Disclaimer: I am not an herbalist or a medical professional, but I do know a thing or two. Always be 100% sure of what you're foraging before ingesting any wild plant, and always harvest sustainably, responsibly, and ethically. Above all, don't harvest in areas which are likely to have been sprayed by pesticides.
Whether you live in an urban area or in the country, you are almost certainly surrounded by edible, medicinal plants considered by many to be weeds. Traditionally, many of these botanicals have been used for their known healing powers. There are many methods for preserving and enhancing these powerful medicines, with fermentation being one of the oldest and simplest.
Although making beer or mead by modern processes can be complex and time-consuming, there was a time when it was much simpler. The concoctions made by these processes may not be what you're accustomed to flavor-wise, so be sure to adjust your expectations when tasting them. Start with small batches and fine-tune until you create something that makes your taste buds happy, and always take notes throughout the process so you'll know how to re-create an ideal recipe.
When spring arrives, I look to my yard for edible weeds that I can harvest for beer, mead, teas, and salads. There are four main weeds that tend to arrive in abundance during the spring throughout North America:
Dandelion (Taraxacum): The petals of the flowers can make sublime mead, but be sure to leave out the greens. The stems and leaves (in moderation) can be used as a bittering agent to counteract sweetness in a manner similar to hops, although the flavor is much different.
Purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum): A ground ivy similar to stinging nettle, but "dead," as it has no sting. It has high antioxidant properties and is packed with vitamins. Although a member of the mint family, I find it a bit bland. To me, it makes beer taste a bit like, well, yard. Not in a bad way, though; more like the smell of freshly mown grass in the summer. It’s best used in small amounts and in combination with other plants.
Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea): Also called ground ivy or Gill-over-the-ground. It goes by many other names, but most know it by its creepy moniker due to its tendency to quickly creep through a yard or garden (although purple dead nettle is much more abundant in my yard). Also a member of the mint family, it has a mildly minty flavor. A common staple for flavoring and preserving beer long before hops became the accepted norm, it is referred to in many historical sources as alehoof or tun-hoof (as in a "mash tun" used for brewing beer). Note that creeping Charlie is often confused with henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), and sometimes with purple deadnettle. Not to worry, these are all edible plants. Visit this website for a detailed rundown on the differences.
Wild violet (Viola papilionacea): These come in purple and white, and often grow together. Not only do they really liven up a yard, but their delicate flavor is an excellent complement to the sweetness of mead or sorghum beer.
The word "beer" hasn't always denoted a concoction made from grains and hops. In ancient times, beer and its many variations often contained no grains or hops. Honey, sorghum, and molasses can all be fermented to make "beer." For Yard Beer, we'll be using sorghum with a bit of honey. You don’t have to use all of these plants. I often use herbs from the garden such as horehound, chamomile or mugwort, or use hops. If you want to avoid the “yard” flavor, definitely leave out or minimize the purple dead nettle.
Ingredients (for 1 gallon)
- Sorghum (1 lb.); molasses will also work as a substitute
- Honey (1-2 cups)
- Water (1 gallon)
- 3-4 sprigs creeping Charlie
- 1-2 sprigs purple dead nettle
- 1/2 cup (give or take) wild violet petals
- 1/2 cup (give or take) dandelion petals
- 10-12 raisins
- 1 cup oatmeal (optional: for adding “body”)
- 2 tsp. ale or bread yeast, although I recommend wild fermentation (see below)
Prepare the wort (unfermented beer)
Pour ¾ of a gallon (app. 12 cups / 3 quarts) of water into a stockpot. If using tap water, bring it to a boil and allow it to cool; otherwise, heat it to around 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour one pound (5 oz.) of sorghum extract into the water, stirring constantly to keep it from sticking to the bottom. Shut off the heat and stir in honey. The more you add, the more sweetness it will impart, but it will also provide more fermentable sugars (meaning higher alcohol levels and longer fermentation time). Stir in oatmeal, raisins, and desired botanicals.
Invoke the fermentation gods
While I do sometimes use commercial yeasts, I like to emulate ancient practices by drawing in the spirits that ancient cultures (and many indigenous cultures today) thought of as brewing spirits. We now know that this is a biological process that involves the harnessing of the wild yeasts and microbes already present in the air, on plants and fruit, and in raw, unpasteurized and un-filtered honey. To me, this knowledge only enhances the mystical nature of each ferment I undertake, as I know the beings I’m working with are very real. You can find additional details for my process on how to do this in my Make Mead Like a Viking! - Wild Fermented Mead 101 blog.
Alternatively, sprinkle brewing or bread yeast on the surface of the wort. There’s nothing wrong with taking this route. These are simply tamer versions of wild yeast that have been cultivated over time for specific purposes. Both will result in excellent brews. If adding commercial yeast, you can cover the pot with a lid and leave it to ferment overnight, but it’s best to transfer it to a non-metal vessel before it starts fermenting, as fermentation can corrode metal fairly quickly and cause toxins to leech into your ferment. Preferably, pour everything into a 2-3 gallon wide-mouthed glass, ceramic, or food-grade plastic vessel and cover with cheesecloth, a dish towel, a coffee filter, or some other porous material.
