On the wild side

Whether it's for taste, health or eco reasons, we discover why the art of foraging for booze ingredients is a growing trend

Words by Nick Moyle of Two Thirsty Gardeners
Photography by Ed Schofield

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Foraging is all the rage these days. Many of the country’s hippest restaurants and cafés are paying foragers top dollar for ingredients sourced from local land. It’s not just chefs who are keen to show off their dedication to all things local though. Wine makers may be reluctant to look beyond the grape, but other drinks producers, led by gin distillers and brewers, are on the hunt for ever more unusual ingredients with which to pep-up their products. 

The forager
Foraging expert Andy Hamilton is well placed to explain the current craze for foraged ingredients – the Bristol-based author has written several books on the subject and even conducts ‘gin safaris’ within the region to point people in the way of the ingredients growing in their natural habitat. Somewhat aptly, we met Andy at Bath’s Canary Gin Bar to find out why he thinks drinks makers are embracing their wild side.

“There’s been a whole generation that has enjoyed good food – and now drinks are improving too. When I was growing up, an avocado was seen as exotic, but to this generation, they’re about as exotic as driving a Japanese car,” Andy tells us. Foraging, he believes, is a natural way of seeking out new flavours to replace those imports that were once so unfamiliar and also “a reaction against huge multinational companies taking over.” “Using foraged ingredients,” he says, “is a great sign of the ingenuity and creativity of human beings.”

As to why gin and beer producers are at the forefront of foraging for flavour, Andy has a simple explanation: “Gin and beer are in our blood – in more ways than one – they are part of our cultural DNA.” If we are naturally disposed to get creative with gin and beer, there’s also a more scientific explanation as to why many foraged ingredients can improve those drink’s qualities, and that’s down to the bitterness that many of them possess. As Andy explains: “Try adding bitter to something sweet and it will be long, lingering and satisfying rather than short lived and disappointing. When you are brewing a beer or making a cocktail or spirit then you want the last taste to linger, you want the drinker to have what I call a “taste memory”. This then triggers something that has them coming back for more.”

Gin genius

In Widcombe, Sue Mullett is the owner of Bath Botanics, a small shop and distillery producing gins, fruit gins and herbal elixirs – it was these elixirs that first got her excited about the opportunities for producing alcoholic drinks. A former gardener with a love of plants, she went back to university to study for a degree in herbal medicine before putting it to good use by making prescribed tinctures, many of which featured bitter flavours. In order for them to work, people needed to take them over a long period of time, which became something of a challenge in our sweet-toothed society. “Sweet is not good” she tells me “people have lost the ability to enjoy bitter things.”

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So instead she decided to use these functional ingredients in something more palatable and began distilling gin. Among the products in her shop are an elixir made from echinacea (a plant used to boost the immune system) and a delicious ‘winter warmer’, which is made from a combination of her No.1 Gin and elderberry syrup.

No.1 Gin is made with nine botanicals that include juniper, coriander and angelica seed, and also contains the less familiar lime flower, which Sue again appreciates for its medicinal properties. “It’s considered to be a natural relaxant. In most French cafés you’ll find a tea called ‘tilleul’, which is made from lime flowers. Mine come from a big old lime tree near where I live. I pick and freeze as many as I can in June.”

Besides the goodness contained in these wild plants, Sue also points to another important consideration for using naturally sourced ingredients – whether foraged or bought – and that’s to ensure they’re free from chemicals. “As part of the distillation or infusing process, any chemicals will be extracted and concentrated in alcohol.” As is often the case, nature knows best.

 
 Master mixologist Sue Mullett is the owner of Bath Botanical Gin Distillery

Master mixologist Sue Mullett is the owner of Bath Botanical Gin Distillery

 
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Women were often the brewers and would pick what was available locally, so that might include nettles, yarrow, mugwort, heather, mint and bog myrtle, and even honey and fruit.
 

Ye olde ale

As even the most basic gin is a distillation of various botanical ingredients, flavouring it with foraged additions is a perfectly natural exercise, but using wild flavours in beer might seem a bit more extreme. However, long before hops became the bittering and flavouring ingredient of choice, a whole array of wild plants were used in a medieval-style ale known as ‘gruit’. 

David McQueen is one of the few people in the country who brews a gruit-style ale on a regular basis, producing ‘Stone Angel’ at Bradford-on-Avon’s Kettlesmith Brewery, and is the perfect person to elaborate a little more on the style. “The ingredients of gruit could vary enormously depending on region, availability and personal taste of the brewer. It’s important to remember that in medieval times bread and ale made up around 80% of poor people’s calorie intake. Many, if not most, households might be brewing or fermenting some kind of ale or cider because water was dangerous to drink. Women were often the brewers and would pick what was available locally, so that might include nettles, yarrow, mugwort, heather, mint and bog myrtle, and even honey and fruit.”

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This ale would’ve tasted considerably different to contemporary beers. “In reality much medieval ale would have probably tasted very flat and sour or at least extremely odd to a modern palate – almost like a cider. It is a really, really acquired taste.”

To offset this strangeness and make it more appealing to our modern palates, David adds some hops (“a much lower amount than traditional ‘real ale’”), and describes Stone Angel as “closer to the Belgian Trappist beers but without the absurd strength. Like the Trappist beers, which are also brewed in the gruit tradition but have hops, we are very careful in balancing the flavours.”

Those flavours come from ingredients that include honey, yarrow, broom, heather, hyssop, bog myrtle, mint, sage, dandelion, rosemary and coriander. “This makes the taste very complex and subtle. If you can taste one ingredient then we probably have too much of that in it.”

Have-a-go heroes

With the current brewing scene going through a golden age – there are currently over 2,000 breweries in the UK – producers are increasingly turning to unusual ingredients to enable their beers to stand out from the crowd. Innovators such as Shepton Mallet’s Wild Beer Co produce a huge range of beers using things found on foraging trips and, for many amateurs who aspire to be the next brewing stars, experimenting with these unusual adjuncts is no longer the frowned-upon deviation it once was.

For anyone interested in heading into the countryside for their own ingredients, David has some words of advice. “If foraging, pick relatively abundant plants like nettle, or borage, but be careful not to pick wild flowers and herbs that are scarce. And make sure you know what you are picking!” 

Freed from the shackles of the brewing and distillation conventions of the last century, there are now limitless opportunities to create something wildly unique, and the foraged-booze trend looks set to continue. As Andy Hamilton reminds us “we have turned ourselves onto taste and we can’t turn back.”

For more information on Bath Botanics pop into their shop on Prior Park Road, Widcombe, or visit bathbotanics.co.uk

For more information on Stone Angel visit stone-angel.com

To book one of Andy Hamilton’s ‘gin safaris’ visit his website at theotherandyhamilton.com

 
 Stone Angel is produced at Bradford-on-Avon’s Kettlesmith Brewery

Stone Angel is produced at Bradford-on-Avon’s Kettlesmith Brewery