingredients out there because it is so easy to identify and find. Remember to stay away from chemicals and know your source.
The greens and roots are quite bitter and make an excellent substitution for hops. You can go completely hop-less but you’ll likely get a beer that has a vegetal quality. This could be smothered with a late hop addition or by making the beer intentionally malt forward.
Use the entire plant (roots and all) for bittering. Clean off the dirt and add around a pound of plants at 60 minutes (boil) for substantial bitterness.
Dandelion roots are known to be a great substitute for coffee. If you want some great roasted character in your next brew, harvest some roots, dry them, and roast them in the oven at 350 F for at least 30 minutes. You decide how roasty and dark they get based on how long they’re in the oven.
Grind up the roasted roots and use them exactly like you would coffee. If adding the grounds to the fermentor, it won’t take more than a day to extract the roasty flavors you’re looking for.
The flowers can be used and would be best added at flameout. Smell one and you’ll have a good idea of the aroma they can impart to your beer. It takes a lot of flowers to get much of the aroma and flavor into the beer. One pound per gallon of beer wouldn’t be too much. It will take a troop to gather enough but you’ll be rewarded with a uniquely floral brew.
Mushrooms in general are an odd thing to add to beer. They are however a great addition to styles like Saison and many English styles.
Chanterelles impart an apricot-like character when added to beer. They’re earthy and fruity. The flavor is mild so adding them to a Saison or something like it will help them shine through.
Layer additions throughout the boil. A couple mushrooms at 60, 40, and 20 minutes with a big flameout addition will give a nice apricot and buttery flavor. Adding them to the boil will ensure no unwanted bugs funk up the beer later.
Denny Conn is infamous for making a “Wee Shroomy” He has a lot of great tips in this article. He adds his chanterelles into a secondary fermenter after a light spray with Star San and freezing them. He uses a whopping 2 pounds of chanterelles and lets the beer rest on the mushrooms for 2 weeks in secondary.
Freezing mushrooms is a great way to keep them around until you’re ready to brew with them. It preserves the flavor and helps break down cells for a full release of flavor.
Because you will need so many chanterelles for a brew, foraging really is the best option. Unless you want to drop 50 bucks on mushrooms.
Looking for amazing barrel character in your next brew? Try the mighty oak. It is, afterall, the same wood used by coopers for making barrels for all kinds of uses.
The leaves are quite bitter and will give tannins as well. It makes sense to use them as a bittering addition. They can be used green or dry. In a 5 gallon batch, using something like half a pound of leaves like a 60 minute hop addition will give you enough bitterness to balance out a standard gravity beer.
The wood may be hard to find depending on your location. Watch for downed trees or limbs after storms and keep your ears open for news of anyone with oak firewood or a tree in their yard. Wood can be stored for years and will lose some of its tannic qualities as it ages.
To use oak wood, toast it in the oven at 350 F for about 45 minutes. Doing so will sanitize it and give it that bourbon-barrel-roasted character. The darker you roast, the more vanilla type flavors you’ll get. Add it to your secondary and age the beer for a month. For a 5 gallon batch, use something like a 2”x4”x12” sized piece.
Acorns can be had from oak trees as they fall to the ground in autumn. An unusual but interesting method is to let them ferment after harvesting. To do this:
- Gather your acorns and remove the cap off the nut
- Let them dry for about a week
- Toss them in a sealed jar for a year!
It’s a long process but very easy and you’ll be rewarded with incredible dark fruit and bourbon aromas and flavors. Add about a cup of the whole fermented acorns to a secondary fermentor and rest the beer for a few days before packaging.
Wild rose roots, hips, and flowers can all be used in brewing. It’s a great option because the various parts of the plant can be used year round.
The roots will infuse a black tea character. Harvesting can be done year round but it’s nice to use this as a winter addition because you’ll be able to find it thanks to the bushes identifiable bramble.
Use the roots in the boil as a 60 minute addition. You’ll want to use a recipe that has enough malt to round out some of the tannic-black-tea flavors. For 5 gallons, an ounce to 2 ounces is enough.
Flowers can be found and picked in the middle of the summer. It’s best to use them fresh. Time your brew so you can add them right away.
Flowers can be used as an addition into your fermentor. Try using a couple ounces to start. Add them just like you would a dry hop addition. You’ll want to bag them.
Rose hips are an excellent source of vitamin C. They will give beer a tangy (sour), orange and grapefruit taste. Hips are ready to pick in the fall. They can be used fresh or dried and saved for later use.
Rose hips pair well with sour and farmhouse styles. They can be added at flameout or into secondary. Just like with hops you’ll need more (by weight) if using them fresh. In a 5 gallon batch, start with around a pound if dried and use three times that if fresh.
I wouldn’t have gotten very far in the world of brewing with foraged ingredients if it wasn’t for the crew at Scratch Brewing in Ava, Illinois and their book “The Homebrewers Almanac”.
Also Stan Hieronymus and his amazing book “Brewing Local”. It’s what got me into the idea of foraging in the first place.
There really are amazing flavors to be found in wild ingredients. With a bit of time and effort you can craft a brew that is subtle, complex, and truly unique.
There are many things you can gather from outside and throw into the mash, kettle, or fermentor. Know your ingredient, be safe, experiment, take notes, and keep at it.
How do you make sure that the wild ingredient you want to use in your next brew isn’t going to kill someone or make uncle Eddy see dancing unicorns? This is one area where no amount of online research may be enough. Reading a solid book on foraging is a good start.
At the end of the day, I highly recommend finding someone who is experienced with and knowledgeable about whatever foraged ingredient you’re using. Rely on an expert and build your experience.