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Brew with the Seasons

These excerpted sections from The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch on brewing with basil, carrots, and tomatoes are perfect for those interested in creative ways to use culinary ingredients in their brewing.

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Scratch Brewing's (Ava, Illinois) focus on local, foraged ingredients and their seasonal approach to brewing beer puts them philosophically closer to many chefs than fellow brewers today. But from their small brewpub in rural southern Illinois, the owner/brewer trio at Scratch Brewing—Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleindon, and Ryan Tockstein—have managed to help foster a growing movement in the brewing world, moving the conversation closer to that within the culinary world where buzzwords such as “locally sourced” and “seasonal” are de rigeur in better kitchens.

Their latest effort is a full-blown guide book to brewing with foraged and culinary ingredients, titled The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch (2016, The Countryman Press), and here we’ve excerpted three sections on brewing with culinary ingredients that are commonly available to chefs and brewers everywhere.

Basil

No herb conjures summer more so than basil. On pizza, in sandwiches, in pesto, on salads with tomato and mozzarella, basil tends to convey freshness, with a robust, almost minty green flavor that bursts with hints of lemon. It tastes like sunlight and gardens. It’s the go-to herb for the summer bounty.

We were not the first people to think about putting basil in beer, and we certainly won’t be the last. This must be due in part to basil’s kinship with hops. Not only is basil extremely aromatic, it lends both a spicy edge and a sweet finish—hop-like without the extra bitterness. In fact, varieties of basil contain a handful of the same chemical compounds that are present in varieties of hops. In our experience, basil blends beautifully with both citrusy American hops and spicy noble hops, particularly depending on the variety of basil being used.

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There are dozens of different varieties of basil, which all have different flavor and aroma profiles. Lemon basil tastes distinctly like lemon or lemon peel, even quite a bit like citronella (making it also quite similar to Citra hops). Purple basil tends to be more spicy, or clove-like. Tulsi or holy basil is almost another plant entirely, sweeter and spicier, with profound clove characteristics and a black cherry-like aroma. Classic Genovese basil seems ideal in pale ales and IPAs, complementing any one of a number of hops varieties and combinations, while Tulsi basil is better suited for darker beers and spicier malts, like rye. It’s as fun to mix and match varieties of herbs with different varieties of malts, hops, and brewing styles as it is to learn about new hops and utilize them in beer. In seemingly no other plant is the overlap with hops more evident than basil.

Harvesting

More than likely you’ll want to harvest from your basil plants all summer long. The quantity that you will need for beer, however, is much like the quantity that you will need for a big batch of pesto: a large portion of the whole plant. The best way to harvest your basil and to keep the plant alive is to clip the plant from the stem where it splits into new shoots. This is not just where two leaves shoot out, but where full branches or small leaves grow directly from the main stem. New shoots will continue to grow and create more leaves that you can harvest later.

The flavor and aroma of basil changes once harvested and dried, but for brewing this can add a different dimension to your beer. Dried basil loses some of the fresh, green, floral quality and instead retains the spiciness and light mint flavors. You can dry basil and still use it two years later (or more) by pulling the basil out of the ground by its roots, tying the ends of the plants together with twine, and hanging it upside down on a wire or string. Once dry you can leave the plants as they are or remove the leaves and store them in a mason jar.

Brewing

Brewing with basil is much like brewing with hops. You are the captain of your own ship; you can decide how much is too much or not enough. We can say without exception that every single person has a different palate when it comes to basil, much like hops. Some say they can’t drink the beer because there’s too much basil while others—drinking the same beer—can hardly taste it at all.

