Stinging Nettle Beer
With the weather warming up, there is so much growing out in the woods and meadows that, for the responsible forager, prioritising becomes necessary. Yes, Jack-in-the-hedge is tasty, but do I really need a carrier bag of the stuff? Wild garlic is nearly past its best (hurry!), and there are myriad other wild salads and herbs and flowers, all as delicious as I am greedy. I tend to follow the rule of thirds – pick one third of your find, leave the rest to do its thing (although if you only find three blackberries on a bramble, I understand this may be a swiftly broken rule). I also find that, as the seasons for some wild foods are short, it is sensible and a great deal of fun to find ways of preserving pickings. That way you may enjoy wild garlic, as pesto, or dandelions, as syrup or a brandy infusion, well into the year, when the plants themselves are otherwhere. There is a childlike glee to be taken in having a kitchen full of bubbling, fermenting, weirdly-coloured substances in jars and bottles. Experiment. You will fail. There will be gnashing of teeth. Sometimes you will succeed, and when you do it will be wonderful.
Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica
I hazard that a guide to identifying this plant is unnecessary. There are a few plants that look similar, such as the dead nettle, but these are also edible. I also hazard that warning you about the sting is unnecessary. Find a patch away from the road and away from dogs. Suit up! Long trousers, long-sleeved top, gloves, and a sense of humour through gritted teeth. Prepare to be pointed at by passers-by. Wave at them as they pass. Pick only the young tops of the nettles (although, once cut back, they will grow back, so a cut-and-come-again effect may be achieved if you wish to harvest your patch later into the year). Once the nettle starts to flower, stop picking. The flavour has dissipated somewhat and the plant produces a potentially harmful substance.
Nettles can be treated much the same as spinach, and soups, pasta, bubble-and-squeak are all splendid ways to deal with you harvest. By far the best is nettle beer.
This is a refreshing, sparkling drink, akin in substance if not flavour to Elderflower Champagne. It is my favourite wild booze, and you will be pleased to hear it does not sting on the way down. You will need a few bits of kit for this recipe, but I am sure that it will be a wise investment of a few pounds. As with all booze making, keep everything scrupulously clean to avoid unwanted biological goings-on, as this will spoil the finished product. Sterilise your bottles, buckets and demi-johns.
(You can find all of these in a home-brew shop, online, or often in a well-known high street discount shop)
1 x 10 litre food grade bucket
1 x 4.5 litre demi-john (glass fermenting vessel that will accommodate an airlock)
1 x airlock (a little plastic doofer that, with the addition of a few drops of water, forms a barrier to prevent bacteria getting into your fermenting beer whilst allowing gas to escape. It also makes a pleasing noise)
1 x siphon tube (one with a cup on the end to stop sediment from travelling with your beer from one vessel to another is best)
1 x large colander
1 x long plastic spoon
1 x long plastic whisk
Myriad bottles of your choosing (old screw-top wine bottles or soft drink bottles are best, as you can unscrew to relieve pressure built up by fermentation)
1kg young nettle tops (pick before the flowers appear)
450g demerara sugar
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
11g sachet of ale yeast (find this in the same place as you sourced your equipment)
50g cream of tartare (find this on the baking aisle of your local shop)
In the biggest pan you can find, bring 5 litres of water to the boil. Add the (washed) nettle tops and cream of tartare. Push it all down into the water (the volume of the nettles will diminish as they cook), and allow to simmer for 15 – 20 minutes.
Strain the liquid through a colander into a fermenting bucket. Stir in the sugar, and let it sit, covered with a clean towel, until it has cooled.
Add the lemon juice, lemon zest and yeast, give it a quick whisk to get some air into it, cover with a clean towel and leave for 3 days in a warm place. Give it a glance now and again to make sure it’s fermenting (it will).
You can then bottle this straight away, but I tend to siphon it off into a demi-john, leaving any sediment at the bottom of the bucket. To do this, gently lift the fermenting bucket of beer onto a kitchen surface. Put your demi-john on the kitchen floor. Place the cup end of your siphon into the bucket, being careful not to disturb the sediment at the bottom. Gently suck on the other end of the tube until you get a mouthful of bonus beer, then quickly move it into the neck of the demi-john. Hold it in place as it fills – this will get messy! Then fit an airlock and let it ferment for a couple more days, until it’s a bit less lively, listening for the lovely blooping noises to diminish. If you bottle too soon you are in danger of exploding bottles, as it will continue to ferment! Using old plastic soft-drink bottles is safest, as you can let off a little of the pressure if they start to bulge strangely. To bottle, simply use the same process used for transferring the beer into the demi-john.
Once bottled, the beer will be ready after a week, and I find it’s better younger as it loses some of its sweeter notes as it ages. Serve on a hot day over ice, garnished with a couple of blue borage flowers for full-on look-at-what-I-made effect. Cheers.
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