Nettle beer has been a popular country drink for centuries. There are two basic recipe types – with malt, and without – so here are good examples of each, kept simple for beginners. This is the first home brew of spring made from fresh ingredients, and a welcome reminder that warm weather is on the way.
You need quite large quantities of nettles to make nettle beer, but thankfully they’re a common weed so there is never any shortage of them. They become bitter when they’re well established, so for the best taste pick only the young tips – just two sets of leaves and the growing point. There’s no need to remove the stalks. The nettles should be gathered in the middle of spring, just as the weather warms up, wearing rubber gloves to prevent stings. Because weighing them is difficult (if not downright hazardous) I’ve stuck to the common measure of quantity – the plastic carrier bag full.
Technically this brew isn’t a beer at all (because there’s no malt in it), but it’s very easy to make and thus more popular than the malted version. The result is a crisp-tasting light green brew not unlike cider, best served cold, that is ready to drink in just a couple of weeks. I like to add a little root ginger to bring out the flavour, but it isn’t essential.
To make one gallon (4.5L) of nettle beer:
Put the nettle tips into a large saucepan along with the root ginger and the juice and grated rind of the lemon. Pour over 7 pints (4 litres) of water, and bring it to the boil. Simmer the liquid for about 30 minutes, and then leave it until it is cool enough to handle. Strain off the nettles – a straining bag is good for this but you can just lift out most of the leaves with tongs and then pour it through a colander if you prefer.
Add the sugar and cream of tartar to the liquid and heat it gently, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved. Pour it into a sterilised brew bin or clean, food grade plastic tub, top it up to one gallon (4.5L) with cold water. Leave it until it has cooled down to around 20°C before adding the yeast. Some yeasts have to be ‘activated’ in sugar water beforehand, but some can just be scattered on the surface of the brew. The instructions should be on the pack.
Stand the brew in a warm place for three or four days to get going, and then skim off any froth before pouring it into sterilised bottles, as described in our elderflower champagne recipe. Keep an eye on the pressure, and your nettle beer should be ready to drink in as little as seven days – just chill it when you think the sweetness is about right.
A bit messier to make than the unmalted version, and amber rather than green in the glass. The taste is warm, rounded and malty with a fine nettle finish and distinctive herby aroma. Once again, best served cold. By the way you can use ordinary malt extract which is available from health stores and high street pharmacies, but make sure you buy the one without cod liver oil. If you like the brew and decide to scale up, it’s well worth buying brewing malt extracts, which have a superior flavour.
To make one gallon (4.5L) of nettle beer:
Put the nettle tips into a large saucepan. Pour over 6 pints (3.5 litres) of water, and bring it to the boil. Simmer the liquid for about 30 minutes, and then leave it until it is cool enough to handle. Strain off the nettles using a straining bag or colander.
Add the sugar and malt extract, using a pint (500ml) of boiling water to get the last of the malt out of the jar, a little at a time so you don’t crack the glass. Warm the liquid gently, stirring all the time, until the malt extract and sugar have completely dissolved. Pour into a sterilised food grade plastic tub, brew bin or other suitable container, and top it up to one gallon (4.5L) with cold water. Let it cool down to around 20°C before adding the yeast, following the instructions on the pack.
Stand the brew in a warm place for a few days for the fermentation to get started, then skim off any froth. Pour the liquid into sterilised bottles, as described in our elderflower champagne recipe. Remember to avoid letting too much pressure build up. Your nettle beer should be ready to drink in as little as seven days – you can allow it to ferment for as long as you like, but if it starts to become too dry then chill it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to drink it.
These days almost all beers are flavoured with hops, but you might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always so. In fact, hopped beer has only been popular in the UK for the last five hundred years – less than a quarter of the time that we’ve been brewing. Before hops took hold, beers were flavoured with herb mixes known as ‘gruit’ which could contain any number of things, including bog myrtle, mugwort, heather, ground ivy and henbane. The Celts may have used nettles for making nettle beer as far back as the Bronze Age but there’s no way to know, since they didn’t keep written records!