Wild Beer on Tap: Scotch Broom & Cedar Leaves

scotch broom flowerLast month, I harvested the so-called “invasive species” Scotch broom, Cytisus scoparius, and some western red cedar leaves, Thuja plicata, and brought them over to Deschutes Brewery in Portland for their brewers to make a special hops-free, wild herbal beer that is now on tap at their downtown pub. They’re calling it “Willamette Weisse.”

We used Stephen Buhner’s excellent book Sacred & Herbal Healing Beers as a guide while choosing the ingredients and concocting the recipe, which includes only the herbs (the majority of which is scotch broom), malt, water, bacteria, and yeast. The finished product is a very light-colored brew, similar to a pilsner. The flavor is very mild.

The occasion for this collaboration was a national TV show that will air in October, called “Brew Dogs,” on the soon-to-be-launched Esquire Network. It’s a docu-series about two Scottish guys who make adventurous beers in different American cities. I am in the Portland episode, taking their hosts on an urban plant identification tour of my ‘hood, and they drink the finished product at Deschutes.

I am not, at this point in my life, a drinker — in fact my friends will tell you I generally won’t even taste the drinks they order while I sip my tonic water with bitters and a splash of grenadine (try it, you’ll like it) — but I made an exception for this special brew, because it’s made with wild plants, and how unique is that?! They have it for sale right now for $5 for a 20 oz pint glass. They tell me they plan to keep it available for the next three to four weeks, so if you’re in Portland, you can taste it too.

When the producers told me they wanted a wild foraged beer, Scotch broom came to mind because I knew that before people began brewing with hops, Humulus lupulus, which is a sedative in the Cannabis family, they were using it as a bittering agent, along with mugwort and yarrow.

According to the USDA plants database, scotch broom lives on the east coast and the west coast of the U.S., but not in the middle. You’ll see Scotch broom commonly on hilly highway roadsides and in wilderness areas in disturbed areas that get partial sun. The parts that are used for brewing traditionally are the flowering branches. It’s now unlikely that you’d see the plant in flower, but in May and June, the bright yellow, pea-family flowers abound. Pea-family flowers have a big banner petal, two side wings, and little canoe shaped piece hidden inside them. Black, fuzzy seed pods hang from the branches and the leaves are very short and small, grouped in threes lower on the plant and then becoming simple above. It grows as a bush, commonly three to six feet tall, but can be up to thirteen feet.

Interestingly, the plant lives up to 25 years, and doesn’t flower until it is 3 years old. Scotch broom was reportedly brought to North America as an ornamental, but then it went feral and reproduced like bunnies. Or like mice. Or like fruit flies.

Scotch broom supposedly gets its name because the branches are said to have been used to make brooms. I can only see that working if they were used as the end you sweep with. I have read some off-color things about why witches have been classically depicted as riding on broomsticks, and I have to say, Scotch broom is implausible for that end of the device.

It has long been safely used as a brewing herb, its flowers can be eaten in salads “like capers” (according to Buhner), and its seed pods have been roasted and used in place of coffee. The interwebs spread this rumor that it is psychedelic if you smoke it, but as Erowid’s adventurous psychonauts discovered, that does not appear to be true. At least not unless you mix it with hallucinogens.

In very large doses, scotch broom could make you vomit, cause uterine contractions, or potentially depress your cardiovascular system. Also, do not eat the raw seeds, particularly if you are a horse or a dog.

Buhner writes that Scotch broom once had a reputation for creating “amorousness.” For me it created happiness. Because you know what an invasive species usually is? A plant with a lot of neat stuff to offer, and plenty to write about.
Have an idea for a workshop? I am available for hire by private groups and individuals, and I do speaking gigs, too. Inquire at RebeccaELerner(at)gmail.com

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9 thoughts on “Wild Beer on Tap: Scotch Broom & Cedar Leaves

  1. While I love brewing with alternative herbs, I have also been taught that Scotch Broom is poisonous.
    WebMD on Scotch Broom: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-375-SCOTCH%20BROOM.aspx?activeIngredientId=375&activeIngredientName=SCOTCH%20BROOM

    There are cases of children and farm animals dying from it.
    Government of Nova Scotia: http://museum.gov.ns.ca/poison/?section=species&id=81

    And every herbalist that I’ve studied with who has experience with it has urged caution and recommended that you use it under immediate supervision
    Like this website suggests: http://www.livingnaturally.com/ns/DisplayMonograph.asp?storeID=E32FA6C399AB4C99897032581851D45D&DocID=bottomline-scotchbroom

    Maybe only using the flowers is less risky (like Sambucus or Lonicera)?

  2. There goes the Reinheitsgebot, but then if its good, a grand crew will show up to drink it. I ferment to preserve, and while I doesn’t have a nose of mowed lawn in like an estate grown sauvignon blanc, my kraut is mowed lawn.

    Now being a country wine wino myself I have long since been in rebellion against the the Vitis vinifera dynasty and the French kings of Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Oh I still drink them as fine upstanding citizens. Perhaps I am just a double agent. It is amazing that something as undrinkable as a gutter full of leaves in a young Cabernet can polymerize its tannin and become drinkable in 5 years. What is even more amazing is people will pay $100 a bottle for it. Now excuse me if Vitis labrusca has a foxy ( methyl anthranilate) taste, but then I met a very enthusiastic Swiss wine maker in the Umpqua valley(Girardet) whose baby is the hybrid Baco Nior with none of that; and that doesn’t spare it from snobbery.

    Forget purity for well made and wholesome. There has been mentioned an ennui from the same 4 ingredients over and over again. American beer is actually now more interesting than German beer.

  3. I was taught that Scotch Broom could be toxic due to the quinolizidine alkaloids sparteine and isosparteine, I know Stephen does his homework but I’m wondering if it’s one of those things that SOME people might be sensitive to and others are not. For myself, I think I’d proceed with caution, particularly if you have a sensitivity to any other plants in the Fabaceae Family. Cedar leaf contains thujone that some people are sensitive to, thujone can trigger seizures in people with seizure disorders. The fact that some people may be able to take these two plants doesn’t mean all people can. I was getting weird reactions to a number of things and discovered I had an allergy to Birch trees and that during Spring pollen season and fall breakdown of leaves not only the Birch affected me but also a number of common foods that contained the same betula 1 molecule that the Birch had. That included apples, carrots, celery, almonds. It took me many years to get that one little bit of information about the betula 1 molecule. I studied both nutrition and herbs for over 30 years before I figured it all out.

  4. Nice post, just reading your book now, it is great. Stephen Buhners book Sacred Healing Beers is a fun read too, definitely puts you off using hops! Just made a small 4 liter batch of beer with malt, yeast and a strong infusion of yarrow, lemon balm and st johns wort, super mild flavor but quite potent and another batch with yeast, molasses and Manuka leaves similar to what the early settlers to New Zealand (where I live) made, that one is a full bodied wholesome drop, definitely an interesting side of Herbalism to indulge in with moderation! Played around with what Sandor Katz or Frank Cooks (can not remember whose concept it was!) formula for roots beers last year using a ginger beer bug and adding that to decoctions of burdock and dandelion,makes a really good earthy brew! Looking forward to reading some more of your blogs! See ya

  5. Hay sis I read it was smoked for pain relief/ muscle relaxant, Is this correct, I didn’t see the bit about it being an hallucinogen. Ps- I’ve ordered your book cant wait till it gets here :)

      • Ok cheers anyway, I think I seen info in a book called Happy High Herbs it is also a very popular shop here down under. I’m not near any now anyway so I cant experiment for my self another time maybe.
        Take care :)

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