Filipendula ulmaria

Meadowsweet, Heather and Gentian Gruit

Brewed on 25 February 2015. A five-gallon batch.

Grains

  • Briess Organic pale 2-row pale malt, 8 1/2 lbs.
  • Briess Victory malt, 2 lbs.
  • Dingemans Special B malt, 1 lb.
  • Dingemans aromatic malt, 1 lb.
  • Muntons crystal dark malt, 1/2 lb.

Other sugars

  • wildflower honey, 2 lbs.
  • light dried malt extract for bottling, 1 1/4 cups

Herbs

  • gentian root, 1 1/2 tsp.
  • dried meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) flowers from Mountain Rose Herbs, 2 oz.
  • heather tips from Brewer’s Best (dried but very fresh-looking), 2 oz.
  • old dried yarrow leaf and tops, 1 oz.

Yeast

  • Nottingham dried ale yeast, two 11.5 g. packages in 1-qt. starter with 1/2 c. dried malt extract
  • Safale S-04, 11.5 g.

Procedure

Infusion mash in 13 quarts of water at 155°F. The yarrow and gentian root, intended for bittering, went in loose at one hour before the end of the boil, and the meadowsweet and heather went in 50 minutes later, also loose.

I used a glass carboy for the primary and there was no activity in the airlock 27 hours after pitching, so I grabbed a packet of S-04 from the fridge and added the yeast straight. Several hours later, it finally began to work. I bottled two weeks after that.

Results

This was my other stand-out beer of the winter 2014-15 brewing season, along with the Fugwort Stout. The idea was to make a vaguely Neolithic-style ale inspired by archaeological findings in Britain, similar to the Highland Heather Ale brewed at a seminar on the anthropology and archaeology of brewing, whose recipe was “based on molecular archaeological data and pollen analysis from pottery jar fragments found specifically at several archaeological sites in Scotland.” Experimental archaeologist Merryn Dineley has shown that meadowsweet possesses strong preservative qualities, which may explain its apparently widespread use in Neolithic and Bronze Age brewing in Britain. It also imparts a very strong, floral taste to the beer, and became closely associated with mead (whence the name in Anglo-Saxon, medowyrt or “mead-wort,” according to beer historian Martyn Cornell in Amber, Gold and Black). It was however not mentioned as being added to ale in any of the early modern sources, so possibly it’s one of the few herbs that never made it into gruit blends—though since those recipes were closely guarded secrets, who really knows? Which is why it amuses me to call this a gruit; that’s no more unlikely than producing an authentic Neolithic beer, after all. In any case, I’ve come to feel that the use of modern, single-strain yeasts makes such a radical change to the flavor that any attempt to re-create a pre-modern beer that doesn’t take account of that—by using a blend of semi-domesticated yeasts and bacteria from a Belgian brewery, for example—can only be the vaguest of approximations.

A previous experiment with a meadowsweet-heather ale in 2013 confirmed for me that the two herbs go well together and are sufficiently antiseptic to keep the beer from going sour… and that meadowsweet is delicious, incredibly floral and fresh. In that beer, too, I used a bit of gentian root to provide a bass note of bitterness, in part because I don’t have any Myrica gale (which is increasingly hard to get, and crappy in quality when I can get it), in part because I love the taste of gentian, and in part because it, too, seems to have been used in ale from very ancient times. The one mistake I made with that beer was in adding too much meadowsweet, even dry-hopping some of it, which added a sediment that never settled out. (Chewy beer!) Delicious but a little overwhelming. I was over-compensating for the age of the herb, which the guy at my local homebrew shop had sold me at discount because it had been sitting on the shelf for so long. Apparently it has a very long shelf-life!

This time, in a similar vein, I threw in some very old yarrow, partly just to use it up because I hate to waste anything. It didn’t add much to the flavor profile. With the malt blend, I was going for a brown color and a blend of toasty, nutty, and heavy caramel flavors. (One would presumably use more smoked malts in a proper Neolithic re-creation.) My friend Rachel raved about this beer—and believe me, she’d let me know if she didn’t like it. She’s back in the UK now, and has just ordered a couple of bottles of a limited-edition, meadowsweet-flavored “Stone Age ale” from Innis & Gunn. It will be interesting to hear how it compares. Their ballyhooed use of hot rocks is intriguing, but I suspect I can get just as much carameliness from malts and from my habit of burning a bit of the honey on the bottom of the brew pot when I dump it in.

Calluna vulgaris or common heather is an Old-World plant, and I’m not sure any of our native North American Ericaceae would have the same properties. There are, however, native meadowsweets and gentians one could experiment with. I think that’s my next step.