Using wild ingredients to produce truly unique, truly local beers
IPA beers make me sneeze. The higher the IBU (international bitterness unit), the worse I get. My face gets flushed. My sinuses clog up. After a mere bottle or two I get nauseous.
I’ve come to realize I have an allergy—or at least a major sensitivity—to bitter beers. It dawned on me slowly. I’m a longtime fan of craft beers, which tend toward the bitter and hoppy. Sadly, as the quirky sneezing increasingly led to vomiting, I knew it was time to give up the bitter. I now watch bitterness units like calories; anything over 30 IBUs, and I have to take a pass.
At first, I was devastated. Giving up on bitter beers very nearly means giving up on all craft beers – IPAs, pale ales, extra special bitters. I decided to learn more about beer. What exactly is in it that makes me sneeze?
I was also motivated by economics. I’d just quit a well-paying job, and had started a small, urban farm. As a writer and farmer, I figured it’d be a good idea to cut costs, and beer was one of those costs. I was already growing most of my own food to shrink my grocery bill and my carbon footprint. How local could I drink? How much more money could I save by growing my own beer?
Beer, like all good things, is incredibly simple. All it takes is four ingredients: water, sugar, a bitter ingredient to offset the sugar, and yeast. Just boil your water, sugar, and bitterer, cool the resulting “wort,” then “pitch” (or add) your yeast, and let it ferment in an air-tight vessel for 10 or so days before bottling it. Wait a few more weeks, and voila, you have beer.
Practically all beer nowadays uses malt as its sugar, and almost all malt is made from barley. Sugar is key to the the most magical part of brewing beer; it’s what the yeast eats and converts into alcohol. I could have bought beer kits that included all the ingredients and detailed step-by-step instructions, but I wasn’t interested in kits. I was interested in making beer from scratch.
Age of the Alewives
Beer has been brewed for millennia. Practically every culture in the world has drunk some form of a fermented beverage. Some argue that when humans switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, they took up growing grain not primarily for bread, but for beer. Perhaps this says a lot about the origins of our civilization.
But beverages made with malted barley and hops have only been the de facto beer for a few hundred years. Before that, a variety of other sugars and bittering agents were used. And notably, women were the primary brewers. Now the beer industry is dominated by hops, malted barley, and men. What happened?
Industrialization happened. In his book Brew Beer Like a Yeti, Jereme Zimmerman provides some background: “By the 1500s, the types of beer-like beverages consumed in Europe and Britain were vast and diverse.” But these “gruits,” as they were often called, mostly disappeared due to social and economic changes in the industrial age, including state and church beer laws (the Reinheitsgebot in Germany), which “brought beer from the home and mead hall to the inn, alehouse, and tavern.” Authorities regulated not only the four beer ingredients we know today, but also the price – and the taxes.
Commercial breweries made as much beer as possible – and the hoppier the beer, the better it kept during export. India Pale Ales (IPAs), the staple of many modern-day craft breweries, was originally brewed for the British troops who occupied India.
Urbanization made brewing a necessity. As towns increased in population, drinking water became polluted. By boiling the water, adding herbs, and preserving it through fermentation, people obtained a potable liquid that was also medicinal. Homebrewing became a cottage industry for the “alewives,” who made large batches of beer in cauldrons, and hung brooms over their doors to indicate a fresh batch was for sale. Alewives doubled as community herbalists; people came seeking remedies for their aliments.
“Disgruntled men who ran the power establishments and superstitious peasants began associating the brewing cauldrons and brooms with witchcraft,” Zimmerman says. Soon, men took over brewing, and recipes were standardized. The alewives were not just put out of business, they were accused of being witches, and many were murdered. Burn the witch, kill the competition.
Until just a few decades ago, there was no alternative to the large breweries and the standard recipes. The craft beer explosion has been, in part, a response to the bland commercialization of beer. Small producers have pushed the standards, and have provided thirsty consumers with more choices. But there’s still a ways to go. While some brewers experiment with unique and local ingredients, the vast majority of the industry is still highly commercialized; the yeasts are developed in labs, most grains are imported vast distances, and the rows of craft IPAs at the liquor store are virtually identical. Plus, the majority of craft brewers and operators are men.
Discovering IPA’s roots in colonialism made it easier to stop drinking those bitter, sneeze-inducing beers. It also opened my eyes to craft beer’s sexism and racism problem. Not only does the industry lack women and people of colour, but its branding has been known to feature dehumanizing images of buxom serving wenches. IPAs have been referred to as “mouth rapers.” Bitterness is likened to angry ex-wives. Names of beers and companies favour masculine, settler descriptors: sons, uncles, brothers. Sir John A’s Honey Wheat Ale, produced by Gahan House in Charlottetown, is named after the man who forced Indigenous people from their land. And just last year, a craft brewery in Tusket, N.S., discontinued its Hanging Oak Red IPA after African Nova Scotians pointed out that the label’s image of a tree and noose evoked lynching. For me, homebrewing has become more than a way to save money; it is an act of de-colonization – a way of reclaiming the lost, feminine art of producing healthful, truly local beer.
In The Wildcrafting Brewer, author Pascal Baudar pours beer conventions down the drain, arguing for the use of ingredients you can grow in your own backyard. He explains how to make wild yeasts. He describes how to use honey, maple syrup, and even plain brown sugar or blackstrap molasses, and – best of all – weeds(much easier than barley, and free!) to brew beers comparable, or even superior, to commercial and craft beers.
“Essentially,” writes Baudar, “if the beverage tastes like beer, I will call it such, and I view hops as just one of the possible ingredients.”
Using Baudar’s book as my guide, I first brewed a beer with yarrow, spruce tips, organic brown sugar, cranberries, and wild yeast – everything, except the sugar, from my backyard or the seaside cliff a 10-minute walk from my house. It tasted more like a cider than a beer, but for a first attempt, it wasn’t bad – slightly boozy and yummy, too. It was also fresher than any beer I’d ever tasted. I was immediately hooked, and started devising ways to make the beer even more local.
The final frontier was sugar, and the most local sugar in Cape Breton is maple syrup. It all came together one day last spring while I was weeding the beds at the New Waterford Community Garden. Impressed by the fat, juicy dandelions I was pulling out of the ground, and inspired by the bright green tips popping out on the spruce trees, I realized that these were the makings of a truly wild, bitter, and refreshing beer – one that wouldn’t make me sneeze!
You can learn how to make Dandelion Spruce Tip beer here.