My earth-sheltered laundry room would be the best spot for it, I thought, keeping it cool as it worked. But a dry high had just blown in yesterday afternoon, and we might be in for another prolonged cool spell despite what the calendar says, I told myself. So around 11:00 p.m., I finally gave in: fetched it from the laundry room and placed it in the usual spot, in a corner about eight feet behind me where I can hear and smell it while I write. Why go to all the trouble of making it if I can’t be with it during the most exciting stage in its life?
I am talking — as any homebrewer probably will have guessed — about the wort (rhymes with “dirt”): the beer-to-be. The fragrance of its early working blends with the lingering smell from yesterday’s multi-hour boiling to create an odor many times more delicious than freshly baked bread. How had I let four years go by since I last brewed? Poetry and blogging are fine, but they’re no substitute. Even if a batch of beer were to go bad (which almost never happens) it would be worth the trouble and expense just to enjoy a few days inhaling those malty esters and the earthy, spicy fragrance from the giant tea bag of gruit roots floating in the wort.
Actually, my expense this time was minimal: I had all the herbs and malted barley at hand; I simply needed yeast and a fresh bottle of iodine sanitizer solution. Homebrewers who don’t allow themselves the pleasure of branching out beyond hops tend to put a lot more emphasis on getting just the right blend of different malts, but I have some 25 pounds of basic, pale 2-row malt in storage, plus a few odds and ends of other things, and if I want to improve on that, I can always roast a little bit of malt in the oven. The final color and flavor of the beer depend mostly on which roots and herbs I add, and how I add them.
This, for example, will be a yarrow beer, for the simple reason that yarrow is in bloom right now, and we have plenty of it. Yarrow is in the same class as mugwort and hops: an herb that can make a great beer all by itself, possessing the proper antispetic properties, the astringency needed to balance the sweetness of the malt, and just the right aromatic flavors to make it interesting. Some fifteen minutes of labor sufficed to gather all the yarrow I needed for a five- or six-gallon batch of beer. I picked the young inflorescences together with several of the topmost fronds, since the flowers tend to concentrate the flavor and the leaves have more of the bittering properties. I could use them fresh, but all the recipes I’ve developed over the years are based on quantities of the dried herb, and it’s not much trouble to spread them on a screen in a warm room for a week.
There is, of course, the problem of how to get the yarrow in the beer without destroying all the delicate flavonids. “Dry-hopping,” adding the herb directly to the fermenting wort, is one approach, but brings with it a certain risk of contamination. My solution is to make a tea from it the day before, put it in tightly sealed, sanitized jars, refrigerate it overnight, and add it right at the end of boiling to aid in a rapid cooling-down of the wort. I make a gallon and a half to two gallons of tea from one packed pint of yarrow tops.
Yarrow is a relatively minor component of the present aroma, but the figurative odor of its reputation couldn’t be stronger or more interesting. What can you say about a common weed with the widely attested power to heal wounds? And its use as a brewing herb goes way back in northern Europe, especially in Scandavia, where it’s given nicknames that mean “field hops” or “earth hops.” Linnaeus famously declared that beer brewed with yarrow is more intoxicating, which is what originally got me to use it, but really, the use of almost any herb that lacks the strongly sedative quality of hops will tend to produce a pleasanter buzz than you’ll get from a commercial beer.
Also, I toss so many different things into my ales, it’s sort of hard to tell what the active agents are. I tend to wait until all the mashing and sparging is done and the wort is finally blended and boiling to decide what the gruit mix will be. I’ve always found that roasted dandelion roots (or chicory — the taste is nearly identical) provide a nice bass note, so this time I added half an ounce of dandelion at the beginning of the boil, and put another half-ounce in the gruit bag. Then I found I still had some calamus (A.K.A. sweet flag) root on hand, and I decided I wanted its flavor, too. A friend of mine once described calamus as smelling like a health-food store, and I think that’s a good way to put it: there’s a kind of earthy exoticism befitting a member of the arum family that grows in swamps. Calamus is a nice thing to add to any beer, really. It has antimicrobial properties — always an asset in a brewing herb — aids in digestion, prevents flatulence, and is credited with a slew of other wondrous powers by traditional healers from China to India to eastern North America. And as the author A. H. Church put it back in 1879, “Calamus imparts at once an aromatic taste and an agreeable bouquet or odor to the liquid in which it is infused.”
For a summer ale, wild ginger roots are nice, so I added a full ounce of that, and then briefly wrestled with myself: should I use up part of my precious stock of Indian Sarsaparilla root, or save that for my next mugwort or wormwood stout? God, it smelled good! And it would be a new experiment to add it to a yarrow-based beer. So in it went, just half an ounce — a little bit of it goes a long way. Then I tied up the bag and went away and did other things, because brewing with twelve pounds of grain and needing to reduce the volume to three and half gallons to make room for two gallons of cold tea takes a lot of boiling. I didn’t want to add the roots until just ten minutes before the end of the boil, enough to sanitize them and the bag. But as soon as I did, damn! Like Proust’s madeleine, the odor instantly conjured up memories of other brews and other times I’ve been engaged in this arcane and messy game of converting starch to fermentable sugars and finding just the right roots and leaves to give them character. This, I said to myself, is what it’s all about.