To find your ideal threshold, start with six 12-inch (30 cm) plants of fresh basil for a 5-gallon (19 liter) batch. Use the whole plant, including the stem. Although we don’t include it in the recipe, we have made several versions of our basil ale (added at flameout), which enhances the aromas of both the hops and the basil. As with juniper, we often add the basil at all points throughout the brewing process: in the hot liquor tank, in the mash tun, as a first-wort addition, and at 60 minutes, 30 minutes, and flameout. This helps to infuse the flavor and brings out different flavors and aromas throughout the process. For dried basil, use about 1/2 cup for a 5-gallon batch, although different varieties of basil have different thresholds of flavor (as you’ll see in the difference between Genovese basil and licorice basil). Also, pre-packaged dried basil will be very different from what you dry yourself; we find it sharper and a little bitterer. You’ll have to experiment to find out what quantity you prefer.

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Carrot

Carrots are an ancient cultivated plant found in writings before the Christian Era. Their dual flavors—fresh and spicy when raw, and sweet and caramelly when roasted—and their wealth of vitamins have made them a longtime favorite.

The cultivated carrot we know and love is actually a domesticated version of the wild carrot, often called Queen Anne’s Lace. Queen Anne’s Lace is distinctive because of its lacy flower heads but is curiously less often associated with carrot flavor and aroma. In the past, however, seeds were used to infuse carrot-like flavor in food and drink, including beer. And its greens and taproot have the familiar carrot flavor we know from cultivated varieties, albeit slightly spicier, earthier, and a little more bitter. The seeds have an aroma often identified as apricot-like. (The seeds have also been used as a folk contraceptive, although research on this topic is not conclusive.)

Carrots are a great year-round crop that can be harvested at different times, and they store well too. Queen Anne’s Lace grows in abundance on our property, and we’ve used the seeds, greens, and roots during different seasons. Wild carrot is a member of the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family—the parsleys. Other members of the family look very similar and can be highly toxic, like Poison Hemlock. It is critical to know the difference when harvesting, and this is one plant you should be absolutely certain about when foraging. For those who are hesitant about foraging for wild carrot but want to try a carrot seed beer, you can harvest the seeds from a known cultivated variety as a substitute (if you’re not growing them yourself, ask a farmer to allow some carrots to go to seed).

Also closely related to carrots are parsnips. The two are so similar that they were once considered nearly identical plants. The original wild carrot was a much lighter color, almost white, with a similar distinctive spiciness—hence the association. Today’s cultivated parsnips have a fantastic spicy character that often verges on mint and vanillin. We’ve put it into a lightly smoky black ale and recommend using it in any of the ways we use the carrot tap root in this chapter.

Harvesting

Taproot and Greens—Carrots are available year round due to successive plantings and cuttings and are one of the few plants we can harvest in the late winter. Often, fresh young carrots have a sweeter, spicier flavor than older carrots, but both can be just fine for brewing in their own unique ways. Carrots are also a great plant to store. Pack in sand or in the ground at cellar temperature, and they will keep up to six months. The greens can be harvested along with the root and add extra carrot flavor.

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Seeds—Depending on when a cultivated carrot has been planted, the seeds can be ready to harvest after the greens have produced their umbrella-shaped flowers and the flowers have turned to seed. Wild carrot seed is often harvested in July or August. At that stage, the umbrella-shaped flower head has browned slightly and curled up on itself like a closed fist. We often use the whole seed head, stems and all, since it has the same flavor and aroma as the seeds and requires a lot less work than picking out just the seeds. We have frozen the seed heads for about six months to preserve them, and that seems to work well without losing too much flavor and aroma to freezer burn.

Brewing

Taproot and Greens—We don’t use the carrots fresh, but our friend Todd Boera, brewmaster at Fonta Flora Brewery in North Carolina, has experimented extensively using them raw for his carrot IPA, which he’s dubbed Alpha vs. Beta Carotene. He uses around 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of carrot per barrel, or about 1½ pounds (680 g) for a 5-gallon (19 l) batch. He says it doesn’t matter what color they are, but younger carrots seem to have better flavor.

