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Hop to it: Plant what you need to brew beer

You don’t need a garden to succeed as a home-brewer, but growing your own ingredients is a flavorful step up.

Much of the creativity involved in crafting a custom-made beer starts with the plants you select.

“The modern palate pretty much demands some hops in beer, but beyond that, there’s a lot of choices available,” said Dennis Fisher, an organic farmer from Winterport, Maine.

Fisher, who with his brother Joe wrote a popular reference book for beginners, “The Homebrewer’s Garden” (Storey Publishing, 1998), says one of the most satisfying aspects of home brewing is producing some or all of your own ingredients from scratch. “Scratch brewing,” the brothers wrote, “refers to the cultivation, preparation and use of hops, barley, malts and other nonbarley grains, and adjuncts ranging from fruits to herbs to vegetables.”

Growing your own ingredients ensures that the products are as organic, fresh and unique as possible. Homegrown also is cheaper than store-bought, the Fishers say.

The four basic ingredients needed for brewing are malt (malting provides the fermented sugar that yeast feeds on to produce alcohol), hops (reduces spoilage and balances the sugar’s sweetness with a bitter flavor), brewer’s yeast and water (about 90 percent of beer’s content).

“Hops are a particularly good (garden) choice because they thrive almost anywhere,” Dennis Fisher said. “They are also a great addition to a landscape — big, attractive columns of greenery.”

If the water from your tap tastes good, then it also should taste good in the beer you make, Fisher said. “But if it’s chlorinated, then you need to let it stand overnight to allow the chemicals to outgas before brewing with it.”

Adjuncts, in home-brew speak, are plants used to replace or complement hops to give beers distinctive flavors, odors and colors.

“Just about any flower you can eat can be made into a beer,” said Rebecca Kneen, an organic farmer and writer from Sorrento, British Columbia, who wrote about backyard brewing in the new “Groundbreaking Food Gardens,” By Niki Jabbour (Storey Publishing).

“It’s useful to experiment with them all though to determine how much should be used and when they should be added,” Kneen said.

Some common and not so common home brewer’s garden adjuncts include:

■ Herbs: (Bittering) Sage, horehound, gentian, yarrow. (Flavoring) Juniper, rosemary, ginger, oregano, mint, thyme. (Aromatic) Lavender, lemon balm, chamomile.

■ Flowers: Nasturtiums, wild roses, scented geranium leaves, daylilies and marigolds.

■ Vegetables and fruits: Rhubarb, blackberries and elderberries, pumpkin, chili peppers, sorghum, apples.

“We like to add spruce tips to some beers,” Fisher said. “It’s more of a wild-gathered than home-grown adjunct that in Colonial times was a hops substitute.”

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