Beers that bloom
by: Kate Bernot
Fair Isle Brewing hadn’t even announced its location yet when it formed a relationship with an ethnobotanist and forager named Alex Harwell. The Seattle brewery targets an early 2018 opening, but already its test batches have focused on Harwell’s foraged ingredients, many including flowers, from the Pacific Northwest.
Harwell’s experience with native plants means she can distinguish a cluster of violets, which huddle near streams, from bleeding heart plants, which grow in similar areas. Violets are edible, colorful and delicate; bleeding hearts have medicinal properties, including the treatment of acute pain and neurological ailments. Fair Isle wouldn’t want to brew a beer with the latter.
But other types of safe, delicious wild flowering plants—fireweed, yarrow, elderflower—are a key part of the fledgling brewery’s toolkit. Fireweed (4.5 dried pounds of it—enough to fill two five-gallon buckets stuffed tight) flavored Fair Voyage, the Fair Isle/Jester King collaboration wild ale brewed in Austin last year; not only is fireweed indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s abundant and distinctive.
“Whatever is in season and local and of good quality is what motivates us,” says Fair Isle co-founder Geoffrey Barker. “We can get strawberries all year long, but we don’t want to make a strawberry beer all year long, just like we don’t really want to make an elderberry beer all year long. We enjoy those seasonal fluctuations and their expressions in the beer.”
Fair Isle also takes flowers a step further: The brewery’s house culture (the yeast and bacteria it will use to ferment most of its beer) includes native cultures plucked from yarrow flowers harvested in the Yakima wine region and from elderflowers grown on the campus of Bastyr University, near Lake Washington. It’s a dual use of flowers, honoring both their inherent botanical properties as well as their role as hosts in an ecosystem that includes yeast, bees and other living beings. And, eventually, drinkers.
“Not to be cliche, but there is a sense of terroir to it,” says Fair Isle co-founder Andrew Pogue. “Part of this philosophy stems from my degree in architecture and design. Think about the vernacular of design: You know a Byzantine cathedral because it looks like a Byzantine cathedral. So thinking about our beers as Pacific Northwest beers, they should be recognizable as Pacific Northwest in a meaningful way. Using our house culture and local malts, and embracing seasonal variations in our ingredients, is part of that philosophy.”
As American farmhouse-minded brewers seek methods to capture the elusive character of place and seasonality in their beers, many are turning to flowers. What, after all, is more fleeting than unfurling petals? Botanical, lush and fragrant, flowers convey flavors and aromas of the land in which they were grown, but they also present a unique set of challenges for brewers. When used well, flowers can lend a beer a seasonal or geographic identity—maybe even one that ignites a memory for the drinker.
Brandon Jones traces his affinity for floral ingredients back to his homebrew days, and before that to his grandmother, an avid gardener whose teeming beds prompted even strangers to stop and admire them. Now a brewer at Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing, Jones continues to incorporate hibiscus, chamomile, rose buds and other flowers into his tart, wild and funky creations.
“Botanicals drive your senses. A lot of people can relate to where they’ve smelled those nice flowers or trees,” Jones says. “They can bring up a clear sense of a time, or a good memory, more so than you can with hops. I don’t think I’ve ever been outside the brewery somewhere and said ‘Wow, I’m smelling Citra hops,’ but with roses, for example, you can remember exactly a time you smelled them.”
His Saison Colada, a wild ale brewed with tropical fruits, rose and hibiscus, was designed to evoke a memory Jones had of a specific evening on his honeymoon in Barbados. He and his wife visited an orchid farm where they sat with tropical, coconut-flavored drinks surrounded by the heavy blanket of scented, humid air; even if drinkers can’t divine the personal inspiration behind the beer, perhaps it sparks in them a recollection of a similarly relaxed experience.