Todd has experimented with adding the carrots at different stages in the process. He has processed them using a food processor and added them to the fermentor in a strainer bag and has experimented with juicing all of the carrots and adding the juice directly into the tank. He has shredded the carrots and has added both the shredded carrots and the juice at the very end of fermentation, as well as towards the end of conditioning after dropping the yeast. After all of that experimentation, he says he tends to like the profile of adding juice directly to the conditioning beer. “This allows for the carrot sugars to remain present and not fermented out by the yeast,” he says. “It lends a little more body and a nice residual carrot sweetness.”

At Scratch we usually roast the carrot roots first to caramelize their natural sugars. We roughly chop the carrot and braise it in our oven with a little water so it doesn’t burn, usually around 450°F (232°C) until it starts to get sweet and browned. Then we add it to the fermentor.

Often we use the greens for bittering. They have a lovely mild carrot aroma and a small amount of bittering character. For a moderate amount of flavor, use just 2 ounces (57 g) in a 5-gallon (19 l) batch. You can also use them in combination with other herbs and spices, like peppercorns, ginger, or garden herbs. They should be used fresh.

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Seeds—The carrot seeds add a whole other dimension to a beer. Our carrot-seed ale utilizes just the seed heads and gives a hint of carrot and a layer of apricot. Use the whole seed head for ease of harvest, only 5 ounces (142 g) per 5-gallon (19 l) batch. We’ve used the seeds both in the boil, for 60 minutes and steeped in the fermentor, as it was traditionally done. Both yield interesting results and are recommended.

Tomato

One of the first things Aaron planted at the brewery was tomatoes. The year before we opened our doors, we experimented with about thirty varieties of heirloom tomatoes, largely knowing that we would eventually be using them on pizzas. We wanted to compare their flavor and see how they would grow in our weather. As an experiment, we planted them through the center of our hop rows to gauge space in our garden.

By late summer we were swimming in tomatoes. The garden was a veritable jungle, and it was nearly impossible to harvest tomatoes where the vines had started growing together. The tomatoes between the hops rows did even better. There were Cherokee Purples, Wapsipinicon Peach, Yellow Pear, and Matt’s Wild Cherry tomatoes growing in and around the hops. We no longer plant tomatoes between the hops, but we still get volunteers there every year. Particularly hardy have been the Matt’s Wild Cherry tomatoes. It is not an uncommon sight to see a hop bine and a tomato vine circling around one another on the hop trellis.

Tomatoes, like apples, have suffered from years of industrial farming that emphasizes color and shelf life over flavor and seasonality. They are also a plant that gives untold rewards when you plant at home and harvest in-season, or when you buy heirloom varieties directly from a farmer. There is nothing as fresh, vibrant, juicy, and flavorful as a tomato just harvested from the vine.

Unfortunately, tomatoes in commercial beer in the United States have been used in ways that mimic cocktails like Bloody Marys and in combinations like tomato and clam juice. The reason for this may be that beer has been blended into cocktails with tomatoes for a long time, but tomatoes themselves haven’t been considered a fermentable ingredient. Interestingly, one of the more inspiring places to see the tomato’s potential in drink is wine. Anyone who hasn’t had tomato wine may be surprised to know that once the juice has been fermented to alcohol, the result is not like tomato sauce. Depending on the tomatoes used, the wine can taste dry and tropical. Omerto, a winery in Quebec, Canada, claims to be the world’s first commercial tomato wine venture, making wines that range in flavor from something akin to a (slightly more alcoholic) Sauvignon Blanc to a white Port. Omerto uses a blend of heirloom tomatoes, as the flavor is more pronounced and dynamic. Taking a wine-maker’s tack on using tomatoes is the best way we can think of to utilize tomatoes in beer, particularly the emphasis on full-flavored heirloom varieties.

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We have used tomatoes fresh and dried, and there are dozens of different angles you can take with the fruit that we can suggest as a result of what we’ve learned from our experiments. Tomatoes are an unusual plant to use for beer, but one with promising results we hope to learn more about after even more experimentation.

