A bevy of foragers will ramble deep into the Teviot Valley on June 1-2, hunting for wild plants to flavour six new beers by the Scottish Borders Brewery.
Volunteer foragers on the Wild Harvests project will spend the weekend scouring the countryside for edible leaves, stems, roots, flowers, seeds and fruits, before home-brewers test the infusions for the best six flavours, to be sold as bottled and cask ales later in the year.
While to the modern eye Wild Harvests seems an experimental, innovative project, on the long view flavouring beer with wild herbs and berries is an ancient craft thousands of years old.
So we at The Southern, fond of the barley brew and without a hint of self-interest, would like to help the foragers on their quest for wild flavours by delving into beer’s history.
So beloved is beer, the world’s third most popular drink after water and tea, humankind has fermented it for millennia from any grain containing carbohydrates sugar and starch.
Though its origin is hidden in the mists of antiquity, ale’s evolution can be traced to around 4,000BC in ancient Mesopotamia, where bread, mashed with barley malt, was fermented and flavoured with cinnamon or dates and honey.
Writing in his now lost work On The Ocean in 325BC, the Greek explorer Pytheas observed Caledonians skilfully brewing barbarian beverages, but ale goes back at least 5,000 years in Scotland.
Archaeologists argue hunter-gatherers at the Neolithic site Skara Brae brewed an ancient ale from barley flavoured with meadowsweet, a fragrant wild perennial plant with creamy wild flowers and dark green leaves, common in meadows and damp areas in Europe.
At Kinloch, on the Isle of Rhum, south of the Isle of Skye, Neolithic pot shards from around 2000BC were found to contain the residue of mashed cereal straw, cereal-type pollen, meadowsweet, heather, and royal fern.
Across Doggerland, a birch bark bucket was discovered in a Bronze Age grave of a young woman in Egtved, southern Jutland, Denmark, containing traces of lime, meadowsweet and white clover pollen, wheat grains, sweet gale (or ‘bog myrtle’), cowberry and cranberry.
Bog myrtle is a true flavouring of peasant food, with its warm aroma of balsam, cloves and pine resin giving a retsina like tang when its sprigs are steeped.
In ancient times, the sweet, resinous aroma flavoured ale, and old Northumbrian cooks used the leaves and two-winged fruits in stews and soups.
Isolated patches still grow around monasteries.
In the Middle Ages before hops arrived in Britain, to offset the sweetness of the malted barley, a mix of bitter herbs and flowers called ‘gruit’ was infused in ale, including dandelion leaves and roots (hence dandelion and nettle, dandelion and burdock), marigold, yarrow, heather, wild rosemary and horehound (the German name for horehound means ‘mountain hops’).
Then, 500 years ago, the soldiery, returning from the Hundred Years’ War, brought back from Flanders and Northern France a beverage called ‘beere’, ‘bere’ or ‘biere’, differing from the old English ale in being bittered, and preserved, by hops – the female flowers, or seed cones, of the plant Humulus lupulus.
Between the 13th and 16th centuries, beer flavoured with gruit was known as ale, while beer bittered with hops was known as beer, but slowly beer supplanted ale, and the terms became interchangeable.
Throughout history, ale or beer was always safer to drink than water, thanks to the bactericidal effect of alcohol and hops, and brewers sought any plant – or animal – to flavour their everyday concoctions, from orange peel, birch bark (tasting like root beer, made from the sassafrass tree’s roots or bark), to a 17th century Scots ‘cock ale’ infused with “three goode parboyled cockerels”.
The recipe was discovered in an 18th century beer book in Traquair’s archives which also inspired the Innerleithen brewery’s Jacobite Ale spiced with coriander, which perhaps still grows wild in Scotland.
Today, other Scottish breweries are rediscovering wild flavours, like William Bros. in Dunbar, who make Fraoch Heather Ale; the Isle of Skye Brewery in Uig, who brew blaeberry beer; and bramble ale from Traditional Scottish Ales (TSA) in Stirling.
If you’re a keen forager and home-brewer, and want to join June’s Wild Harvest Foraging Camp, get in contact via their website www.wildharvestscotland.com.