For brewers without access to orchid farms, Beers Made By Walking (BMBW) is a multistate beer and hiking events series in the Pacific Northwest and Denver designed to offer brewers inspiration through flowers, herbs, plants and nature at large. Representatives from ecological and environmental groups guide brewers and members of the public on three-mile-long hikes or walks, pointing out edible plants along the way. Later, the brewers convene at a festival to pour beers that incorporate some of the flowers or plants encountered on those walks.
Founder Eric Steen says most of the brewers who participate don’t typically make beers with these types of ingredients, so the hikes introduce them to the idea of nature-inspired brewing with a guide who knows the area’s edible offerings. Past creations born through BMBW include Lantern Brewing’s Amabilis Wit, brewed with elder and yarrow flowers, salal, fennel and silver fir and inspired by Washington state’s Bandera Mountain; Ska Brewing’s Cerveza de las Animas Perdidas, a saison with juniper, yarrow and chokecherries brewed as a nod to the Animas River in Durango; and Viking Braggot Company’s dubbel-style braggot made with elderberry, elderflower, blackberry honey and bee pollen, born of a walk through a conservation area in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley.
Finding inspiration is a creative challenge; sitting down to brew a beer with flowers is a practical one. If there’s one complaint levied against such beers, it’s their aromatic or flavor association with a medicine cabinet.
“Not only do lavender and rose petals bring to mind soap or candles, but they also remind you of grandma’s perfume, which isn’t always the worst thing but can be difficult to drink,” says Tim Gormley, a brewer at Asheville, North Carolina’s Burial Beer Co. He’s the mind behind The Keeper’s Veil, a honey saison that includes heather, elderflower, lavender, hibiscus, rose and chamomile, as well as Wildflower Blonde Sour with violets, borage and nasturtiums.
Put another way, courtesy of Yazoo’s Brandon Jones: “Nuance is desirable in beers when you’re using botanicals, but use too much and it tastes like you’re at Bath & Body Works.”
So, how can breweries avoid the dreaded candle beer? Start slow, and use a very, very light hand.
“With these types of beers there is that innate risk, so I try to be very thoughtful with the quantities and with the steeping time and temperature not to overdo it,” Gormley says. “Lavender is so insane. You can literally put a couple grams in a batch and its flavor would be quite prevalent. If you’re able to hold back some of the base beer that isn’t infused and then blend it [with the flower-infused portion], that’s probably how you’ll be most successful.”
To get a sense of how long a flower might need to steep in a beer, many brewers make simple teas with the flower, soaking it in hot, cold or lukewarm water for varying amounts of time to see how much flavor and aroma each method draws out.
In fall 2016, Gormley teamed up with Lady Luck Farm, a flower farm in Leicester, North Carolina, hoping to brew with some of their blooms: “I basically said ‘Give us a list of all the things you have growing on your property that are edible.’” After samples arrived, he sat down with tinctures and teas of the various flowers, sipping, sniffing and doing his best to describe their frequently elusive essences.
“With herbs and flowers, you do often struggle to come up with the nomenclature for it; you think ‘It’s this, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever had before, so there’s no word for it,’” Gormley says. “We start listing all that comes to mind in terms of descriptors and flavor components, and go from there to build the beer. If they’re really subtle, then we’ll probably want to have a more subtle beer; if we find that they’re peppery, we might say a saison would work well for those peppery notes natural in that style.”
It’s not easy to identify and complement flowers’ character—but, Gormley says, that’s the fun part.
“I love the concept of a challenge like that. It’s almost like ‘Iron Chef;’ I have to make a beer with this new ingredient!”
Three floral beers to tryBurial Keeper’s Veil
Tealike and delicate,this saison’s multiflower ingredients lend rose, chamomile and lavender flavors to the soft sip.
Jester King/Fair Isle Fair Voyage
Pacific Northwest fireweed reads as a blip of petallike botanicals atop the saison’s pear and pepper flavors.
Yazoo Saison Colada
Rose, hibiscus, coconut, prickly pear and other additions contribute tropical flavor and a blush color to this mixed-culture, barrel-