Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Foraged Staghorn Sumac Beer

My homebrewing frequency has taken a nosedive recently (surprise), but I still try to find time to brew a weird batch when I can. In August, when Scott and I drove to pick-up our first hop order in western Maryland, I noticed that Staghorn Sumac was in full bloom along I-270 . I’d read about flavoring beer with it in The Homebrewer’s Almanac, but never actually tasted a beer brewed with it. Sumac is tart and fruity, traditionally used in a tart lemonade-like beverage.

Staghorn Sumac "Berries"

I pulled over and harvested about a pound. The range I’d read was 1-5 lbs per 5 gallon batch. Without a beer ready for them, I took the clusters of dusty berries off of the central twig, vacuum sealed them, and froze. That was enough of an excuse to brew a batch of Berliner weisse (fermented with US-05 and Omega Lacto Blend - similar otherwise to this recipe). After primary fermentation I racked 1 gallon onto the resulting .75 lbs of sumac, and another onto .5 oz of dried Turkish sumac from Penzeys for a month. Obviously if the dried version is just as good, it certainly would be easier!

Me, harvesting sumac

Dried Turkish Sumac Berliner

Smell – Aroma is light, doughy-grain, lightly citrus and roasted pear. An odd note of cinnamon as well.

Appearance – Clear pale yellow. It’s almost so pale that yellow isn’t the right word, it looks washed out, faded. Retention isn’t great, but the tight, white head sticks around for much longer than the other half of the batch.

Taste – Bright acid without being obnoxious. The finish has an odd fall-spice note as in the nose that I suspect is from the sumac. Dry without being a desert.

Mouthfeel – Classic Berliner, light and spritzy.

Drinkability & Notes – The not-entirely-pleasant musty-herbal flavor the dried sumac provided when the beer was young seems to have mostly faded to a light spiciness. I’m not sure I’d even pick it out if I didn’t know it was in there.

Changes for Next Time – Maybe a different/fresher source of dried sumac would provide a better flavor and aroma?

Staghorn Sumac Berliner

Smell – Aroma has the generic fruitiness of Hawaiian Punch, or Hi-C, but with an herbal hint of a Ricola cough drop. I don’t get any of the base beer, at this elevated rate it is all sumac. Certainly in the same sort of flavor-family as hibiscus.

Appearance – To go along with the aroma, it has the color of Hawaiian Punch. Similar head retention too…

Taste – The same fruit flavor from the nose, but more pronounced cherry candy. It’s a really fun flavor, that doesn’t stray into cloying. Acidity is snappy, sort of Vitamin-C, quick and punchy. No sweetness, finally breaks the comparison to "fruit" beverages.

Mouthfeel – Light, medium+ carbonation, but not excessively thin or harsh.

Drinkability & Notes – Staghorn sumac is a foraged ingredient that has a real chance for broader appeal. The flavor is fun, quenching, and somewhat familiar. The color certainly doesn’t hurt either. With how much it took, a mild base beer like this makes the most sense.

Changes for Next Time – I was sort of hoping this one wouldn’t be delicious so that I didn’t have to source a couple hundred pounds to put into a beer next summer. Likely could drop down closer to .5 lbs/gallon for a more balanced beer, but it is delicious as is!

I’m hopeful I can get this formula approved by the TTB for Sapwood, as there are already a few commercial beers from the likes Sumac Sour from Four Quarters, Backroads from Suarez Family, and of course several sours and saisons from Scratch. That said, it seems like they are clamping down as I had both acorns and Eastern Red Cedar rejected already. I’ve had several brewers tell me that the step isn’t necessary unless you are getting label approval (not true) or that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission…

I'll be making the trip down to Asheville, NC March 22-23 for another round of BYO Boot Camps! As usual I'll be talking about Wood/Barrels one day and Sour Beers the other. I said it before, but this really is looking like the last one of these for me given how much time running a brewery takes!


James said...

Sorry about the TTB, but I think it's good that you're doing the right thing. And I look down on any brewer who thinks the rules don't apply to him/her. Here is a blog post by Stan Hieronymus that shows the value of TTB review (do a ctrl-f for "ginger"):

(Also Hieronymus makes the same point you do, that label approval and formula approval are not the same thing.)

