Foraging Brings Authenticity and Awe to Fermented Homemade Gifts

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julia herz foraging

The following is the Director’s Cut column from the November/December 2022 Zymurgy magazine. Access the issue now!

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By Julia Herz, American Homebrewers Association Executive Director

Local is even more local when we source unique ingredients and materials to add to gifts and offerings. With that, getting into nature always prompts a relieving exhale for me, and I often find gems to bring home. #WinWin. Outside in open space, all senses adjust, recalibrate, and slow down. My mind becomes more present, vitamin D boosts the spirits, smells catch my attention, and softer sounds inspire. Then, the basic feeling of relief, exploration, and adventure take over. I know I’m fully in the zone when I transition into a relaxed, alert state, silently wondering what I can forage to add to my diet, homebrew, meal, and handmade presents.

Giving the gift should never feel forced, yet sometimes it does when we are not prepared with something of meaning. You know that empty feeling of last-minute walking around a store? This time of year and the tradition in many, many cultures of gift-giving can be overwhelming. All I can say is that we homebrewers have the world’s tools (our equipment) and treasures (nature’s bounty) to impress the best and most discerning recipients. Plus, when we ferment or mentor others to do so, we bring magic and marvel to the party, providing a weight of authentic meaning beyond compare.

Over the years, forage-influenced gifts I’ve made include homemade mead given to each attendee at my and my husband Greg’s wedding. It was infused with dandelion petals picked from a meadow near our cabin outside of Nederland, Colo. We’ve made a fresh-hop pale ale for whoever stopped over (hey, when you offer food or drink to guests in your home, that is gift giving!) using hop cones growing along the fence line of my backyard. We’ve also given winter holiday stout infused with spruce tips harvested along the Colorado Front Range mountains at just the right time of year.

For this holiday season, I sourced ruby gem-colored chokecherries that Mother Nature had organically planted in our backyard. As I harvested, the fruit fell into the bucket as easily as pulling popcorn from a bag at the movie theater. Also, late this summer, several mornings before sunrise at my local park, we scored eight-plus pounds of wild plums bursting with a rustic, sugary sweetness balanced by diluted tart acidity and bold tannins from the skin.

LEFT: Julia Herz picking wild plums.. CENTER: pitting wild plums. RIGHT: preparing chokecherries for juicemaking.

After washing the fruit and cooking down both these harvests, the yield was fresh juice that felt nurturing to drink and rebellious to freeze until ready to add to a homebrew. The chokecherries will go into a porter to be made in collaboration with Kim and Adam, who are officers with the Southern Nevada Ale Fermenters Union (SNAFU) homebrew club in Reno, Nev. The plums will be added to a Belgian golden strong ale that I brewed to give to loved ones in December.

The gift of homebrewing can be a gift in and of itself, with no need to forage for “wild” provisions. One year in the fall, I used my 10-gallon mash tun and outdoor propane burner to can fresh Colorado Western Slope peaches we bought from the Boulder, Colo., farmers market. Another holiday season, we used our smaller homebrew kettle to make ricotta cheese packaged in swing-top Mason jars and seasoned with herbs that only my spice cabinet could produce. Rummaging through one’s home or local market can be foraging, too. It’s not cheating in my book.

Don’t have time to forage outside or in? The American Homebrewers Association has you covered. Buy a loved one a homebrew kit, an AHA membership, or any of the fantastic books on how to up your brewing game. The mighty Stan Hieronymus’s Brewing Local, my and Gwen Conley’s Beer Pairing, or Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner come to mind. One year, Greg and I made a St. John’s wort, echinacea, and rosemary mead from Buhner’s book. It was knock-your-socks-off kind of good, and it sure was “gift-level” stuff when we shared that with others.

Whatever your gift giving looks like this year, don’t sweat it. You’ve got all you need around you and at home to make and give something of meaning. No matter how simple or advanced, the fact that it comes from you is the best reward of all.

Julia Herz is executive director of the American Homebrewers Association. Follow her on Instagram @ImmaculateFermentation.