Beer thyme

Herbs make their comeback

By Jim Witmer

Quick, name the four main ingredients in beer.

Barley, yeast, water and … dandelion?

Of course most of us know hops are one of the four main ingredients, but today in craft beer it seems like anything goes. Like chefs wanting to add a unique flavor to a dish, today’s experimental brewers are going back to the garden for ingredients and in doing so are following beer’s historic roots.

While hops are usually the herb of choice for most beers, that wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages when brewers used a variety of herbs and flowers to add flavor and bitterness to what was known as “gruit” instead of beer. Many documented sources mention dandelion and burdock (two of the peskiest weeds I pull out of the lawn) as well as sweet gale, sage, yarrow, wormwood and pine resin.

Herbs eventually lost favor to hops, whose antibacterial qualities prevented spoilage. Once hops became mainstream, the German government went so far as to impose the Reinheitsgebot Purity Law, so only hops could be used in brewing. Those centuries-old restrictions have thwarted German brewers from the sort of experimentation taking place now at breweries in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

Now that spring is here, the thought of a lush garden is something to look forward to as well as beers made with herbs. This category is gaining in popularity and is a creative alternative to the commonly found flavors in beer. The best examples are ones where maltiness is restrained and hop character is minimal to allow the herbs to shine.

Locally, Fifth Street brewer Darren Link has previously used dandelion greens in a saison, and has now developed a regular brewing schedule of Herbivore Ales that begins in April and runs through the summer. No. 1 is an American Pale Ale-style with honey and basil and No. 2 is an American Wheat with Lemongrass and ginger. No. 3 is a Belgian Pale with sage and No. 4 will be a Belgian Wit-style with an ingredient that is in the planning stages. At some point this summer, all will all be available together in the taproom. To preserve the freshness and character of the herbs, Links says he adds them at the end of the boil and lets them steep to lock in the aromas.

Warped Wing uses chamomile as well as other spices in their best selling beer Ermal’s, and that is a year-round production.

There are other commercially available herb beers of note to be found on the shelves a local supplier, such as Belmont Party Supply.

For instance, heather is one of the ancient ingredients, so it was nice to see modern interpretations. Froach is one that has been on the market for many years imported from the MacLays Brewery in Alloa, Scotland.

A segment of the commercial description says, “Brewed in Scotland since 2000 B.C. heather ale is probably the oldest style of ale still produced in the world. From an ancient Gaelic recipe for ‘leann fraoich’ [heather ale] it has been revived and reintroduced to the Scottish culture. Into the boiling bree of malted barley, sweet gale and flowering heather are added, then after cooling slightly, the hot ale is poured into a vat of fresh heather flowers where it infuses for an hour before being fermented.”

An American version of heather ale is available from Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts and features hand-picked fresh heather flowers. Snippets of their description say, “Brewed with imported Scottish floor-malted barley, fresh hand-harvested heather flowers are added to the kettle during the boil along with sweet gale and lavender, with a further addition of fresh heather and yarrow to the conditioning tanks. The aroma and flavor are a surprising jog of ancient memory, with commingling subtle notes of heather and honey and an obscure wildflower spiciness, complemented by the interplay of soft but assertive, toasty-sweet malt.”

Saison Du Buff is a collaboration beer that uses parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme in a 6.8% ABV Saison. Brewed three times at breweries Dogfish Head, Victory, and Stone, each brewery uses the same recipe. Stone Brewing Co. is doing the 2016 release using herbs from it’s own farm.

SpontanBasil is a unique collaboration between the breweries Lindemans (Belgium) and Mikkeller (Denmark) and is very limited in quantity.

At the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver last September the herb and spice category brought in 142 beers for competition, just behind the 149 entries in the coffee beer category, which was the seventh most popular. Given its growing enthusiasm, next year it may just move up a notch or two.

Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at

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Jim Witmer
Reach DCP beer writer Jim Witmer at

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