Herbal Wine and Beer Making
A guest blog by herbalist, Joseph Nolan
With all the wonderful foraging available this time of year one’s thoughts naturally turn to wine. Medicinal, of course. Country wine, made with herbs, fruits, spices and vegetables, as opposed to grapes, is a venerable product: easy to make, often quite nice to drink, and something that keeps one in touch with the seasons and ancient natural processes, both of which are easy to forget in our increasingly virtual world.
As medicines, wines are excellent. For a start, people like to drink them, which is always a plus with medicine. Most country wines are made by brewing a very strong tea of some flower/herb/vegetable/fruit, adding sugar and yeast, and then standing back while it does its thing. You can faff about with the process, tinker and tweak, but basically that is it. So, because they are essentially infusions - very strong ones - country wines carry considerable medicinal benefits, even in small quantities. As a bonus, they are quite fun and satisfying to create, make impressive gifts, and are quite economical.
What to use?
Herbs and Spices
You can make wine from virtually anything. Primroses are an old favourite - although with the sad decline in wild primroses it is best to use planted ones; dandelion flowers are also traditional. Dandelions reportedly make lovely light wine with the flowers being good for the kidneys and bladder, and tend to impart a sunny mood. You can make wine from violets (be sure to remove the green parts of the flowers or it tastes mostly of grass), which have a beneficial effect on the lungs and movement of lymphatic fluid through the body and you can use roses (reportedly heavenly), which raise the spirits like nothing else. These two were called Violatium and Rosatium, respectively, in Ancient Rome, where they were drunk for festivals.
Other excellent vintning choices include: hawthorn flowers (delicious!) which gently regulate blood pressure, improve heart function, and strengthen the vasculature. Elderflowers make a delicious white wine and are good for hay fever in summer and colds and flus in the colder months. Herbs like mint, lemonbalm and even nettles, can be used either on their own or as part of a seasonal wine made from a mixture of garden herbs and flowers.
As the year moves on gooseberries, rhubarb, cherries (if you can get them!), plums, damsons, strawberries, raspberries, brambles, elderberries, rowan and even apples and crabapples can be used to make wine, and spices as well as herbs may be added to boost flavour and health properties. Ginger is particularly good for wines drunk in winter, and cinnamon, juniper berries (foraged or not!), cloves, nutmeg, and just about anything else in the spice cupboard can be used to make things festive and warming.
You can also make vegetable wine. Peapod wine is a great way to get the goodness out of discarded pods, and though perhaps a throwback to a more frugal age, it makes the absolute most of a homegrown crop. Other health giving vegetables that make lovely wines include carrots, parsnips and beetroot. Incidentally, these are the same vegetables that can become a trifle tedious in the winter veg box and may hang around for some time before finding their way into the soup pot or compost bin so why not turn them into wine instead!
If you find yourself in the fermenting mood, there are other interesting traditional beverages to make, like Nettle Beer. The following recipe is taken from Maud Grieve’s 1930s opus A Modern Herbal.
Maud Grieve’s Nettle Beer
2 gallons of water
Good pailful washed spring nettles
3-4 large handfuls dandelion
3-4 large handfuls cleavers OR juice of two lemons instead of the other herbs
2 oz bruised whole ginger
2 teacupfuls brown sugar
1 oz. fresh yeast (you can doubtless use dried yeast, just give it a few minutes to perk up before bottling.)
1 tablespoon of cream of tartar
Take 2 gallons of cold water and a good pailful of washed young Nettle tops, add 3 or 4 large handfuls of Dandelion, the same of Clivers (Goosegrass) and 2oz of bruised, whole ginger. Boil gently for 40 minutes, then strain and stir in 2 teacupsful of brown sugar. When lukewarm place on the top a slice of toasted bread, spread with 1oz of compressed yeast, stirred till liquid with a teaspoonful of sugar. Keep it fairly warm for 6 or 7 hours, then remove the scum and stir in a tablespoonful of cream of tartar. Bottle and tie the corks securely. The result is an especially wholesome sort of ginger beer. My own personal tips for this recipe are: 1) use a plastic bottle control if fermenting in glass so you can tell how quickly the pressure is building; use flip top bottles like from Grolsch Beer to ferment so you can release the pressure easily; and 3) put them somewhere that will be safe should they accidentally blow!
The juice of 2 lemons may be substituted for the Dandelion and Clivers. Other herbs are often added to Nettles in the making of Herb Beer, such as Burdock, Meadowsweet, Avens and Horehound, the combination of which makes a refreshing summer drink.
Once upon a time every family made nettle beer, dandelion & burdock, ginger beer, and many other herbal brews, which served as health tonics and home remedies, used the most of forged and home grown plants and, by virtue of the boiling required to make them, rendered the water safe for drinking. The yeasts that gently fermented also added B vitamins and a measure of healthful probiotics to the drinks. These wonderful beverages are far tastier than the sugar-packed fizzies of modern times, and far healthier too. They are easy to make, can be drunk within a few days and children love making and consuming them. And if you enjoy making or drinking kombucha, kefir, kvass, or other traditional ferments, these traditional British herbal brews can be combined to make exciting new things. And it’s all medicinal.
For more information on making your own medicinal wines, have a look at books by C.J.J. Berry, join some home brew or wine making Facebook groups, or wander into your local brew shop and get chatting. If you live in Edinburgh Newington’s BrewStore is the place.
Let me know how your nettle beer turns out!