For the homebrewer, the longer days of spring inspire thoughts not just of lighter, crisper brews of summer, but also of the beer garden. To be clear, I mean the brewer's garden. Gardening and brewing are, it turns out, two very compatible hobbies.
Growing some of the plants needed for that five-gallon batch of beer will bring new meaning to the term hand-crafted. Beyond this, there is ornamental beauty in many of the plants that have found their way into brew kettles over the centuries.
Plus, growing your own beer ingredients is a great way to brew green. David Mitchell of Madison's Wine and Hop Shop has been seeing additional interest in the topic from home gardeners in recent years. "For homebrewers looking to go completely organic, their own garden is a good alternative," he says.
Brewer's gardens can be similar to herb gardens. They don't require a lot of space, may involve a range of annuals and perennials, and offer brilliant splashes of color. Finding help in selecting and obtaining plants can be challenging, but you can educate yourself by browsing seed catalogs, doing Internet research, stopping at a garden center - or by visiting your favorite homebrew supply store. Here, meanwhile, are some tips.
Soon after the ground thaws, consider planting the staple of beer making, hops. Wisconsin was once a leading producer of hops, and most varieties grow well here. Hops give beer its bitterness. They are a perennial vine, and most varieties are rather aggressive. For best results, find a sunny place and give them something to climb on, like a trellis or a fence. They can make wonderful accents to your patio or arbor. If you are planning to use hops in brewing, it's a good idea to plant three to four varieties.
Beyond hops, you might observe that establishing a brewer's garden will violate some rules of beer etiquette - if, that is, you are a beer-making purist who only follows the Reinheitsgebot. That's the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, which stated that only water, barley, hops and yeast shall be used to make beer.
However, for hundreds of years, herbs and spices have been used in some styles of beer. These additives, or "adjuncts" as brewers call them, provide distinctive flavors and aromas. The Wine and Hop Shop sells a number of these - ginger, rosemary, juniper berries. But, says Mitchell, "There is nothing like growing them yourself." (See below.)
Of course, the most essential component to beer is the cereal grains that provide fermentable sugars used by yeast to make alcohol. Barley is the most popular choice of the homebrewer, but others, like sorghum, rye, or oats, can be useful - and striking in gardens.
But with the use of homegrown grain comes the hassle of malting it in the kitchen, so the homebrew supply store could be a better option for volume and convenience. If green is your theme, there are readily available organic malts to choose from.
The brewer's garden offers rewards year-round: It adds beauty to the yard or garden while it's growing. Then, months later, when the flowers and foliage given way to winter, the fruits of your labor live on - in beer.
Spice up your homebrew
Some brewers prize adjuncts: herbs, spices and berries that add flavor and aroma to beer. Here are some to consider planting - both for brewing and for beauty.
- Alecost (costmary). Small yellow flowers. Minty, balsam-like flavor. Used in bitter ale recipes since the 1600s.
- Basil. White flowers arranged in a spike. Adds spicy and bitter flavors.
- Birch. Sap from the tree offers a minty aroma and flavor similar to root beer. Used for centuries in beer. President Thomas Jefferson developed his own recipe for birch beer.
- Blackberry. Planted as canes in the early spring. Adds fruitiness. A common additive to light blond ales and wheat beers.
- Blueberry. Offers sweetness. Often found as an adjunct in blond ales and American wheat beers.
- Chamomile. Daisy-like flowers. Not just for tea - can provide bitterness to beer. Common in beers like Belgian Whites.
- Ginger. Long an ingredient in many traditional British-influenced beer styles. Doesn't take much to add spicy flavors and aromas.
- Heather. Pinkish flowers. Offers spicy dryness. Beloved of Scottish brewers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
- Juniper. Perennial evergreen shrub; adds bittersweet flavor and aroma.
- Mint. Many different species offer a range of color, from white to pink flowers. Grows well in Wisconsin. Commonly used in moderation for aroma.
- Raspberry. Planted as canes in early spring. Adds a fruity tartness. A common additive to wheat beers and Belgian Lambics.
- Rosehips. The fruit of the rose plant. Pruning can discourage their development. Adds flavors from sweet to tart. Used for centuries in beer.
- Sage. Purple flowers. Adds bitterness.
- Thyme. Small, pink flowers. Provides spicy flavor and aroma.
- Yarrow. White or yellow flowers. Adds bitterness.