Hawthorn and woodruff

If a carpet of bluebells is a sign of ancient woodland then much of East Sussex has very old roots. Remnants of the Andredesleage perhaps! It would be nice to think so. Many of the sunken lanes near us are also thick with bluebells and stitchwort. I’m reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s Old Ways or Rudyard Kipling’s Way Through The Woods; somewhere quite magical. John Lewis-Stemple, in The Running Hare, described Britain’s roadside verges as our greatest unacknowledged nature reserves and at the moment especially I can see why. I seem to be better at spotting coral root and town hall clock now I know what I’m looking for; something I love about study; like putting on a new pair of glasses and realising the detail was there all along.

The green is getting lusher, fuller. More broad leaf plants are appearing on the meadows and verges: Horseradish, dock and sorrel. The oaks are now a yellow lime green. Depending on the sun, at times vibrant and at times quite cold. The ash is not yet out so we’re in for a splash not a soak this summer as the old saying goes. The sweet chestnuts are in full leaf and flower, feeling heavy overhead. Hedges and thickets are now voluptuous and opaque. Since playing Boy Scouts such places have always seemed inviting, enveloping and comforting.

Whereas blackthorn was pure white against bare bones, hawthorn provides a white confetti against a dark sherwood green. This is target number one for this week. It was a busy weekend, with getting to and from the Southampton Marathon taking up most of the time, and so the hawthorn was harvested by torchlight, albeit only from the garden edge.

Woodruff has also piqued my interest. Once a strewing herb, full of coumarin like meadowsweet, I’ve found recipes that include it in Maibowle that I might have to try. I’ve read that the German Waldmeister syrup is used to flavour Berliner Weisse and Chorlton Brewing Co have flavoured a Berliner Weisse with it, which I am keen to try. If the flower yeast proves successful I will add some freshly dried meadowsweet to the secondary. If not I will flavour a pale mild with it. The drying is meant to accentuate the coumarin. My wife collected the woodruff for me and, as the flowers were tiny, small sprigs of leaves and flowers were used.

Both the hawthorn and the woodruff were put into tubes of low gravity malt extract as before.

I’m still shaking the garden apple, wild apple and dandelion from time to time. Some green apple ester aromas are coming off the garden apple tubes, or am I imagining it. It seems convenient that each fruit flower yeast smells of it’s fruit.

The blackthorn and primrose starters were assessed. The one remaining blackthorn flask still smelt strongly of nail varnish, but again, not in an unpleasant way. It was fruity. In future I will step up from the centrifuge tubes into 250ml flasks and then up into 500ml flasks, reducing the air space in the flasks, building a bigger culture and building up it’s tolerance for higher gravity wort. One primrose starter was chucked, smelling of vomit (butyric acid). The other was a bit indistinct, but pleasant, smelling slightly of grapefruit or pineapple. I should have tested the pH as I suspect the primrose had dropped. A bigger, 500ml, starters will also allow an hydrometer reading to be taken.

A base beer was brewed for the blackthorn and primrose starters. A similar recipe to before but with 3% caragold replacing 1.5% caramunich. Northern Brewer, Styrian Goldings and East Kent Goldings were used for the bittering, flavour and aroma hop respectively. For the 19litre batch the target ABV was 6.4%, IBU was 20 and SRM was 7, so a touch paler than before. I made a couple of mistakes on brew day: I sparged down to 1.010 SG to test the efficiency of my mash tun but did not boil long enough to reduce the wort down to the starting gravity; I also forgot to add the honey in the last 5mins. As it was a new jar of Wadhurst honey and honey is meant to have antibacterial properties I added it to the cooled wort. I figure that the worst that can happen is I gain some local honey funk, which isn’t necessarily the end of the world in a wild beer like this! The original gravity was 1.058, the volume was 21.5litres so the ABV will be 6% and the SRM will be 6.

