Brewing with Heather – Time to Experiment

Today we have a short article about brewing with heather. There is a long history of using heather in beer. For example in Scotland during the 1700’s ferns and heather were used when brewing.

Hops aren’t native to Scotland and were only available for import from the 1800’s onwards. So local brewers used heather to bitter Scottish beers.

Heather (Calluna vulgaris) grows widely across Scotland. The purple flowers are part of Scottish heritage with poems and songs written about this versatile plant.

Brewing with Heather
Heather growing in the wilds of Scotland

We all Know about Hops and Beer

We all know that hops as one of the main ingredients in beer. Brewers use hops as they deliver a high amount of bitterness (mostly in the form of iso-alpha acids) per unit of plant material.

Hops also have wonderful aromas that brewers like in their beers. The qualities required by brewers from hops have been artificially bred into selected plants by hop growers for centuries.

When brewers use plants other than hops to brew; they will need more plant material to get an equivalent of bitterness. The issue is that using too much of these other plants can lead to unwelcome astringency.

That’s why we recommend using any plant like heather as a complement to hops when brewing. Using heather as a complement leads to an engaging beer with heather aroma but without an astringent taste.

You will end up with a beer that is recognizable as a proper modern brew with a heather character. Rather than something too funky and undrinkable or more like gruit than beer.

Brewing with Herbs
Beer is to be enjoyed

How to Brew with Heather

Heather is associated with Scotland therefore it makes sense to brew a Scottish ale when using heather in your beer.

So anything from a Scottish 60/ to a wee heavy is a good choice. Although a light lager could be interesting to let the heather aroma shine. If you choose to brew a lager; the amount of heather used should be tempered.

When brewing with heather add a bit of heather into the formulation. Scottish ales as not bitter as a rule. Which means if heather adds only a little bitterness you still enjoy the aroma of the heather. Whilst the hops supply the majority of the bitterness.

Using the Tips

When brewing with heather use only the growing tips. The tips have young, tender leaves and flowers.

You can find dried heather and heather tips online. This is ideal as it means all other plant material such as stems have been removed so it is ready to brew with.

If you do want to use some of the heather stem you will most likely get a hint of tannic astringency. If used in small quantities this astringency isn’t necessarily a bad thing; especially in something like a wee heavy.

However use too much and your beer will be too astringent to the point of being undrinkable.

There are two ways to brew with heather. The first is to use them like you would use hops in the boil. The other is “dry-hop” during the final stages of fermentation.

Brewing with Heather – Add into the Boil

The best way is to employ heather is to use like late addition hops during a normal brew day. It will lead to a higher chance of success with your brew.

We recommend using 80-95% of the hops you’d normally use when formulating a recipe. Using heather tips to make up the remaining bitterness. Estimate that the dried heather will give 0.5-1.0% alpha acid.

Beer

You will add the heather as you would flameout hops (after the boil has finished) but when the wort is still hot. Smell the heather and gauge its intensity versus a similar amount if hops,

As a rule shoot for a maximum of 500g of heather tips per 100L (1HL) of beer. At this high rate you will most likely add some noticeable astringency to your beer. Note this is just a guide because bitterness and aroma can vary from plant to plant.

Brewing with Heather – “Dry Hopping” with Heather or Making an Extract

The other method is to effectively “dry hop” with the heather tips or make a alcohol extract with vodka (make sure it isn’t illegal to use the vodka method in your country).

The method for dry-hopping is the same as you would normally dry hop your beer. Adding to the beer 1-2 degrees above terminal gravity (rousing the beer is optional after the addition).

Leave the heather in the FV for 5 days maximum. Then cold crashing the beers and dumping from the bottom of your vessel at regular intervals. Allowing you to get rid of yeast and plant matter.

Man with beer making OK sign
It is OK to experiment when beer making

In Conclusion

Brewers use hops because they are the ideal plant to add bitterness and aroma without negatively impacting flavor with tannins and astringency.

Brewing with herbs like heather is always a welcome experiment if used as a supplement to the hops to add an unique twist.

In general there is no right or wrong way to brew beer as new trends are developed over time when brewers go out of their way to experiment.

People then copy their examples and bingo you’ve a new style of beer or a revival of an old genre. So go out experiment and brew with heather and see what you end up with.

If you do then please comment below on how it turned out. It would be interesting to hear results and share it with others.

If you have any questions then please contact us at Asian Beer Network or leave a comment below.

Neil Playfoot

Neil is a brewer with 25 years international brewing experience. Based out of China (first came in 2010) he works as a brewing consultant helping brewers with their projects and brewing processes. To find out what services Neil can provide your brewery please click here. If you'd like to contact Neil you can email at [email protected].
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