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Special Ingredient: Elderflower

Floral, fruity, and unique, fresh elderflowers smell like the finest hops you’ve never smelled—because those hops don’t exist yet.

Joe Stange Jan 22, 2022 - 6 min read

Special Ingredient: Elderflower Primary Image

Photo: Darin Oman

Their aroma isn’t quite like other flowers—elderflowers don’t give off a perfumy-soap-shop bouquet like roses, for example. Their smell is definitely floral, but it’s also sweet, berry-like, and vaguely tropical; some even describe it as “creamy.” The notes are difficult to pin down, but the scent is so distinctive that once you get used to it, elderflower just smells like elderflower—and it’s damned pleasant.

As the name suggests, these tiny white flowers bloom on elder bushes or trees—aka Sambucus—also called elderberry for its dark berries. Note: Most of the plant is poisonous, but the flowers and the berries (only when ripe, and not the seeds) are safe. These plants grow across most of North America, even if they are less noticed and less popular than they are across the Atlantic.

Elderflowers are more of a thing in Europe than they are here, with interest rising in late spring when the flowers are ready for picking. You can find them in teas, sodas, ciders, cocktails, syrups, and more. (You can also find the berries made into jams, wines, and various other things.) One of the more famous elderflower concoctions is France’s St-Germain liqueur, “with up to 1,000 fresh, wild, handpicked elderflower blossoms in every bottle.”

Brewing with Elderflower

Elderflower beers and other drinks are less common in North America, but there are a few. Monkish in Torrance, California, adds them to its Belgian-style singel ale Crux. Decadent Ales in Mamaroneck, New York, adds them—along with vanilla and marshmallow—to a Japanese mochi–inspired milkshake IPA called Elderflower Mochi. There are a few ciders, too: Boston Beer Company’s Angry Orchard makes one named for its special ingredient.

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Inevitably—because the Belgians and Germans especially seem to love elderflowers—you can find them in several specialty beers over there.

These include Berlin’s Schneeeule Otto, a mixed-fermentation Berliner weisse that is “dry hopped” with elderflowers during a cool secondary fermentation. Brewer Ulrike Genz says that the wild yeast on the flowers—picked near the shores of Lake Tegel, just behind the brewery—also get involved with the fermentation to affect the final flavor of the beer. Otto has a starting gravity of 1.032 and an ABV of 3 percent, with an enticing floral aroma that mingles with citrus-funk Brettanomyces—a combination that evolves with time in the cellar. The base beer is similar (or perhaps identical) to Schneeeule’s core Berliner weisse, Marlene (for which we have a homebrew-scale recipe).

Elderflowers have been known to find their ways into Belgian lambic, too. The Proefbrouwerij near Ghent produces a SpontanElderflower lambic beer for the Danish brand Mikkeller. More famously, Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels steeps elderflowers in lambic and bottles it as Mamouche.

In case you doubt the Belgians’ love of elderflower: There’s even a brewery, Den Toetëlèr, that is totally devoted to elderflowers, adding some to every single one of its beers—from its light, soft Wit at 5.2 percent ABV to its nearly brown Amber Tripel at 8.5 percent. (The brewery’s name means something like “The Tooter” because the locals used to make whistles out of hollow elder branches.)

The Elderflower Saison

However, the first beer I ever tasted with elderflower remains one of my favorites: Saison Cazeau, from the Brasserie Cazeau in Hainaut, between Tournai and the French border. Its components are simple: water, pale malt, Sterling hops, fleur de sureau, and yeast. In the glass, the beer is a deep golden color with lush foam, 5 percent ABV, lively on the palate, moderately bitter, and nicely dry. The signature elderflowers waft out smelling sweetly of berries, linen, and spring—like the finest hops you’ve never smelled because those hops don’t exist.

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Founder-brewer Laurent Agache says that Saison Cazeau is a true saison because it’s seasonal—he brews it only when fresh elderflowers are available. They also keep it as local as possible, picking the flowers themselves in some woods less than a mile away. “As production increases,” he says, “we supplement our needs by buying fresh flowers from a producer located 50 kilometers [31 miles] from the brewery.”

At the very end of the boil, just before flameout, Agache adds 300 grams of fresh flowers per hectoliter—that works out to roughly 1.7 ounces (48 grams) for a five-gallon/19-liter batch. He is also adamant on this point: “Fresh flowers must be used,” he says. “No dried flowers.”

Fresh flowers may be more difficult to source—it’s easy to find dried elderflowers online—but the result is a fresher and more fragrant aroma. (Note: If you must resort to dried flowers, use about half as much.)

Agache explains his inspiration for the beer: “My parents used to make an elderflower cocktail,” he says. It was an aperitif that they would share at family gatherings.

“It was very good, so I thought, ‘Why not in a beer?’”

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