Friday, October 10, 2008

Time to make Nettle Beer!

I got this recipe from a book I checked out from the library called Wild Food, by Roger Phillips. Guessing by the style, it was probably put out in the late 70’/early 80’s. The layout is a funny mix of recipes along with ridiculous photo spreads of prepared food set up in picturesque locations out in the wilderness. The pictures themselves are reason enough to track this book down, not to mention the bizarre recipes for plants that I've always heard were not so palatable, such as Milk Weed.
Throughout the book, Phillips adds little bits and pieces of his life story into the text and eventually it comes out that he grew up in England during WWII. If I’m remembering correctly, in the section about Stinging Nettles, he recalls being forced to eat them to survive while stuck in an orphanage during the war. Whoa! In any case, for obvious reasons, it took him awhile to want to eat or think about Nettles again. At the end of the day however, he only had love in his heart for the plant since it is so yummy (when cooked right) and nutritious that how could you not? He was all about this beer and recommended that you drink it chilled along with some mint, on a warm Summer's eve.
When I initially read the recipe, I liked how easy it was (that you didn’t need a ton of equipment), but that it still had some challenges: to make a “simple” beer, to question your conception of how beer should taste, and to make it good!

To clear up any confusion about the definition of beer, here it is straight from the dictionary, just so we're all on the same page:

beer (beer) n. 1. an alcoholic fermented beverage made from malt and hops. 2. a beverage made from various plants: ginger beer.

Most of us are more used to beer that is made using hops, but you can make beer out of pretty much whatever you want; it just may taste better, worse or just straight up more different than what you’re familiar with, that's all.

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Before we get started:
This recipe supposedly has been passed down through many generations, back when people regularly produced and drank their own booze. It's very similar to one that I saw in Susan Weed’s, Healing Wise, except that she uses slightly different measurements and calls for 2 lemons (everything but the white part of the rind), as well as live yeast. I’m sure you could find an assortment of recipes to compare and contrast what’s worked for others, but instead of getting bogged down by all the details, I recommend just picking one and trying it out. See what works and doesn’t work for you. Hell, this only takes about a week to be ready so no frets if it doesn't come out perfect the first time around.

Ingredients*:
100 Nettle Tops, 2 inches long (uh, I didn’t get particular about the size, I estimated what I thought would work)
3 gallons of water
6 cups of sugar
1/2 cup cream of tartar (look in the baking section of the grocery, this isn’t the same as tartar sauce for fish, etc!)
1 tbsp yeast (I used regular yeast but I am sure that higher quality beer/wine yeasts would make it much better)
*This recipe makes about 3 gallons but I only made a half batch cause I didn’t know how it would turn out. I always recommend starting out small so you can master your technique with each try, fine-tuning along the way.

What else you need:
A ceramic crock, glass carboy or food grade plastic bucket
Empty beer bottles
Beer capper and caps
If you can’t get a hold of bottling equipment, you can use a couple of 2 liter plastic soda bottles with screw tops. It’s a bit more jank to do it that way but hey, work with what you have, right?

Get to it!
Boil nettles in water for 15 minutes. Strain the plant material out and then add the sugar and cream of tartar. Heat and stir until both are dissolved. Then wait until the mixture has become tepid. Mix the yeast in a little bit of warm water and then add to the mixture, making sure to stir well. Cover and secure the top of the container with cloth and leave to ferment for 24 hours (the author noted that you should actually ferment for 4 days to reduce fizzing). Remove scum and decant without disturbing the sediment on the bottom. Bottle, cork and tie down. (I don’t know what that means, just bottle it up and then store in a cool, dark place). Wait a week or longer to drink.
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The results are in!
Hmmm. Strange. Tastes more like a vinegary mead than a beer, but still drinkable. Initially, when my roommate and I cracked open the first one, he worried about getting sick from it but so far, a couple days later and a few more bottles down the hatch, I’m okay. I think that next time I might try to upgrade to a better yeast and maybe add some ginger and lemon to the mix to help add a little zest. As per alcohol content, something that I'm not good at gauging, honestly, I have no clue. Just like any alcoholic beverage though, if you drank enough, you're bound to get saucy, so be careful- no binge drinking, alright?
Good luck with your attempts and let me know how your batches come out. Don't forget to experiment and as always, go with your intuition- that's where the magic happens!