Once aerated, two 5litre batches had the blackthorn and primrose strained starters added separately and 10litres had NBS Belgian Saison Yeast added. A combination yeast was not created because the gorse yeast beer was still fermenting steadily after two weeks (SG 1.030) and smelt of bubblegum. I also don’t think the 250ml starter flasks have enough yeast to split between multiple batches. The combination yeast brew will have to wait until the single flower demijohns have fermented.

I need to read up on how much yeast to repitch from one batch to another of the same volume. I don’t feel ready to start counting yeast cells yet. I’ve read that, with starters, the yeast produced by one batch can be pitched into a following batch ten times the volume. So reversing this logic, I will use a tenth of slurry volume, or a fraction of that if combining multiple wildflower yeasts. Any comments on this?

The 15litre clean batch from last brew, fermented with WLP565, was transferred to a secondary after two weeks. It had a pause after an initial surge, which seems typical of the yeast strain from posts elsewhere. 5litres was transferred onto 500g of stewed, but not sweetened rhubarb. This one should be sour!

After 24 hours the blackthorn is bubbling with a great looking krausen. The rhubarb saison is also bubbling happily as is the gorse batch. Silence from primrose.


Including my friend’s second wedding beer, which is dry hopping on mosaic, I now have seven fermenters on various shelves and worktops. My wife has the patience of a saint.

Dandelion and apple blossom

The Easter weekend provided even more time to wander the footpaths and inspect the hedgerows for plants and flowers of interest. I think I now know the difference between cow parsley, hog weed, hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort – the latter two are poisonous. I spotted Alexanders, lime green, in local abundance in Suffolk. Also heard and then saw a sky lark while there on an early morning run, which was a treat.


Back in Sussex I tried to find more Alexanders but so far without success. Between my wife’s extant knowledge and our smart phones we spotted a number of flowers, including coral root, red campion, vetch, dog mercury, archangel, townhall clock, herb robert as well as carpets of stitchwort and bluebells, which are almost at their best.

While my wife stopped to photograph a wild orchid, I collected dandelions and wild apple blossom for the next round of yeast collection. Both were in a meadow about a mile from the house and within our valley. I probably don’t want to exceed this distance to achieve the local, “terroir” specific, yeast that I’m aiming for. We spotted a few rowan saplings which would provide an interesting addition to the beer if they flower. I also now know where to find a wild cherry and possibly a damson for next year. They were both down by the river but the blossom had gone over.

One of the highlights this time of year is the nightingale. A few years ago we joked about naming our daughter nightingale if we heard it before she was born. When I came back from the hospital and stood in the driveway at 4am there it was, clear as a bell in the otherwise stillness of the pre-dawn night. Punctual as ever, I heard the nightingale last night for the first time this year. Some phrases of his tune warble, some stutter, some notes are drawn out as if longing for his mate. It’s a truly magical sound and a happy birthday to my daughter.

The apple trees in the garden are very old and I have made cider from them before using the naturally occurring yeast. On that note I tasted a bottle last night. I should call it the forgotten cider. They were 2015 apples, stored/forgotten over winter, fermented and racked to a secondary in early spring 2016 and then forgotten about until they were bottled at the end of last year. It’s not my best, pretty dry, but I like it and the dregs might be propagated to ferment a Saison as a side project.

The wild apple, garden apple and dandelion were collected in the same way as before. Following a recommendation on Milk the Funk Facebook group I will remove the flowers after 24 hours. I have been collecting the flowers in freezer bags rather than carrying many tubes in my pocket, for convenience but also giving the insects a chance to escape. While I’m keeping the types separate, this does give the flowers time to muddle together, preventing each yeast capture from being isolated and unique.

The gorse batch of beer took off at a rate of knots within 24 hours and was spewing out of the airlock most of the week. After seven days it has calmed but is still bubbling persistently.


One of the flasks of primrose starter doesn’t smell so good. One of the more vigourous blackthorn flasks smells of nail varnish but not unpleasantly. I’ve read this can be caused by fermentation at high temperatures, unhealthy yeast, or brett fermenting in the presence of oxygen. The latter is certainly possible, there was a lot of air in the flask. Unhealthy yeast is possible and I will add yeast nutrient in future. Brewing Reality said that ethyl ethanoate can be found in lambic in high level due to two wild yeast strains. The other blackthorn and primrose smell ok if less distinct.


