sassafras

Sassafras-Black Birch Beer

Brewed on 2 October 2013.

Grains

  • Pale 2-row pale malt, 8 lbs.
  • Munich malt, 1.5 lbs.
  • Vienna malt, 1 lb.
  • Caramel 60°L, 0.5 lb.
  • Caramel 120°L, 0.5 lb.

Herbs

  • yarrow, dried tops, 1 packed quart (infusion with 2 gals. water, made the evening before and chilled in sanitized bottles to add to finished wort)
  • fresh sassafras root shavings, 2.5 oz.
  • fresh black birch (Betula lenta) root shavings, 2 oz.
  • dried spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries, crushed, 0.25 oz.
  • dried bitter orange peel, 0.5 oz.
  • dried juniper berries, crushed, 0.5 oz.

Yeast

  • Safbrew S-04, two 11.5 g. packages in starter with 1/2 c. dried malt extract

Procedure

Tie together the last five herbs in a nylon bag and set aside. Mash grains in 3.5 gallons (American, not imperial) of water at 155°F until starch conversion is complete. Sparge with 3 gallons at 180°F. Bring to a boil and reduce to approx. 3.5 gals. Add spice bag 10 min. before end of boil. Add chilled yarrow tea to precipitate cold break. Pitch yeast starter at 80°F. Put herb bag into fermenter and let remain until bottling. Bottle in two weeks.

Results

I originally called this “Tree Beer,” but decided to get a bit more specific in the recipe title. There are of course many other trees I could’ve drawn upon (and spicebush is actually a shrub), but the trouble with brewing concept beers — which I do love to do — is that flavors don’t always blend as easily as ideas do. But this time I got lucky. Sassafras and black birch (i.e. wintergreen, more or less) are the dominant notes here; the other flavors blend into a citrusy background. This is a refreshing, summery drink, a bit acidic — imagine a cross between unsweetened herb tea and a nice mild ale. I probably could’ve added a pound or two of wheat malt, but even without that, I managed to prove to my own satisfaction that traditional root beer and birch beer flavors don’t have to be married to a stout- or porter-like grain bill.

For background on sassafras as a brewing ingredient, see my post at Via Negativa, “Sassafras beer: a short history.” Black birch, also known as sweet birch, was the traditional source of birch beer, and if you have maple tapping equipment, you could tap a couple birch trees in the spring and brew with the sap instead of water — or, of course, boil it down into syrup and add that as an extra sugar, perhaps at bottling time so the flavor really comes through. I decided to use the root bark because I happened across a nice long birch root while I was digging for sassafras. The two trees often grow in close association here in the Appalachians, since both are shade-intolerant, colonizing species that thrive on dry, rocky slopes, filling in canopy gaps caused by wind-throw, fire or lumbering.