Digging for beer

It was one of those overcast, cool days when the wood thrushes, normally crepuscular singers, continued to sing off and on all day. On my way back from gathering aniseroot, a pair of blue and yellow eyes suddenly opened on the ground at my feet: a polyphemus moth, one of the enormous native silk moths. It flopped and jerked as if unable to fly, though I think this was only its distraction display. But it was a sign of how dark the woods were today — polyphemus moths are usually only active at night.

Tomorrow, we’re finally due for some dry, sunny weather, they say — just in time for the bottling of my yarrow beer. But my imagination is already working overtime on its successor. This time, I’m planning to use only roots and herbs gathered here on the mountain, with an emphasis on natives. Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis), a close relative of sweet cicely (O. claytonia), would represent a new brewing ingredient for me, and I can’t find any mention of its use as a brewing herb online or in print. But the online herbal at altnature.com makes it sound ideal: an herb used in treating digestive disorders and possessing strong antiseptic qualities. It would be great to have a common, locally available substitute for licorice that might also help keep “bad” bacteria out of the beer.

American black elderberry blossoms are another ingredient I’ve never experimented with before. But Sambucus canadensis is closely related to Sambucus nigra, the European elder tree, which is a very traditional brewing herb. There’s even an instructional video for making elderflower ale on YouTube. Last week, I spent about ten minutes gathering bunches of elderflowers at the bottom of the hollow, making sure only to take about half the bunches on each small tree — the half I could reach. It probably would’ve been best to use them fresh, but I wasn’t ready to brew then. So I dried them instead, and this afternoon made two gallons of tea for the faded yellow blooms. It turned a rich golden orange.

Two traditional root beer ingredients, sassafras root and black birch twigs, will also likely find their way into the next brew. Both trees are exceedingly common on the mountain, and I love the feeling of forest-as-supermarket that comes from gathering such things. On my way to get the sassafras this afternoon, I stumbled across another distraction display, this time from a ruffed grouse mother, presumably with a nest or chicks nearby. She whined and dragged a wing, miming injury.

The woods are kind of like the internet in that way: there’s always something to distract you. And digging sassafras roots, one certainly gets a strong impression of everything being tied to everything else. I felt more than a little guilty pulling up and severing an 18-inch-long, half-inch-diameter section of root, but consoled myself with the thought that the roots still in the ground that I’d just cut off from the main tree would have no trouble sending up new sprouts.

Back home, the thick root yielded more than a cup of bark shavings, tied up in a stout cloth tea bag. A thick bundle of black birch twigs can keep it company in the fermentation bucket. The beer begins to take shape… in my mind’s eye? That doesn’t sound quite right. On my mind’s tongue!

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

12 Comments


  1. I can see you doing a wonderful little beer herbal and plant guide, illustrated with your photographs and including directions on how to search for plants. Maybe a few poems here and there!

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  2. The aniseroot sounds like an engaging idea, and irresistible given that you can’t find any account of its use in brewing manuals, though it’s known as a component of distilling.

    I’m with Marly on the idea of the Bonta Book of Home-Brewing, complete with recipes, plantlore and photographs! Why, I’d even be happy to pre-order!

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      1. Fourth-ed!

        And I love the title already: The Bonta Book of Home Brewing (or, A Little Sassafras Goes a Long Way)

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        1. Fifthed! (try saying *that* after some home brew – onomatopoeia rules!). Would Bonta’s Botanical Brewing be taking alliteration just too far? I find the semi anagram irresistible.

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          1. I don’t think my name would make it into the title of any such book, but I do like “botanical brewing” a lot!

            BTW I just discoved an awesome book on my own bookshelf, one I didn’t know I owned: The Natural History of Medicinal Plants, by Judith Sumner: all about the biological and ecological imperatives that guide plant production of the toxins we call medicines in the first place. I am totally geeking out.


  3. Thanks, y’all. Don’t think I haven’t thought of it! But I need to amass a bit more experience — and refresh my memory about things I tried eight or ten years ago, according to my records — before I begin to get serious even about writing articles for the homebrew press. I am also interested in networking more with other experimenters. Perhaps a group blog is in order, I say to myself — but the idea of launching one more web-based project gives me pause, especially since time online directly conflicts with brewing time.

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      1. Yeah! (You sure you didn’t get the link from me on Facebonk?) I’ve been hearing about that guy for years — must get a hold of his books.

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        1. Nope–just stumbled on the article today. Should’ve known you already knew all about him!

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  4. I love “my mind’s tongue”! Not a beer fan, but I know there are lots of them out there. I’ll bet my husband would love to have it, though I can’t quite visualize him collecting roots.

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