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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Foraged Food Friday: Hops

I found some! We were staying in the Cotswolds at the beginning of September and whilst Ian was talking to people about cars, I went for a foraging walk and found lots of lovely things, including magnificent hop bines growing in the hedgerow. Sadly, I don't have any photos. I took some, I'm sure, but can't find them now. This is the danger of borrowing someone else's camera - that person may not check whether you've saved all your photos before clearing the memory card. So, a photo-free post, disappointingly.

It's the flower of the hop plant that's used in brewing (I've gone for the obvious use this time), also known as a cone. It's similar to a pine cone, but very light and papery. Since I also had quite a lot of fruit to process, I didn't want to start the beer straight away, so I spread the hops out to dry. This had the added advantage of converting them into a standard ingredient; dried hops can be bought from home-brew stores and appear in recipes. Yes, I thought I'd actually look at a recipe!

I thought that using hops, it would be easy enough to look up how to use them, and how much. It turned out to be not quite that simple. People who brew beer and share information online about their recipes do not simply use hops. Oh no, it's all about the varieties, and each recipe called for several. Neither do they simply use malt extract - similar complications are included for that ingredient. There's a lot of heating to specific temperatures, for specific durations, with the various ingredients being added at different times during the process. What these recipes do not tend to specify is the total quantity of beer they're making. The simple information I sought - weight of dried hops per gallon of beer - was not easy to find.

Eventually I concluded that the usual amount of hops is between half and two ounces per gallon (British gallon I hope, but I'm not sure I checked). Have you any idea how much a dried hop cone weighs? No, I don't have clinical-grade scales, either. Half an ounce is a lot of hops. I thought I'd picked plenty for multiple brewing experiments, but in fact the one ounce I needed for my two-gallon batch was most of what I'd picked. Of course I ignored pretty much all other aspects of the standard recipes as well, such as boiling the malt with the hops in it, and stuck to my own method, i.e. I treated the sugars and flavourings separately.

As in my heather ale recipe I used two 370g jars of malt extract and 350g sugar for two gallons of beer. Since the hops are serving two purposes, bitter and aromatics, I divided my ounce in half and steeped one half in hot water for half an hour to extract the aromatics, meanwhile boiling the other half for bitters, then after straining the water from both into the bucket, boiled the whole lot together for another hour. Water topped up to two gallons, yeast added (from blackberry wine, I think), then the bucket was left alone for a few days. At this point I tasted it... eugh! That was way too bitter!

Since the quantity of hops I used was right at the bottom of the range I found in online recipes, the reason for the bitterness can't have been too many hops. It could be that I don't like such bitter ales as other people, but I think that's fairly unlikely - I drink a lot of beer. It's possible that the wild hops I found happened to be very bitter but again, that seems fairly unlikely to me. More plausible, I think, is the possibility that something about my unusual method made the difference. I think it's very likely that boiling the hops in plain water, rather than malty water, would extract more flavour. The point is to transfer flavour compounds from the hops to the water - to dissolve them. If the water already has a lot of sugar (malt extract) dissolved in it, then it will have less capacity to dissolve anything else.

The excess bitterness was easily solved with dilution. I made up another two gallons of sugar and malt extract solution, and steeped the rest of my hops - probably about a quarter of an ounce - in hot water to top up the aromatics. I then mixed the whole lot together in a bigger bucket and left for a few more days. This meant that the total time from start to bottling was probably about ten days. After bottling, it was only a week or two (sorry, my notes aren't so good on the leaving it alone parts of the process) before it looked clear and ready to drink.

I'm so glad I made a double batch of this beer - it was excellent! It's a fairly light, crisp, beer but there's plenty of body to it. I know I could make a darker beer by boiling the malt (or adding a little treacle) but I'm not sure I'll bother. This is really good! Now all I have to do is find a more local source of hops.

Also harvesting this week
Navelwort
Celandine leaves
Ground elder (the first tiny leaves are poking through. It's spring!)
Mustard leaves
Parsnips
Oak moss (lichen - who'd have thought that'd be edible?!)

Also eating
Sloes pretending to be olives
Sloes and elderberries puree (in sloe tart - one of my more successful baking experiments)
Rosehip vinegar (I'll tell you about this shortly)
Lactofermented French beans
Pickled samphire (have I already said that chestnut biscuits topped with mascarpone cheese and pickled samphire is just about the most divine food on earth? If so, sorry, but it bears saying again.)

Also drinking
Sloe wine
Honeysuckle ale
Blackberry wine

Foraged food challenge summary page here.

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