By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Sometimes the world of brewing herbs seems a small one. You know, hops. But the world of brewing herbs goes far beyond Humulus lupulus.
As long as humans have been brewing and plants have been growing, we have brewed with a variety of herbs not only for brewing qualities, but for health benefits as well. Centuries ago in some European countries, only unhopped beers could be called ales. Gruits, or beers brewed with combinations of herbs and spices, were the most common brews.
From ginger to yarrow, many common garden plants and weeds have hidden brewing powers and associations with health benefits. If you are looking to put some zing in your 2016 beers — and maybe raise a pint to your “I’m going to be healthier” New Year’s resolutions — here’s some advice from Old Growth Ales, a Springfield-based startup brewery.
“There is a long history of brewing with herbs, all across the earth, each specific to their geography — physical and cultural,” says Amanda Helser, herbalist and Old Growth Ales co-founder. “The northern British Isles brewed with heather. Norwegians brewed a sahti using juniper boughs for lautering. St. John’s wort was used across Europe, and sarsaparilla has been used for centuries worldwide as a tonic. We want go back to this type of brewing. Hops and barley are great. I love them. And there is so much more.”
Helser and Steve Braun (fellow co-founder and head brewer) focus on brewing ales and wines with a range of beneficial botanicals. In March 2015, Old Growth Ales successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund an expansion of their operation. Helser is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and a trained Western herbalist who has practiced for more than five years, including experience with with Cascadia Folk Medicine and Seed & Thistle Apothecary. Her background includes Portland’s School of Forest Medicine and the School of Traditional Western Herbalism, and a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College with a focus on fermentation and human culture. Braun has a doctorate in environmental science and 15 years brewing experience, including more than 10 years of brewing with herbs, alternative bittering agents to hops and alternative sugar sources to barley.
Before we move on, some caveats. No one is giving medical advice; that’s what your preferred practitioner is for. And while many botanical health properties have not necessarily been scientifically tested, the beneficial properties of plants represent cultural bodies of knowledge that go back thousands of years and span cultures around the world. Brewing books such as Joe Fisher and Dennis Fisher’s “The Homebrewer’s Garden” and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation” are also useful resources.
“Brewing is traditional herbalism,” says Helser. “Many botanicals were originally fermented with sugars to take as medicine. The fermentation process adds its own energetics.”
Different herbs also require different methods to bring out their benefits. Like teas and tinctures, ales and wines can become other ways for people to consume herbs: salves, essences, poultices along with eating them in powdered and raw forms. The beneficial properties of a plant can also change depending on how it is used, explains Helser. Dandelion root, nettles and elderberries need to be boiled. Some herbs need to be steeped for a very long time, similar to dry hopping. Some herbs are alcohol-soluble and have different effects when introduced during secondary fermentation as opposed to prior to fermentation.
Here are various herbs common to brewing (common and botanical names), along with some of their health properties, according to Helser and Braun. When seeking out brewing herbs, common names can vary, so always reference the botanical name.
— Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): digestion, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, congestion. “It’s the thousand-leaf plant of Achilles. It is a heal-all. Next time you are cut, chew it up and put it on the cut, you'll see. It is a plant ally of sorts.”
— Elder (Sambucus caerulea): flu and fever, overall health tonic. “A prized plant: the berries and flowers. Be careful though. There are many varieties of elder. Sambucus caerulea (blue elder) is our safe, locally occurring common variety.”
— Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): vitamin C, antioxidants. “A little astringent, tart and gives beautiful color. Good for hypertension and cancer prevention. A diuretic.”
— Nettle (Urtica dioica): liver tonic, minerals, blood purifying. “One of the first greens to appear in the spring. Helps detox after the winter. Bright and full of umami flavor. When I am feeling run down or stretched thin, I crave any and everything with nettles.”
— Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale): liver support, detoxification. “When roasted, dandelion root gives a great earthy flavor.”
— Ginger (Zingiber officinale): stimulates circulation and digestion. “It quickens the blood. Good for cold and flu, sexual function, viral infections, coughs, kidneys, the list goes on. Ginger is amazing.”
Other common and popular brewing herbs, along with some beneficial properties, include:
— Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): adrenal support
— Chicory root (Cichorium intybus): liver support
— St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum): emotional health, digestion
— Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium): antimicrobial
— Hawthorn (Crataegus): circulation, heart health
— Rose hips (Rosa rugosa): vitamin C, antioxidants
And by the way, enjoying an herbal brew isn’t something you’ll need to hold
your nose and close your eyes for either. “We’ve crafted an ebulon, which is an ale with elderberries, black cherries and rose hips,” says Braun, as well as a hibiscus wine that comes in two strengths: a 6% sessionable version, and a 12% imperial.
“Craft beverages are gateways into further experiences with herbs,” says Braun. “Suppose we had a bag of dried elderflowers, mugwort, St. John’s wort, yarrow, and goldenrod. Someone may look at us and ask, ‘What do I do with those?’ and move on, buying their packaged tea or typical craft beer. However, if we ferment these herbs into a crisp gruit and pour them a pint, they will at least try it, and in our experience, enjoy it and strike up a conversation. The path to wellness is facilitated by incidental educational experiences like these conversations.”
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Steve Braun just needed another $3,500.
In the two days leading up to March 9, the Old Growth Ales (OGA) co-founder had much to be both excited and worried about. With their “botanic ales” available only at private events, OGA had received enough positive feedback to convince them it was time to upgrade to commercial brewing. Now 42 hours away from the deadline of an all-or-nothing Kickstarter campaign, the Springfield-based brewing startup was $3,500 shy of a $20,000 goal.
