Hello True Gristers,
I have been meaning to get this written up for a while but never got around to it. My initial plan was to have this ready for early spring before plants started to poke out of the ground but life got busy.
Here in South Western Ontario we have access to an enormous amount of non-cultivated produce ready and waiting to be enjoyed. Fruits, veggies, herbs and spices. You just need to know where and what to look for. I am going to cover a few different plants that are easily accessible in our area that should be easy for even the most novice of forager.
First on the list is spruce tips. Although the season has since past they still deserve a mention. These flavor packed evergreen can be used in both late and early boil additions as well as dry hop. White spruce is the most common species in our area. Depending on where you are looking you can also find Black, Red and Blue Spruce. New spring growth on spruce trees is edible and chock-full of vitamin C. So if you are plagued by scurvy, spruce tip tea should be your go-to cure. They are generally ready to be harvested from late April to early May. They should be harvested just after their protective paper-like sheath falls off. Their colour is much lighter than the old growth so you cannot miss them.
When harvesting there are some things to consider. If you pick the new growth off a branch that branch will no longer generate new growth the following year. So when picking, try to pick the from the uppermost branches that you can reach to ensure a continuing supply over many seasons. Visiting multiple trees is another good way to ensure the longevity of your source.
As for berries in our neck of the woods, we have a few to choose from and some are easier to find than others. Mulberries are everywhere. Chances are that someone on your street has a tree that you can raid (with permission of course). There are also a bunch of trees on public land throughout KW as they are used as an ornamental tree. The small purple and red berries are comparable to a less sweet blueberry and look similar to a blackberry. They are in season from late June to mid July. I lay a tarp or blanket under the tree and give it a shake. Any ripe fruit will just fall off the tree. It is a lot easier than picking.
Sumac is yet another plant that can be harvested for brewing and it is everywhere The variety we have in Ontario is the staghorn sumac. It is one of the first trees to grow when earth is disturbed. You can often find it on the roadside or at the outside edge of wooded areas. The stag horn is the part of the tree you want for brewing. In late July early August the horn will start to get a little sticky; this is when it is time to harvest. Take off one or two of the seeds and taste it. It should be very tart. If it tastes bland move on to the next horn. To make your life easy just cut off the whole horn. At this point you can steep the whole horn in hot water to make a tea or you can dry the horns and take off the seed. Once the seeds are off you can use a steel mesh strainer to remove the red fibers by using the mesh as an abrasive. The red fibers are the part you want. This tart plant goes well in a pale ale, gruit or maybe even a sour. Use sparingly as it can overpower your brew quickly.
The next two plants are a bit on the riskier side of foraging if you don’t know what you are doing. I recommend that if you are unsure about any plant leave it alone.
Wild grapes are awesome. I love them for more than just beer. They make the best grape jelly hands down. When it comes to foraging them, one has to be careful they are not picking Canadian moonseed or Virginia Creeper. Moonseed and Virginia Creeper are toxic and they can sometimes grown right next to wild grapes. The fruit looks almost identical from the outside but pop out of the seed and they are easy to identify. Moonseed has a crescent moon shaped seed and grapes have an oversized looking grape seed. Grape vines and Creeper vines have tendrils whereas moonseed do not. I recommend studying the leaf patterns of all three plants before you go hunting for them. These grapes are not as sweet and regular grapes. They can be quite tart. They go great in pale beers but I could see them working well in an imperial stout. These are ready late August going into September.
The last potentially problematic fruit on the list is elderberries. They also go by the name English Grape. They have been used as an alternative to grapes in wine making due to their high levels of tannins. The only real problem with this fruit is that everything on the tree aside from the berry is toxic. So proper destemming and cleaning of the fruit is key. Other than that they are easy to identify by their clustered berry formations. They are nice and sweet and usually ready to pick in September. Elderberry pie is awesome if you don’t want to commit to them in your brew. I have used them in both pale and dark beers.
Finally, the last thing I wanted to cover was juniper. This can be tricky to find in our area but if you don’t want to buy the berries in the store, picking them in october before the first frost is the way to go. They can be used mainly as a bittering agent. They add a nice pine-like resiny note to beer that is just fantastic. Ale-X pale ale at TWB is proof of how delicious they can be. I suggest you wear long sleeves and gloves if you are going to pick them yourself as this plant is sharp.
A recommendation for those who are interested or just starting out foraging is to get the free app PlantSnap. This can help identify some plants. It’s not perfect but it is a good resource. Northern bush craft also has a complete list of edible plants in Ontario that is very helpful. Once again, if you are not sure about a plant DO NOT test it by putting it in your mouth.
Cheers and good hunting.