That said, I don't understand why the TTB objects to Eastern Red Cedar. The TTB has already blessed the use of chips/staves/etc. made of any type of wood the brewer wants during beer storage. (See "Processes Determined to be Traditional" at the bottom of Exhibit 1 to Ruling 2015-1.) I suppose the cedar needles could have something in them, but people have been using juniper for centuries with no noticeable ill effects.

I hope they are more reasonable when they reopen.

James said...

Hmmmmm, I see that the TTB specifically considered and rejected the Brewers Association's request for a determination that juniper is a traditional ingredient that should be exempt from formula approval. Quoting from Ruling 2015-1:

TTB did not adopt the Brewers Association’s request to exempt malt beverages made with juniper branches, pluot, spruce leaves, squid ink, or woodruff from the formula requirements, because the available data did not establish that these ingredients are traditionally used in the production of fermented beverages designated as beer, ale, porter, stout, lager, or malt liquor. In addition, TTB did not adopt the request to exempt malt beverages made with licorice (or licorice derivatives) as flavor enhancers because of the limitations placed by the FDA regulations on the maximum levels of these ingredients. See 21 CFR 184.1408. The use of any of these ingredients in beer will continue to require a formula submission.

I have a feeling if Lars Garshol's work had been widely known in the U.S. at the time, then juniper would have been recognized as traditional.

Anonymous said...

That's very interesting about the Sumac. I've seen it for as long as I can remember along roads in the Fall.

Although I'd caution people about picking it alongside highways. Highway departments sometimes use some pretty horrible chemicals for weed control, and chemicals can come from road construction and exhausts and settle on plants or be taken up in their roots.

(NJ infamously responded to people cutting down roadside evergreens for Christmas trees by spraying foliage with a horrible smelling chemical!)

Sumac is prolific, though, and I am sure you can find a lot of it in less busy areas where it can be harvested with less worries.

Isaac Morgan said...

Geez, that seems crazy to have ideas like this just get rejected probably by someone who has no idea about what you are doing........

qq said...

@Mike - just as a comment, tasting notes that refer to specific retail products are meaningless to those of us in the 95% of the planet where eg Ricola cough drops are not sold. At least give us an alternative to work on, you've given us nothing here. I could tell you that something tasted of Irn Bru with hints of Buckfast, and whilst Glasgow would know exactly what I meant, even people in England would struggle to get the idea.

On the wood thing - by James' logic it would be OK to use yew leaves/berries in a beer, which are highly toxic. But hey, it's a tree, so in theory you could use its wood in barrels.

If you wanted to use Lars' work, then it would only apply to the European juniper, Juniperus communis, which is relatively rare in North America, where different species are more common.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

That may be true, but last month 80% of the blog's traffic was from the US. Aroma is one of the senses most closely tied to memory, and when something specific hits that's what I'll use. For those who have had the reference it is going to say so much more than "herbal." It's difficult to describe flavors and aromas without missing descriptors for some people, although I can see that saying "Hershey's Chocolate Bar" at least gives people a partial idea even if they haven't had the specific product.

Agreed, alcohol is in an odd place of regulation in the US thanks to our history of prohibition and the growth of the craft brewing industry.

Unknown said...

Mike, Did you have any luck with getting Sumac approved with the TTB? (if you have submitted it yet).

Just curious.. thanks!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I haven't tried yet, but will soon!

Chop & Brew said...

Gotta love Penzey's! Great brew idea, Michael. Several friends in MN and WI have taken to making sumac wine and meads. You inspired another one to try this recipes with his oat sour recipe.

Mark O said...

Hey Mike, just wondering what you did with the sumac when you added it to the fermenter. The recipes I've seen for sumac "lemonade" warn about the fine hairs from the fruit and recommend straining through cheesecloth. Did you do anything to keep the hairs out? Cheers

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

A coarse mesh screen over the pick-up is what we've done for our staghorn sumac beers at Sapwood. At home I'm pretty sure I just did it loose. The fine stuff settles out pretty well.

PMI said...

Curious what your contact time was/is? Harvest time here in Minneapolis. I have some left over 6 row and some left over spelt. Was just going to make a 60/40%, lower gravity (1.034?) version with sumac. Or is this better in a higher gravity (1.050?)? Thaks!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

It infuses pretty quickly, a week is usually enough (but a few weeks won't cause issues). I liked it better in the Berliner a bit more than I did in slightly bigger beers, but that may have just been differences in process or the sumac.

Best of luck!