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Botanical Brewing

Melissa Cole investigates how brewing and botanicals became firm friends inside the fermentation tank.

A quick double take was required when I saw that the beer created for London Beer Week would be called Botanicale, because just six months ago when I was in New Zealand I brewed a beer with North End Brewing called Botanicole - so close but definitely very far from each other both geographically and ingredients-wise but with the same inspiration, using aromatic ingredients to make the beer better.

Historically, that's always been the reason for using botanicals in beer, to make it taste better. Before the Dutch rocked up in the mid-1500s with their fancy, schmancy use of hops in their 'bier', which over time we came to use as the word 'beer' (I know this is a surprising leap, I'm sure you're managing to stay with me!) the women, in the main, of the UK were brewing 'ales' flavoured with pretty much anything they could get their hands on.

And this wasn't just in the UK I should hasten to add, making beer goes back a very long way indeed; although there is solid archeological evidence of brewing going back to the 3,400BC in places like China and Mesopotamia, there's no doubt that brewing was happening before that, with bits and pieces of what look like beer-making vessels being unearthed all the time - not to mention the fact that it's unlikely that the Mesopotamians discovered beer one day and created a deity, the goddess Ninkasi, around it the next.

In fact, most archaeologists agree that between humankind's desire for beer and bread civilisation was created, why? Well, brewing beer and making bread have one thing in common - you need crops, and to grow crops you need to tend them, otherwise other hungry animals have a tendency to wander in and scoff them.

So, in order to tend the crops humans had to settle down and, in order to make living in close proximity not end in a non-stop murders of the neighbours for bonking too loudly, so rules and society and, perhaps, civilisation was born - given the current state of world affairs I'm not entirely convinced we've got the civilised bit down pat.

But, anyway, beer in and of itself is a naturally very sweet product, steeping grains and making wort (the sweet liquid that is the basis of beer) is all about the sugars and, whilst modern brewers have got very good at making the most of those sugars, quickly drunk young beer made in the rough and ready fashion of our ancestors - it is speculated - would have been incredibly sugary, so, understandably, a balance was sought.

As time went on and people practised this brewing malarkey a bit more, there would have been a growing school of thought about the preservative nature of some of the herbs and spices - for example, it's strongly believed that in the residue of the mead/wine/beer mixture in vessels found in King Midas's tomb in Central Turkey (buried around 700BC) was saffron - which has long been used as a preservative.

In the UK there is a long history of brewing with botanicals, from heather ales to yarrow and ale cost and it's something that some breweries have been resurrecting for a while, whilst others are now putting a new spin on old methods to much acclaim.

You can't really talk about botanical brewing without mentioning the Williams Bros in Alloa, Scotland. Their brewing empire was built on the back of a chance moment, when a lady bought a recipe for a heather ale into the home brew shop Bruce Williams owned at the time, a year later he joined forces with his brother Scott and they never looked back from there. Now brewing Fraoch the heather ale, Ebulum an elderberry ale, Alba, a pine beer and Kelpie, the seaweed one - they have committed to this style of brewing for 20 years.

However, the ingenuity and inventiveness of brewers in 2017 means that there are other, very exciting, beers being made, not just with ancient ingredients but in a modern ancient way.

Companies like Wild Beer Co (which has just launched a Crowfunder campaign to build a new brewery) are making beers with spontaneous fermentation and, just like King Midas's tomb beer, throwing in grapes and apples and cider yeasts and, well frankly, just about anything they can get their hands on that they think will taste good - see Breakfast of Champignons for bonkers details.

But, these beers have to be made with intent, by which I mean they have to be flavoured for a reason - not just because it seems like a clever idea (or you've come up with a terrible pun of a name - unless you're Kelly Ryan of Fork & Brewer in New Zealand and then you are such a good brewer you can do whatever you like!).

The key to good beers with botanicals in them is an intrinsic understanding of how they will complement the beer, and I say this as someone with a lot of experience of brewing this style of beer (and a few experiences of ballsing it right up too).

Being a keen cook is a great start, or, just like the fantastic Ali Dedianko who heads up London Beer Week, it also helps to have a gin expert handy to give some guidance, which is exactly how Botanicale came about.

The beer is a collaboration between Sharp’s Brewery, Southwestern Distillery, and London Beer Week. Sharp’s Technical Brewer, Aaron McClure, developed the recipe with expert input from Tarquin at Southwestern Distillery, which Sharp’s collaborated with last year on The Hopster gin.

Aaron says; “It was wonderful to have expert help and enthusiasm from Tarquin and Ali in developing and brewing Botanicale, the base and backbone of which is a classic wheat beer. The citrus fruits and botanicals selected by Tarquin work in harmony with the wheat characteristics of the beer. Sharp’s own yeast strain then adds a spicy mellow bitterness which supports the unique characteristics of the juniper, citrus, and coriander and enables the botanicals to really shine through.”

So, if you want to try a modern slice of history during London Beer Week, you know where to head - and if you're inspired to try it at home, then I can heartily recommend reading Brewing Britain by Andy Hamilton or The Two Thirsty Gardeners Brew It Yourself - just one small note, do make sure that you know what you're foraging, mistaking deadly nightshade for elderberries will not end well for you!