The more vigourous blackthorn flask

Manic springtime

I returned home from a week away to balmy temperatures and spring in full swing. Driving back from the airport, the hedgerows were flush with new green leaf, the white of blackthorn and cherry and the yellow of primrose and daffodil. At home brambles on the track were coming thick and fast, the grass was needing a cut, and saplings are coming up in the lawn where the chickens had scraped a bare patch last year. Common dog violet have come up near the house in increasing numbers which are a delight.


The garden will have to wait as I had brewing to do and mirroring natures activity outside it was a manic rush to get everything done. I completed my first double brew day, which was about 13 hours from start to finish. With only one set of equipment I overlapped the second mash with the first boil. A friend had asked me to brew for his wedding. I brewed a Vienna lager for him a month ago that is lagering in a fridge. This weekend I also brewed a light American pale ale, full of body and hoppiness but only 3.9% ABV in the style of Weird Beard Little Things That Kill. The second beer brew of the day was the base beer for the first set of funky flowers (gorse and catkins), which followed a saison recipe I had used before but with Vienna malt replacing Munich malt and a touch of Cara Munich added. Finally, if two brews in one day wasn’t enough, I bottled the wild portion of the meadowsweet saison that has been slowly bubbling for six months. (Note to self: check the size of the crown caps before you fill the bottles!…)

I had already had a sniff of the wild flower yeasts, which had been stepped up in a starter for two weeks, and decided to use just one of the two gorse flasks and ditch the two catkins. The most promising gorse flask smelt of pear drop, strawberry and coconut. The pH was 2.9. I gingerly tasted a small amount which tasted clean and sweet (not fully attenuated). I swirled and poured the flask contents, still containing gorse flowers, through a muslin into a 5litre demijohn of the base beer.  Next time I might step up the starter again to an intermediate OG rather than jumping from 1.035 to 1.060 (any comments on this?). As there didn’t seem to be much sediment I only inoculated the single batch and fermented the remaining 15litres with White Labs WLP 565 Belgian Saison I. I intend to “dry hop” 5litres of this with a heap of wild flowers in the secondary and see if I can get a secondary fermentation akin to the meadowsweet saison. Maybe I’m wrong on this, and overly confident after my initial successes, but this seems like a less risky way to introduce wild cultures as the fermented beer will protect itself from some beer spoiling nasties.

The second gorse was interesting. Similar to the first but also smelt like hospitals, with a sanitary, alcohol aroma. After swirling I t also reminded me of lambic. There was a big floating platform just below the surface. White, unblemished, and not furry, I’m tempted to say it was a pellicle rather than mould but it didn’t match any of the pictures on Milk the Funk’s excellent site. See photo. Any suggestions? I have strained the flask contents into a jar with some more wort for further inspection in the coming weeks.

The catkin flasks, which had been the most active, smelt of sweat and, as my wife’s experienced nose spotted, the nappy of a teething baby – acid nappy! It “singed the nostrils” as Ron Burgandy would say. Unsurprisingly this was dumped, and with the kitchen stinking I went outside into the cool night air to clear my lungs.

The blackthorn and primrose were ready to step up to conical flasks after two weeks in centrifuge tubes. I was excited about the blackthorn which had fizzed and given off aromas of spicy saison and cherry from the tube a week or so ago. When opened, three of the tubes smelt this way, plus a bit of nail polish. Two of these had a distinctive bubbly pellicle on top. The other three were woodier, earthy but not unpleasant. These were poured into two separate flasks with 250ml of aerated wort at SG 1.035.

The primrose were more neutral smelling. Some had a small beard of mould where the flowers were above the surface, which I removed. When shaken, two smelt earthier and funkier and three smelt sweet. These were added to separate flasks. Another smelling slightly of nappy and another smelling of cabbage were discarded.