As I look out of my office window into my back garden/yard I don’t see an ugly patch of weeds like most others will, I see a cocktail cabinet full to the brim of new and exciting combinations. And, when I go out into the woods in the autumn the rich harvest is a potential Aladdin’s cave of delights ready to entice my taste buds.
Brewers of yore used a whole manner of strange ingredients when making beer from bog myrtle, stinging nettles and even highly toxic plants such as hemlock & henbane. As a Forager and brewer I too take inspiration from the wild and indeed from history in order to come up with drinks that are utterly unique and utterly tasty too. There is nothing quite like leaving my home in the morning to return in the afternoon with fists full ingredients, ready to brew up.
Below are just a few, some will be very familiar some perhaps less so. Some of the drinks are extremely easy to make others take a little more effort. All, will be unlike anything you have tasted before (unless you are a fellow forager and drinks maker). The ingredients are all freely available from back yards, parks, gardens, forests and waste ground. Getting drunk on your weed patch makes a good argument for leaving the weed killer in the shed too!
Drink weeds – Gorse
Gorse flowers are said to be in season at the same time kissing is, that is to say it is in season all year round, although you may struggle during the height of summer. Those residence of Oregon & Washington state will know it as a highly invasive exotic plant as do residence of New Zealand where it covers a massive 5% of the land. In its native Europe it is controlled by cattle and other grazing animals, although it does tend to take over in some of our wilder places. On a walking trip to the lake district I once came unstuck to the weedy shrub which had taken over what should have been a delightful footpath.
The flowers when brewed in wine give a delicate coconut flavour with a ginger after taste. Of the wines made out of flowers it has to be one of the greatest. You do however have to earn a decent bottle as picking the small flowers off the spiky bushes along the coastline with the wind whipping through your hair can be an interesting experience!
Infused in rum it gives the rum a great coconut flavour. See below!
Drink weeds -Himalayan balsam
In a valley in the Himalayan mountain range lived a plant, it had learned to compete with the other plants and survived very well in such harsh conditions. Then in Victorian times an English explorer decided it would look nice in his garden. It did look good, but with each plant creating hundreds of seed that can be fired across a 4m/10 foot radius from the plant, it spread across the British Isles. Some bright spark then decided it would also look good in US and thus it spread there too.
But fear not as the flowers add a great pink colour to flower wines and an exquisite fizzy drink called autumn flower champagne can be made my mixing these with other edible flowers in season during late summer.
Drink weeds – Japanese Knotweed
If I told you there was a plant that originated from the edge of Japanese volcanoes, can grow up to 35cm/7 inches a day, breaks through asphalt and even concrete, who’s roots can spread to 5m/15 feet in every direction, can grow up to 4.5m/15 feet tall and can survive temperatures of minus 34/-30°F and most weed killer applications you’d think I was making it up. Well I’m not and here and its spreading throughout the states.
The thing is though, the young shoots are not just edible but quite tasty when made into a cobbler. They can also be made into a variety of drinks including from a beer, to a wine and even a lovely liqueur.
Drink weeds – Dandelion
For many the dandelion is a terrible pest of a plant, public enemy number 1 for the gardener. But it’s a really versatile plant with pretty much every bit of the plant having an edible or drinkable use. The root can be charred then turned into a coffee type drink, or roasted and eaten. The leaves too make a fine but bitter edition to a salad. And the flower itself can be turned into a tasty country wine.
Cover the petals with boiling water, leave for two days. Then bring to the boil with sugar, cool, add yeast and allow to ferment. After a few month bottle and leave to condition and you will have made yourself wine from your garden pest! Or for sumptuous dandelion champagne.
Cleavers – Sticky willy
Sticky Willy, Sticky bud, goose grass, old man’s pocketbook whatever you call this plant, I’m sure you’ll have memories of it from childhood. When we my brother and I walked to school we’d pluck it from the hedgerow and cover each other with it, the fine sticky hairs attaching themselves to our clothing.
It first appears at the end of the winter and can be a great plant to cleanse the system of all sorts of stuff picked up from the winter excess. Grab a great bit handful of it and shove into a food processor, squeeze the juice through some cheese cloth and drink for a great detox.
Over in the East of England in an area known as the fens grows a nettle that has no sting at all, strange that it is from the same family as a nettle that grows chiefly in California and can sting for three days. Seems that even in the plant world America is producing the bigger and more powerful!
Nettles can be eaten just as spinach as wilting it down will eliminate the sting. But the pioneers had the right idea and they would have turned it into an ale. To make put nettles in a fermenter and pour over boiling water and leave to infuse. Strain, add lemons, oranges and sugar and bring to the boil. Cool and add yeast. After a week bottle, condition for another week and drink!