Harvesting

Tomatoes are a classic mid-summer fruit, best when eaten the same day they are picked. However, tomatoes will also last for several days on the counter (not in the fridge).

Tomatoes can also be picked green and eaten in that early state of development. We pickle our year-end green tomatoes and serve them at the brewery as an appetizer. You can also keep green tomatoes and allow them to ripen off the vine—this rost. Place them in a closed paper bag in a relatively cool place. Try not to put too much pressure on the tomatoes. Stack in only one or two layers, with the biggest tomatoes on the bottom. Over time, if there is too much pressure on the tomatoes, they will bruise and then rot in the bag.

Finally, tomatoes can also be preserved from a ripened state by dehydration. We’ve had great success drying cherry tomatoes whole, and in slicing up bigger tomatoes and drying the slices. We use a standard dehydrator and save the tomatoes in Mason jars. They’re good for several years after fully drying.

Brewing

Below are five different ways we suggest brewing with tomatoes. Some are based on our experience at the brewery, and others are suggestions from our understanding of the plant, experimentation, and uses in wine.

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Fresh—Fresh tomatoes give a surprisingly mild flavor to beer and tend to ferment fully, like any other fruit. Use about 2 gallons (7.6 l) of fresh tomatoes per gallon (3.8 l) of beer. Chop or puree them (leaving the skins on is fine). If you’re worried about infection, you can add them to the end of the boil; otherwise they can go into the fermentor after primary fermentation is complete.

Dried—Our Belgian Dark Strong recipe included here was our favorite tomato beer. The dried cherry tomatoes retained a ton of their perceived sweetness and became raisiny and prune-like, the same way that grapes do when dried. They blend perfectly with a Belgian yeast strain. Every tomato will be a little different when dried, depending on what it was like when ripe. In general, though, dried tomatoes keep a lot of the tomato character we associate with the fruit, and so are better in slightly maltier beers, particularly with English or Belgian yeasts that emphasize stone fruit esters.

Green—Green tomatoes have a crisp acidity that mellows out as the fruit ripens. We’ve never brewed with them, but Marika uses them a lot in cooking at the end of the season, and has been itching to do a green tomato beer for some time. (Unfortunately, they usually end up in curry, a similar ending to the story of our best of intentions to brew with morel mushrooms.) We would recommend emphasizing the tartness of the tomato by brewing a lighter saison-style beer with a relatively dry finish, at a rate of about 2 pounds (907 g) of tomatoes per gallon (3.8 l). This should give a significantly tart flavor and finish.

Brett and Bacteria—Speaking of tart and dry, tomatoes make a natural complement to wild yeast strains. In addition to a normal Saccharomyces fermentation, tomatoes can be enhanced by strains of Brettanomyces or even Lactobacillus or other tart bacteria. Again, we think of this a bit like wine, where the aim would be to create a beer that’s dry, fruity, perhaps a little tropical, with a nice cleansing acidity. Kettle souring with Lactobacillus is a good technique to control tartness for anyone just dabbling in sour beer. Fermenting with a Brettanomyces strain that emphasizes tropical notes would be good for tomatoes that would also naturally give citrus flavors in the fermentation.

Barrel-aging—Next logical step? Put that brew in a barrel! Any of these techniques can be enhanced with some oak, or even finished with a wild culture on oak. There seems to be a natural connection between tomatoes and grapes—any Italian knows this instinctively—so any wine-making technique you use should give interesting results in tomato beer.

This article is excerpted from The Homebrewer's Almanac: A Seasonal Guide To Making Your Own Beer From Scratch, by Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleindon, and Ryan Tockstein, published by The Countryman Press, and reprinted here with permission from the publisher. Buy your copy now at better bookstores, homebrew shops, craft-beer stores, or your favorite online retailer. For more information about Scratch Brewing, see the Breakout Brewer profile that appeared August/September 2015 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®.

PHOTOS: COURTESY THE COUNTRYMAN PRESS

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