The Spoils of Wort: Chamomile Tasting

Awhile ago I made a fermenter out of one of those wine jugs and a universal bung which required a bit of shaving down to actually fit in the neck. Otherwise it works great and the test run was to start making experimental beers with it.

In this case, it was chamomile beer.

The recipe calls for ungodly amounts of table sugar for it’s fermentables. Unfortunately this recipe directly came about from Dune Coons landing in Europe in 800AD or so. They brought with them lemons, bitter orange, and sugarcane and cultivated it locally. By around 1200AD, europe was enjoying sugar at the rate of 16.5p per pound. At todays exchange rates, that’s about 25 cents for a pound of sugar. In other words it was cheap, really cheap. And why chamomile instead of hops? It might have been gruit, but no-one is really sure what gruit was. Unfortunately while sugar was cheap, gruit was pricey and irregular. Hops were restricted to the germanic kingdoms until 1400AD or so, and still didn’t come into common use and distribution until 1600AD or so.

What’s a brewer of lower class to do in the Middle Ages?

Ingredients:
Chamomile – 8oz
Lemon – juice of half added at bottling time
White sugar – 1lbs
Water – 1 gal
Wild yeast

This is based on a recipe from Sacredd and Herbal Healing Beers. It’s a flawed book (seriously, if modern medicine really sucked that bad it wouldn’t be the defacto standard today) but an interesting read. For wild yeast he suggests leaving the bucket open and outside, but I would much rather control that part of the process. Instead I used whole grain yeast from the market billed for making “whole grain bread rise quickly!” The fermentation nearly blew the airlock off.

A week in the primary and then racked to a pot for bottling, I added 1 tablespoon table-sugar for priming. I bottled it into a growler and two champaign bottles (it’ll make it easy to dump if it sucked) and let it sit for another week. I cracked one open last night and my first impression was…

Beer soda pop?

It’s not hard cider like woodchuck, but it is cidery. The lemon definitely comes through, but not like sprite. The chamomile lends it a tea like quality without the astringency. It’s really unique stuff. Would I make a 5 gallon batch of it? Absolutely.

Unfortunately it has one really deep flaw – the gravity is a bit low. 4oz of table sugar contributes 10pts of gravity (+0.010) @ one gallon. There’s two cups of sugar in one pound of sugar, so we’ve got 16oz of sugar in our wort. This gives us an OG of 1.040, which by modern beer standard is almost grocery store swill.

However, it’s really pleasant to drink, and the taste is good, even for using a bread yeast. (The bread yeast was surprisingly neutral). The chamomile effect is largely overrated, probably because it’s so diffuse it comes out much more in the aroma and taste but not nearly at sufficient concentration to be intoxicating like tea. Rather then being drunk, you’re relaxed, but it’s not the same feel as alcohol.

All in all I would brew this again, but I think next time I’m doubling the ingredients.

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