What's Brewing at CBC
There’s a secret spot just a few miles outside Cambridge. You can’t see it from the winding road, though you can often hear the muffled sound of cars going by, or the voices of the lycra-clad bicyclists pedaling through. Even if you could see it clearly from the road, it’s still not a spot you’d likely be willing to descend into. It’s swampy and wet and full of brush and bushes and way too much skunk cabbage. Almost impassable.
The thing about bogs, though, is that once you pull on your Wellies and start mucking about, you find that they’re very cool places. Space opens up and you can make out walkable, drier areas (or at least spots where one doesn’t sink deeper than the tops of one’s Wellies).*
* Please note that none of these pictures are actually of my bog, they’re just assorted pictures from other bogs which I’ve appropriated. I wouldn’t want to give away its secret location, you know?
Not only is bog a fun word to say, people have been doing fun and weird things in bogs for a long time. Take, for example, bog snorkelling. This is a strange pastime taken up by strange people which involves digging a watery trench in a muddy peat bog, and then swimming the length of it, often competitively. Note that no bog snorkelling in my little bog has taken place to my knowledge.
A more macabre experience can be had in one’s bog, if one if sufficiently unlucky enough to come across a bog body. These are naturally preserved human corpses, found in sphagnum bogs in Northern Europe. Their skin and internal organs are naturally preserved due to acidic water, cold temperatures, and lack of oxygen. The bones, frightfully, are sometimes dissolved leaving a perfectly preserved, if somewhat leathery, dead person.
I’m quite thankful that I have yet to turn up any bog people. No sphagnum in my bog. Whew!
Back to the bog, though, and if you’ve persisted in reading what is to date my strangest blog post we’ll finally get to the part about beer!
With some perspective and imagination, you can put yourself in the Wellies of brewers hundreds, even thousands of years ago. It was in wetlands throughout the Northern Hemisphere that brewers would, when not snorkeling or engaging in human sacrifice and aquatic burial practices, forage for herbs to use in the production of beer. This is long before the hop plant became the dominant herb used in beer brewing. Beer was flavored with a wide variety of plants which not only complemented the flavors of malted grains and perhaps covered up wild fermentation characteristics, but these herbs were known medicinally as being bacteriostatic. In other words, they’d help keep the beer from spoiling.
Herbs such as Myrica gale(sweet gale), Ledum palustre(wild lavender), and Achillea millefolium (yarrow) made up a commonly-used mixture known as gruit which was used to add the above-mentioned bitterness and flavor and “keeping power” to beer. They were found in the woods, by the roadside, and quite commonly in wetland areas. Myrica gale in particular, hence its more common name of bog myrtle. Which brings us back into my little secret spot, my own private bog. It’s here, on property owned by a good friend, that I’ve reclaimed some of the wetlands that’ve been overrun by invasive species and instead planted some indigenous herbs suitable for brewing. Sweet gale (aka Bog myrtle), Labrador tea, wild rosemary, and on the drier spots some yarrow and a few heather plants. When I first strolled, er, mucked my way through the bog, I found it was overrun with Symplocarpus foetidus. Boy is that skunk cabbage aptly named. I’m not taking responsibility for that stuff.
While this private bog won’t produce quite enough of these and other herbs to make CBC completely self-sufficient in the production of herbs for our gruit beers (like Weekapaug Gruit and our famous Heather Ale), they go a long way. The rest I still need to forage for elsewhere or purchase from herb suppliers around the U.S.
This past summer I was paid a visit by Lina Winge, a photojournalist from Norway who wanted to shoot at CBC. When I told her that we were headed not into the brewery that day, but out into a bog to pick leaves, she happily agreed to come along. My kind of girl. Accompanied by her beau, Barrett, and former CBC Lead Brewster Megan Parisi, we booted up and then waded and wobbled our way off the road and into the bog, hopping from toadstool to toadstool until we reached the small clearing where the sweet gale/bog myrtle plants were. They’d done magnificently, bushing out and growing to four or five feet tall. You should have seen the small, scraggly things when, two years earlier, I’d pulled them from their little one-gallon buckets of dirt and plonked them into the bog.
I’m so proud of them!
Many hours and only a few blisters later we had bucket after bucket of fresh sweet gale, but this mild herb really shines only after it’s been dried. It can be characterized as having a mild spiciness with an underlying eucalyptus note, not dissimilar to that of bayberry (to which it is a cousin, I believe). Upon our return to CBC and a brief lunch, we set about figuring out how to dry it all. We came up with - a very large cardboard box. Several head scratches later we also came up with a few square meters of nylon mesh, some packing tape, and a box fan. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with the simplest of ingredients.
Blowing the fan into one end of the box, which was rotated multiple times over two days, gave us sufficient airflow to dry the leaves and avoid them getting moldy. All told, four people toiling for the better part of a day in a muddy bog yielded barely over two pounds of dried sweet gale. It also yielded a significant perspective into the efforts required by brewers in past centuries, and hopefully dear reader will further your appreciation as well. Once gathered, the herbs are added to the boiling wort in the brewkettle, much like any hop addition to contribute bitterness, flavor, and aroma to the finished beer.
Sometime this winter we’ll be brewing our next batch of Weekapaug Gruit, which will utilize all of this sweet gale plus Labrador tea, wild licorice and marshmallow, sweet flag, and yarrow. In the summertime, after yet another foraging trip, we’ll brew and release our award-winning Heather Ale. These beers will be available on draft at CBC and in 22oz bottles around Massachusetts in 2012 as a part of our new CBC Bottling Project (ah, there’s a good topic for another blog entry!).
Thanks for reading. Cheers!