Watch, wait, stir, and strain
Whichever method of fermentation you go with, stir several times a day to mix the ingredients together and aerate the wort. After about a week, pour everything through a strainer into another open-mouthed fermentation vessel, or strain out anything floating on the surface with a handled strainer. Wait another two or three days and continue to stir. It should fizz continually from fermentation. If you don’t see visible signs of fermentation, listen closely for the yeasts chittering away happily as they devour the sugar and turn it into alcohol.
Taste and adjust the flavor
Start sneaking tastes. You can drink this whenever you like it, with no need for further steps, or fine-tune the flavor and allow it to fully ferment into alcohol. As fermentation subsides, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the final product will taste. You can add additional botanicals now if you feel the flavor of the plants isn’t strong enough, or add raw honey or cane sugar if you want more sweetness.
Rest and age
After about another week, your beer will be putting the exciting days of its youth behind and beginning the process of aging to perfection. You’ll begin to see sediment gather on the bottom (slumbering yeast, or lees). It’s time to transfer it from an aerobic (with air) to an anaerobic (without air) environment. A narrow-necked gallon jug (or a couple half-gallon jugs) with an airlock is the perfect vessel for this. If you don’t already have airlocks you use for other ferments, you can purchase them from a homebrew-supply store or use a balloon, condom, or plastic wrap and rubber band to allow CO2 to escape while keeping out air that can cause souring. If you go with the latter options, be sure to give plastic wrap plenty of space to expand (a few inches should be enough). Carefully pour the beer through a funnel, leaving most of the sediment behind, or use a siphoning tube to siphon everything above the sediment.
Bottle, carbonate, and enjoy
You can leave the beer for as long as you want now that it’s no longer exposed to outside air, but it should be ready for bottling and drinking in a couple weeks. You’ll know fermentation is complete if there is minimal-to-no bubbling in the airlock or your balloon, condom, or plastic wrap have stopped expanding. You can bottle it or drink it now, but it will be a bit flat. Alternatively, if there is still bubbling, you can bottle ferment it for a couple days. If you want additional carbonation, add a teaspoon of sugar or honey to each bottle. TAKE CARE if you do this. Carbonation can be unpredictable. Use swing-top bottles, champagne bottles, or other thick glass bottles. I have a tendency to hold onto bourbon and whiskey bottles, which are ideal for this due to their thick glass and re-usable corks. I’ve found, though, that the corks need to be wired down so they don’t eject prematurely.
Weed mead (not that kind of weed, man)
You can also make this into a sorghum mead by adding 2-3 pounds of additional honey during the wort-preparation process. Technically, you will now be creating a must (unfermented mead or wine), but nobody’s checking, so don’t concern yourself with what to call it. This will make a very sweet mead, so you can add as much as another gallon of water to make two gallons of semi-sweet mead. Add another half-gallon if you prefer a drier mead. The rest of the process is pretty much the same, but you’ll need to let it age for much longer (several months) in secondary fermentation and give it at least six months before drinking.
In the spring and summer, I prepare for a new batch of mead by mixing a cup or two of honey and enough water to fill most of a quart jar, along with a couple teaspoons of orange juice and a slice or two of ginger for good measure. I then go out into my yard or garden and look for newly grown and freshly pollinated edible botanicals for wild yeast and nutrients. Mead-maker Patrick Ironwood of the Sequatchie Valley Institute (a 300-acre homestead located in a canyon bordering southeastern Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley, and home of the Moonshadow “education center and model of sustainable living") told me that when he undergoes this process, he looks for the nutritional, medicinal, and magical benefits the plants will impart, which he calls the “trinity of wholeness.” Don't concern yourself with flavoring at this point, as the goal here is to prepare a “bug” (see Earthineer SusanaBanana's blog on creating a ginger bug) for fermenting a larger batch. I then put cheesecloth over the jar, stir it a couple times a day and bring it out in the garden with me on warm days or sit with it on the back porch. Within a week, I have a strong fermentation that I can then use to start a batch of whatever style of mead is appropriate to the ingredients that are seasonally available at the time (or that I have preserved by other methods).
I suggest paying thanks to the new creatures you have befriended by gathering as many edible flower petals as you can and making a flower mead using a light wildflower honey. Otherwise you’re limited only by your imagination and knowledge of the edible, medicinal plants that surround you (you know more about this than you think you do!). This simple jar of living organisms can send you down a path that will have you creating all manner of nutritious, flavorful beverages that will draw you closer to the land from which they were gathered—and may even make you a better person.
For a more detailed look on this process, and to learn how ancient cultures (the Norse in particular) viewed the magic and mysticism of fermentation, sign up for my mailing list for updates on my upcoming book Make Mead Like a Viking, due out in fall 2015 through Chelsea Green Publishing.