Sweetfern Chamomile Gruit Ale

I’ve been brewing plenty, but this is my first new experiment worth writing up since last year’s Pennsylvania Native Plant Gruit Beer, where I first tried brewing with sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina) in a big way. This time I combined it with some other reliable brewing herbs for a trans-Atlantic gruit.

Brewed on 19 June 2016. Makes 5 1/2 gallons. ABV: 5.9%.

Grains

  • 2-row pale malt, 7 lbs.
  • caramel 90L, 1/2 lb.
  • caramel 60L, 1/2 lb.
  • red wheat malt, 1 lb.
  • Vienna, 1 lb.
  • Dingemans biscuit, 1/2 lb.

Other sugars

  • wildflower honey, 1 lb.
  • light dried malt extract, 1 1/2 c. (bottling) + ~1/2 cup for yeast starter

Herbs

  • dried sweetfern leaves, autumn-gathered, 3 oz. (approx. 2 qts.)
  • dried lemonbalm leaves, 1/4 oz. (approx. 1 pint)
  • dried chamomile flowers, 2 oz.
  • dried (but v. fresh) yarrow tops, 1 1/4 oz. (1 packed cup)
  • juniper berries, crushed, 1 heaping Tbs.

Yeast

  • Safale S-04, 11.5 g.

Procedure

One-step infusion mash @ 150F. Add half of sweetfern (loose, not in a bag) and honey at beginning of boil and the rest ten minutes before the end. Add lemonbalm and 1 oz. of chamomile five minutes before end of boil. Pitch yeast at 70F.

Three days later, bring a gallon of water to a boil. Add yarrow, remaining 1 oz. chamomile and crushed juniper berries, turn off, lid and let steep until it reaches room temperature, then strain and add to fermenter with a minimum of splashing. Bottle after a week to ten days.

Results

This is delicious; what I can I say? I find the chamomile taste to be up-front but not dominant, and most of the other herbs are present as spicy background notes (except for the lemonbalm, which I can’t really detect). There’s a bit of camphor taste from the sweetfern. Probably one of my most well-balanced herbal beers yet, with good head retention and full mouthfeel—a very pleasant, malt-forward, summertime ale. There’s no hint of souring, so either I got lucky or, more likely, this gruit blend possesses sufficient antiseptic properties to keep the beasties at bay. However, I think it would also be a good blend to try with a sour beer.

Pennsylvania Native Plant Gruit Beer

sweetfern photo by Fungus Guy

This isn’t my first attempt at an all-native gruit blend, but the last time I did it, I cheated a little and included some Myrica gale (bog myrtle, sweetgale) that was probably European in origin. M. gale is an excellent preservative as well as a bittering agent and has been used in beer for millennia, but this time I wanted to see if I could get away with only Comptonia peregrina in that role. It seems to have worked, though two weeks after bottling I do detect a slight bit of sourness, so probably C. peregrina is not as effective at countering unwanted microbial activity.

Brewed on 17 October 2015. Makes three gallons.

Grains

  • Briess organic 2-row pale malt, 4 lbs.
  • Briess caramel 120L, 1/2 lb.
  • Briess Munich 10L, 1/2 lb.
  • Muntons chocolate malt, 1/2 lb.

Other sugars

  • light brown sugar, 1 lb.
  • Razz’s shagbark hickory syrup, 8 oz.

Herbs

  • dried sweetfern leaves, autumn-gathered, 1 qt.
  • sassafras roots, 4 small (about 24″ total length)
  • wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) rhizome bark (from about 48″ of rhizomes)
  • aniseroot or sweet cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis) roots, 6 large
  • dried calamus (sweet flag) root, 1/4 c.
  • dried black birch root bark, 1/4 c.
  • dried spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries, 20

Yeast

  • Safale S-04, 11.5 g.

Procedure

Make two gallons of sassafras tea, steeped for at least two hours. Set aside.

One-step infusion mash. Bring 1 1/2 gals. water to 170F and add malt for 155F mash. Heat sassafras tea to 170F and sparge with it. Add brown sugar at beginning of boil. Put sweetfern in one muslin bag and all the other herbs in another. Add both bags to wort after boiling for 20 minutes, and boil for another 20 minutes. Chill to 75F and add to fermenter along with both bags. Pitch yeast dry; no starter needed. Bottle after ten days, boiling shagbark hickory syrup in one pint of water for priming sugar.

Results

A malt-forward, porter-like beer with a nicely balanced blend of root-beerish flavors; no one flavor dominates. If I make this again, I’ll probably increase the amount of sassafras—and add it to the bag in the fermenter as well. There’s a bit of residual sweetness from the shagbark hickory syrup, which acts as a good counter to the hint of sourness mentioned above. I can also detect some of the smoked flavor from the syrup. (Next time I’ll substitute maple syrup for variety’s sake.)

We have several dozen sweetfern bushes in the powerline right-of-way on our property, and while it’s said to be stronger if gathered in June or July, the nice thing about gathering it in September is that you can strip the plants without worrying about damaging them (they’re deciduous). I also gathered all the other herbs on our mountain, except for the calamus which was mail-ordered (though I do have a local source which I’ve taken advantage of in the past). Aniseroot and wild sarsaparilla are each abundant enough that I don’t worry about hurting their populations by occasional gathering, though I’m careful not to do it all at one spot. In the past, I’ve favored the imported Hemidesmus indicus for sarsaparilla flavor, not realizing that the trick to using Aralia nudicaulis is to reach down and get the rhizome; there’s no flavor in the knobby stem/root sprout above that.

I considered using teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), and even went so far as to make a tea from the leaves following the generally recommended method of letting an infusion sit at room temperature to ferment for several days, but ultimately decided that I’d get enough wintergreen flavor from the black birch. One of my beer’s best critics has been known to complain that too much wintergreen in a beer is reminiscent of toothpaste.