Beer Tasting 101: Yarrow Sarsaparilla Ale

The beer is amber in color, about 14 degrees Lovibond, with a rapidly dissipating head. No chill haze mars its clarity, and you almost wish some foreign object were suspended in it — a seed pod, perhaps, or a small scarab — to give you an excuse to peer longingly into its gem-like depths.

Sniffing the beer with the requisite solemnity and decorum, you inhale a complex bouquet of resinous, grassy and citrusy aromas, situated approximately at the ecotone between an old meadow/orchard and a maturing northern forest. Of course, since you are also the brewer, you can’t entirely separate your present experience from your three-week-long fantasy of how this beer would smell and taste. Will it measure up? you ask yourself. After all the labor invested in its creation, how bad would it have to be for you to admit disappointment?

At last you lift the glass to your lips and have a taste, letting the liquid flow slowly over your tongue. Goddamn, you say to yourself — this is a beer! And then hasten to think of some appropriate qualifiers so you won’t sound like a total Homer Simpson-like dumbass. It’s, uh, crisp and floral, medium-bodied, dry! (Can it be all those things at the same time? You sure hope so.) Assertively yarrowy but not astringent, with a sort of earthy, spicy undertone from the sarsaparilla. Carbonation is fairly low, as you’d planned.

There’s a lingering finish, mildly bitter: the yarrow does not want to let you go. The pint consumed, you wander outside. Yarrow is still in bloom and releasing waves of scent into the night air, and you experience a kind of gestalt. Some recently felled black locust saplings are contributing their own sharp tannins to the mix, and you feel a sudden, deep, almost carnal love for the world, which you realize has a lot to do with the alcohol and a little to do with the yarrow’s own potent chemistry. Fortunately, your northern European heritage of emotional repression prevents you from doing anything you might later regret. You go back inside and open another bottle.

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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).

13 Comments


  1. I also had the urge to give you a virtual smile, though I don’t like beer. I like your writing about beer.

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    1. People who don’t think they like pizza like my pizzas. I have a hunch that if you drank some of my ales, you’d find that whatever you object to in ordinary beer wouldn’t be there.

      Reply

  2. I am salivating. Also hot and thirsty. It’s very frustrating, the lack of language adequately to convey taste. The association of sarsaparilla with root beer doesn’t help at all since the only “root beer” I’ve drunk was outside both the US and Europe and clearly hadn’t been anywhere near a root of any kind. It tasted of pink bubble gum, or at least my memory of Bazooka Joe, which I hope and trust your brew does not. Although, as a child prohibited chewing and bubble gum the vile confection had therefore the golden allure of the forbidden I’m sure I’d hate it today. Particularly as a flavour of beer. Yours sound oh so delicious, with the added appeal of having been entirely home made. Awesome!

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    1. No, no bubble-gum flavors! (Can’t stand gum, and I’d rather see people smoke than chew gum in public — disgusting habit.) I’ll think of you tonight as I drink a cold one, even though I’m sure you’d prefer it at room temperature. There is at least one source of gruit ales in the UK, though. The Scottish microbrewery Heather Ales makes Fraoch Heather Ale, Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale, Kelpie Seaweed Ale, and Alba Scots Pine Ale.

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      1. Damn! They have an online shop!! You should have told me. We could have had it delivered.

        “Into the boiling bree of malted barley sweet gale and flowering heather are added… ”

        I think I’m going to have to try some.

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        1. Yeah, if I’d only done some goddamn research before I went to Britain! Oh well. Let me know how it tastes. (You could blog it…)

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  3. Oh, and “Lovibond“? That’s like pantone for beer! Also awesome, both in definition and in word.

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    1. I fear you are letting your awesomeness threshold slip a little too low. But yeah, the Lovibond scale is kind of cool. And as you can see from the linked article, beer people are obsessed with measurements of all kinds. Microbrewing is a highly geeky hobby. The fact that I’ve been at it for 15 years and never used a hydrometer marks me as a real oddball (and really, I’m thinking I’d better remedy that soon. It would be nice to know the alcohol content of some of these beers).

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      1. No. Awesomeness threshold is just fine for geektasticaciousness. This reminds me of wool. Probably more the dying and spinning end of things, which I can’t afford (time, money, house-space, sanity) to get into. Maybe when the boys have left home. Obsessive-compulsive hand making of gorgeousness is always deliciously complex and of course awesome.

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  4. I’d love to see the recipe shared for this particular ale on your blog.

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    1. I just found it in my file. Here you go:

      6-gallon batch started 12 June 2011

      • 10 lbs pale 2-row
      • 2 lbs. caramel 160L

      mashed in 4 gals @150F
      sparged with 3.5 gals

      • 1/2 oz roasted dandelion root at beginning of boil – which would’ve been long because I didn’t have an immersion coil then, so cooled by adding 1.75 gals. of refrigerator-temperature tea made the day before, a tea made this time with
      • 1 packed cup dried yarrow leaves and tops [it’s critical to gather your own if you want good quality, BTW]

      Additional spices added in mesh bag ten minutes before end of boil:

      • 1/2 oz dandelion root
      • 1/2 oz calamus root
      • 1 oz. wild ginger root
      • 1/2 oz Indian sarsaparilla root

      Bag probably added to primary (my notes don’t say).

      Yeast is not noted, but at this time I think I was using Coopers dried ale yeast, made into starters.

      After one week, racked into secondary with tea made with

      • 1 lb. wildflower honey
      • 1 packed cup dried lemonbalm

      Bottled on June 26. Bottling sugar not specified.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply

      1. Damn, I’d forgotten I used to brew with such simple grain bills! I was all about the herbs and spices then. Now I’m much more into malt (and even use hops sometimes).

        Reply

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