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Nettle beer: celtic home brew for beginners

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.

Harvesting nettles

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.

unmalted nettle beer, a traditional home brew recipe

unmalted nettle beer

Nettle beer – unmalted version

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:

  • 1 carrier bag nearly full of nettle tips
  • 600g sugar
  • one lemon
  • 20g cream of tartar
  • a sachet of beer yeast
  • 10g root ginger, chopped and bruised (optional)

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.

Nettle beer – malted version

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.

malted nettle beer, a traditional home brew recipe

malted nettle beer

To make one gallon (4.5L) of nettle beer:

  • 1 carrier bag nearly full of nettle tips
  • 450g (1lb) malt extract
  • 225g (½lb) sugar
  • a sachet of beer yeast

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.

History of nettle beer

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!

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28 Responses to “Nettle beer: celtic home brew for beginners”

  1. alberta ross says:

    just wondering if you could hazard a guess/or indeed know – if one didnt have access to lemons and cream of tartar what could be substituted? I write a series on post climate change world – and trade between countries is gone – I know they could make alcohol hasnt mankind always – and I know nettles would be in abundnace that receipe sounds tasty – not sure how I would adapt it !

    • Andy McKee says:

      hi Alberta, if you’re talking about post climate change then it’s entirely possible that lemons or other citrus fruits could be grown here – otherwise it’s a short boat trip to France. Bitter oranges were imported to Britain almost continuously since the arrival of the Romans so there’s no reason to suppose it wouldn’t start again. If that doesn’t float your boat(!) you could produce citric acid by fermenting sugar using Aspergillus niger or substitute a ‘souring’ herb like sorrel.

      Tartar (potassium bitartrate) is a by-product of winemaking, and crystallises naturally out of grape juice when it gets cold.

  2. Jeanne says:

    Thanks Andy, my first batch this year and I try a new recipe past two years. Nettle tops came through late last year due to mild weather. I get them all year round almost, thanks to global warming I’m sure.

  3. john poynton says:

    my dad made nettle beer i remember its unique smell,he used dandylion flowers
    i do miss it, ive lived in thailand the last 17 years, they drink coke and all sorts of colored stuff , up here, thanks,.

  4. Francisca says:

    God, people talking about Global Warming and it is becoming colder and colder where we live in France. I wish their doom predictions would become real, to be honest…. so much cold, so much rain, so much wind…. we are fed up! And we were promised that it would become warmer…. sometimes I feel like people are joking! That said, I am trying another recipe but maybe next I will try this one! We use all nettle leaves in the soup and I don’t find them bitter…. All recipes are different so I suppose that the difficulty will be to find a really good one. When I tried to brew ginger beer I got so mixed up that I gave up! That said the only beer yeast I have seen here in France is the one you take in a tablet but I suppose you don’t mean that. The recipe I am trying out right now only says yeast so I used the same fresh yeast I use for my bread. Maybe it won’t work…. I will see!

  5. Francisca says:

    What type of malt extract do you use?

  6. Francisca says:

    Thanks Andy. I do have a jar of Malt Extract which I bought in the UK but my doubt concerns the type of yeast. Here in France I only know the tablets you buy in the health food stores which you take everyday but I am sure that you won’t mean that? In the meanwhile I made very good nettle beer using fresh bread yeast. Maybe not the right stuff but well, the beer was wonderful, a bit like cider.

  7. James says:

    Can you add a fruity flavour to it e.g. Raspberries or strawberries

    • Andy McKee says:

      I doubt the nettle flavour would blend well with fruit, and nettle leaves are ready in early spring where fruit is late summer so it’s not something I would rush to try. Let me know if you give it a go though!

  8. April says:

    Hi Andy. I want to try the malted recipe for my first go at this. I wanted to put the finished beer in corked bottles though. How do I go about watching the pressure if I want to do this? Can I leave it to ferment the entire time in the crock I have and then transfer to corked bottles? Or would that make it flat? Thanks so much for sharing your recipe.

    • Andy McKee says:

      Probably the best way is to let it sit until there is no visible fermentation, and then syphon it into bottles primed with a level teaspoon each of sugar. That should be about the right amount to give it some pressure without popping the bottles – but do make sure you use homebrew-strength bottles, not regular ones… they’re not as strong and the odd one may go bang!

  9. April says:

    Oh I forgot to ask this question in my last post….Can I double the recipe?

  10. Eva says:

    Is it essential to pour into bottles or could you use a demijohn?

    • Andy McKee says:

      You could use a brewing container (like a brewing bucket, or even a big saucepan with a snug lid) but you would need to move it to bottles near the end of fermentation so that you can capture enough gas to give it some fizz. Demijohns can also be a problem with some brands of malt because the brew can be vigorous and frothy, and with a narrow neck you can end up with froth everywhere. Personally I’d go for 2 litre plastic bottles, even if it meant buying some water to get them.

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