But if they fell short, they’d get nothing.
With 10 hours remaining, they needed $1,287.
Then, with 100 minutes left, the final backers put Old Growth Ales over the finish line. Armed with $20,361 from 158 backers, one of Lane County’s most iconoclastic startups was ready to take some big next steps.
Old Growth Ales plans to upgrade its "Little Maker," which is a biodiesel P30 Chevy step van used for private events. To meet Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rules, no fermentation occurs in Little Maker. It's only for education, catering and wort production. Photo by Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography
Botanic Ales: Old is New Again
What’s curious about Old Growth Ales is, as Braun explains, “We don't make much beer.” At least, not in the way we think of modern beer: a concoction of malt and hops. OGA wants to return the spotlight to herbs and other botanicals that comprise millennia of brewing tradition.
“We come across a huge range of understanding about the history of brewing,” says Braun. “Some people seem especially knowledgeable about brewing having a ‘lineage’ passed down from herbalists, alchemists, doctors and shamans. Other folks are completely unaware of the history,” particularly when it comes to hops. “Folks are usually amazed to hear that hops were not always ‘king.’ I often share that yarrow was once referred to as ‘field hops’ as a more common herb for bittering than hops. Non-hop bittering agents were outlawed in England in the 1700s.”
OGA wants to bring back yarrow and other brewing herbs and plants, for what they call “botanic ales:” gruits (herb mixtures for flavoring and bittering beer), metheglins (mead with herbs or spices added) and country wines (made with flowers, herbs, spices and/or fruits other than grapes). “Some people very much want an alternative to hop and barley ales that are not sweet ciders,” says Braun. “Most folks come to our product with curiosity… They want to learn more about botanic ales and are super excited to try our variety.”
Driving this interest is more than a quirky niche in a packed marketplace. Braun considers it “a question of values. We value the ecology of the Cascadia bioregion, the Northwest. We want to connect people to their environment, which in environmental education we call ‘nurturing a sense of place.’ I am an environmental scientist and environmental educator. The practices of Old Growth Ales are a direct extension of that.”
The initial spark for the idea of a bioregion-focused, eco-aware, beyond-malt-and-hops brewery came six years ago. While cross-country skiing near Willamette Pass, Braun and brewing partner Charlie Shepley began discussing different ways to brew. From there, they began working with business incubators to procure small business individual development accounts and learn the business side of brewing.
Over time, co-founders Braun and Shipley found the right people to be part of OGA. Brewer Emily Ryan provides support as a health and wellness consultant. Rebecca Roebber’s marketing and green business development expertise guides OGA. With herbalist and nutritional therapist Amanda Helser, Braun explains, “The brewery really focused on botanic ales.”
“We make an herbal coffee stout — with no coffee — and we are working on a hop-free IPA analog,” says Braun. In addition to “a lambic with alternative bittering to hops,” OGA brews gruits such as Summer Gruit, “a unique blend of bitter and slightly sour/floral characteristics, resulting from mugwort and yarrow for bitterness, and from elderflower and St. John’s wort for floral, musky and sour notes.”
A hibiscus wine, a spice brew with ginger, and a sahti, or juniper ale, are also in the works. Braun notes that Achillea millefolium, or common yarrow, will be a common element across OGA beverages.
“I am especially drawn to yarrow,” Braun says. “Yarrow can provide a range of great flavors and aromas from wintergreen to bitter to slightly sour.”
Braun expects five primary distribution channels: select Willamette Valley taphouses, special events such as weddings and reunions, direct sales at public events and festivals, dock sales, and a CSA, or “Community Supported Ales,” where “folks buy a share and get regular bottles.”
During the next two years OGA expects to have established commercial production and distribution. A 1- to 3-barrel brewhouse is planned initially, with next-phase plans including a tasting room and 3- to 7-barrel system expansion. They also want to develop a farmhouse brewery, with capacity to hold private events. Photos by Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography
The Little Maker That Could
With the Kickstarter goal met, celebration has given way to the hard work of next steps. In addition to preparing rewards for backers, OGA is finalizing licensure, which is expected by autumn, and evaluating locations.
“One space we are excited about is north of Coburg, down the street from Agrarian Ales,” says Braun. “There seems an opportunity for synergy.”
While tending to operational brass tacks, OGA is working on their biggest challenge: remaining true to their environmental and social ethics while meeting business demands. “We wild-harvest plants locally for our ales,” Braun explains. “We cannot over-harvest these plant stands. Therefore, we have a limit to the quantity of some of the ales we produce.”
OGA will also upgrade the “Little Maker” that began it all: a biodiesel P30 Chevy step van for private events. To meet Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rules, no fermentation occurs in Little Maker. It’s only for education, catering and wort production.
“We have installed four taps on the side, added solar panels, and created a breezy A-frame cloth hut on top for relaxing.” Braun says. “This summer we will add a waxed canvas awning for ambiance as well as sun and rain protection. Plus we are installing a sink, getting a new paint job, and improving the sound system.”
Over the next two years OGA expects to have established commercial production and distribution. A 1- to 3-barrel brewhouse is planned initially, with next-phase plans including a tasting room and 3- to 7-barrel system expansion. Braun says they want to develop “a farmhouse brewery, with capacity to do private special events: music, camping, rustic cabins.”
And starting now, thanks to 158 backers from the Internet, Old Growth Ales is on its way.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.