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Herbal Beers! What a marvellous idea, it struck us with the force of a revelation 4-5 years ago and we have been cheerfully making beers on and off (time permitting) ever since. Our original inspiration was Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book ‘Sacred Herbal & Healing Beers’ highly recommended as inspiration for recipes and general beery herb lore.

Our motivation was the realisation that our beer habit at the time was costing far too much. Our herbal beers cost us less than 50p a bottle to make. I’m not including the price of buying the bottles as they get re-used so many times that their cost is offset. Homemade herbal beers are also much more delicious, more complex and flavoursome in taste than commercial beers (or home brew in a can) and, because they contain herbs, you can fool yourself that they’re good for you. Which they are of course. Mostly.

Included in this article is general advice as well as several tried and tested herbal beer recipes to get you going. Tried and tested does not of course mean infallible – all beers fail sometimes for no apparent reason and that is part of the organic and mysterious world of herbal beer making.

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What I really love about these flower champagnes is that they are so very seasonal – however much you make you will always run out and there will be a long dry spell. The seasonality is almost a novelty these days and it makes the champagne seem even more special, eagerly anticipated and gladly drunk. My eldest son looks forward to the elderflower season, he loves the champagne and I’m sure anticipation adds to the flavour.

The champagne recipes below are not alcoholic; there is only enough natural yeast to make a fizz, not to make alcohol.

Elderflower

This recipe is probably one of my oldest ones; in fact it’s so old I can’t remember where it came from. At a guess I’d say Christopher Hedley may have given it to me when I was studying at evening classes with him in 1902 (aha ha).

I usually use twice as many elderflower heads as stated in the recipe. I love the taste of elder, and I often make double the amount at a time, but there’s never enough.

This recipe is one of those that require a touch of magic. Some elder champagne recipes would have you add yeast, pah! Part of the magic is that it doesn’t always work and you never know if it was a ‘good’ year until 2 weeks later when you pop open the first bottle. The elder should have enough natural yeast on the flowers to make a good fizz.

3 large elderflower heads

1 ½ lb (750g) granulated sugar (I use that organic golden stuff)

1 gallon water (8 pints; I don’t know what it is in metric!)

1 unwaxed lemon

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

As with all flower recipes lay out the flowers on white paper and give all the insects the 5 minute warning to leave.

Trim, or use a fork to pull, the flowers from their stems. Put the flowers along with the juice and thinly peeled rind of the lemon, the sugar and vinegar into a large ‘crock’ (an earthenware container usually with a lid) or a plastic brewing bucket. Add the cold water and steep for 48 hours.

Strain through a coarse sieve then through muslin and pour into either swing top or strong screw top bottles (the recipe fills about 10 Grolsch bottles). Do use muslin because those pesky slender black insects (I think they’re what we used to called thunder flies) will get through even the finest sieve and you’ll have unsightly black things floating around in your otherwise gorgeous champagne.

Leave for at least 14 days before drinking. Serve chilled. Very nice with gin in place of tonic.

Always approach the first bottle with caution, we open the first bottle at the bottom of the garden – sometimes you get a nice hearty pop and fizz, sometimes a disappointing fizzle (or even worse, nothing at all) and sometimes, like this year – a small explosion and an effervescent fountain, deeply satisfying, if a bit wasteful.

We used to put our bottles on the bottom shelf of a dresser. It had the advantage that it was difficult to find stuff down there so every year we’d discover things that had been overlooked – two year old elder champagne, the odd bottle of beer. One year I had started early & made loads of the elder champagne and we still had some left as we went on holiday in August. When we came home I pulled a few bottles out to put in the fridge. The bottles were sticky and covered in bits of glass. I think one had exploded and caused a chain reaction, fortunately, judging from the glass we’d only lost 3 bottles. Take my advice: keep them in plain sight!

I’ve tried varying the time I harvest the flowers – early, late, newly opened, nearly over and it doesn’t seem to make a difference, some years it makes a fizz and some it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work we have been known to pop a little brewers yeast (a pinch, literally) in each bottle and that does revive it to a small fizz but it feels like cheating and doesn’t taste as fresh (that could be my imagination).

Meadowsweet

I love meadowsweet, I love how it looks, all creamy foamy flowers and it smells like marzipan, yum. One year we got very excited and harvested far too much meadowsweet – we were in a big patch at the peak of flowering time and it smelled so delicious. Anyway we made a huge amount of tincture, I made some cordial (see the cordial section), I made some ice cream and then I thought there was no reason not to try the champagne. There is a lot of pollen on meadowsweet flowers. So I made a small amount to test it, using exactly the same recipe as for the elderflower.

It worked a treat, nicely fizzy and that slightly asprin-y meadowsweet taste. Of course by the time I’d tried the first bottle flowering time was over and it was too late to make more. As I write this year’s batch has just been bottled. I was going to try using orange instead of lemon this time but when it came to it I didn’t have any, so lemon it is!

Also very nice with gin in place of tonic, almost better than the elderflower.

This year I have been making cordials and squashes – I had a pleasant fantasy of being able to supply enough to for the needs of my son, nieces and nephew. In the event I have been the victim of my own success and cannot keep up with demand.

My cordial making frenzy had at its heart the recipes from the excellent River Cottage Handbook No. 2: Preserves written by Pam Corbin. The book was given to me for my birthday last summer and has been a constant source of inspiration and satisfaction. It covers all manner of preserved things from jam, jellies and chutneys to cordials and vinegars. I really cannot recommend it highly enough, I love my copy, and it is now a bit sticky & warped and has things written in the pages – a proper recipe book.

In most cases I have used Pam Corbin’s recipes as a starting point and diversified. First I made her lemon squash, then I made her suggested orange and lemon squash (`St Clements’) variation and then, emboldened by my success, I made my own invention `Citrus Squeeze’ with lemons, oranges and grapefruit; delicious!

So are cordials `herbal medicine’? While they’re certainly not medicine in the specific treatment sense I do feel they are part of herbal medicine in the wider sense that incorporating herbs into daily life helps to forge a different relationship with plants, food, health. It’s also true that if you make your own cordials or squashes you can control the ingredients; choosing organic ingredients, raw cane sugar, using no preservatives or colours etc, and they are cheap! Finally, I feel a strong link with my ancestors when making my own preserves and drinks, my recent forbears would not have found it a novel or strange occupation and in a deeper way I also feel that I am demonstrating my love for my family, as well as having the most enormous fun and almost instant satisfaction.

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