Last 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.
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To learn more wild plants, click here for the archives.
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