I have a bit of a strange relationship with Elder (Sambucus nigra) – it is a medicinal tree that I love dearly and have a lot of space in my heart for. It is a sacred tree in the Germanic folk traditions and every part of it cries out to be used. I even know someone who makes Welsh bagpipes from the stems, which are hollow. Yet, I just can’t quite seem to get round to using Elder medicinally that much. I do use it in the almost ubiquitous ‘winter ills tea’ blend, but despite making a couple of litres each of the blossom and berry each year, they sit, unused on my dispensary shelves. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not seeing the kind of patients who would benefit from it…
Anyway, back in the beginning of June, I had the opportunity to gather a relatively big bag of blossoms while I was away on a course. Yes, I am the kind of guy who’ll take the opportunity to gather from the hedgerow while away and then cart my winnings from nature two hundred miles back home. I used some of it to make tincture, some to make Elderflower syrup as a demonstration to people attending my course… what to do with the rest of it?
There is a local brewery called Bragdy ‘Miws Piws’ who do a beer called Ysgawen – which means ‘Elder’ (singular) in Welsh. It has highlights of Elderflower in its taste, but I thought I could take the idea further. So, improvising a little bit, I came up with my own recipe for an Elderflower beer. It is significantly more floral/elderflowery than the Miws Piws brew and is less malty. More suited to drinking while working hard on the land than as a session beer I think. Which is fine – at this time of year, that’s precisely what’s needed coming up to the harvest month!
I’d never tried anything like this before so made something that I thought would work… here’s the recipe. It makes 5 gallons (40 pints) and you’ll need a pressure vessel/fermentation drum which is clean/sterilised.
1lb Brown rice, roasted till brown in a medium-hot Aga oven.
2lb Raw brown cane sugar
1lb White Sugar
3x Large handfuls of hops (I used fuggles hops).
3-5x Large handfulls of fresh elderflower blossom – I used goodly sized handfully (as much as I could get in my hands)
1tsp Brewers yeast, I used a bottom-fermenting ale yeast.
I started off by roasting my rice for about an hour in a relatively hot Aga oven, turning it over/agitating it with a spoon every few minutes. Then I put the rice in a pan and added a gallon and a half of boiling water. I simmered the rice for 20 minutes. The rice rehydrates to some extent and it looks like you’ve cooked rice and something’s gone very wrong. Either way, you should end up with half to a gallon of ricey liquid. Pour this into the fermentation vessel. You can add your sugar at this stage. Then I brought another gallon of water to the boil and added my hops and simmered for 10 minutes. At this point I removed the pan from the heat and added the Elder blossom. It is delicate and easily damaged by heat, so I didn’t want to boil the hell out of it. I strained off the liquid and added it to the fermentation vessel. Add cold water to make up the volume of liquid to the full 5 gallons.
When the liquid in the fermentation vessel is about blood hot, add the yeast. Let the beer ferment for 3 – 5 days with the lid loose so gas can escape, then tighten up the lid so you get some fizz in your beer. Mine was ready in about 2 and a half weeks, though it has got better over the following fortnight as the beer has matured and stabilised.
I’m no expert on beer tasting but this is how I’d describe the brew. It has a very floral aroma that smells distinctly of Elderflowers, but doesn’t have the cat-piss like backlash that Elder can have. The aroma of the hops and roasted rice break through giving bottom notes to the bouqet. The taste is citrussy and refreshing, to begin with followed by a light toffee taste and finished up with gentle bitterness from the hops. It is a very drinkable summertime harvest beer. I like it and will definitely make more next year, and more than 5 gallons too!
The last part of this experiment come the autumn will be to try making a beer with Elder berries…