Garden Guru: Homemade beverage production is growing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the hottest new trends in gardening is beverage gardens. This trend includes options for the health-conscious (growing your own teas and ingredients for juices and smoothies), the DIY crowd (growing ingredients for homemade sodas) and those who enjoy an intoxicating beverage or three (ingredients to brew or flavor homemade alcoholic beverages).
There are lots of things you can grow to drink instead of eat. Authors and bloggers are picking up on the trend and a flood of books has been hitting the shelves on how to grow and create their own special beverage concoction.
Why the interest?
This groundswell of interest in growing and making your own beverage is influenced by a few different factors. First, there is a growing DIY movement around the country. Believe it or not, young people are more and more interested in growing things, making things, home canning, knitting, quilting and more.
A second influence is a growing trend in appreciating unique and interesting beverages, both homemade and commercial. This has given rise to an increase in local microbreweries and vineyards, a swell in the popularity in old liquors such as bourbon and gin, and the desire to experiment by making your own.
What can you grow?
There are lots of different plants that can be used to make or flavor beverages. Herbal teas are a pretty straightforward affair, and herbs can be dried for use in teas throughout the year. To find out what plants are in your favorite intoxicating beverage, I suggest "The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World's Great Drinks" by Amy Stewart. The book is basically a laundry list of plants and how they are used in alcohol, with lots of history, lore and science thrown in. It's a great little book that is a quick read.
Fruits lend themselves both to a large number of uses, from juicing and sodas to producing wines. Grapes, of course, are the fruit of choice to make more traditional wines, but fruit wines such as raspberry and peach are popular homebrews as well. Last week I sampled a homemade red currant wine that was pretty tasty. It's not all that easy to grow European wine grapes here in West Virginia, so you won't be making your own cabernet or merlot, but several varieties of American and French-American hybrid grapes, such as Van Buren, Catawba, Norton, seyval and chambourcin, make good wine.
While it is possible to grow your own barley and other grains to make beer, the most common homebrew ingredient that is home-grown is hops. Hops, a nonintoxicating member of the Cannabaceae family, gives beer its bitter flavor profile. They grow as long bines (similar to a vine, but it doesn't have tendrils or suckers to guide it) that need to be trellised. They will grow out of control, so you have to cut around the plant root area with a spade in the spring to keep it at bay.
A variety of herbs can be grown for both tea and flavors for liquors and liqueurs. Herbs and flowers such as chamomile, calendula, lemon balm, mint and bergamot are all common tea plants that can be used dried or fresh for a cup of tea. In an article last year, I shared that I grow the camellia used to make actual black, green and white teas, but you'll only be able to do this if you are in Zone 7, which is along the river between Charleston and Smithers (though I'm still waiting to see the full effect of the recent arctic vortex on my shrub).
Herbs and other plant parts are also infused into alcoholic beverages too. Juniper is the main flavor in gin (though there's lots of other stuff in there too), lemon balm can be made into a liquor (and is also an ingredient in absinthe), and even violets can be used to make liqueurs. There's a whole host of plants that can add a licorice flavor to drinks (but I'm tired of things that smell like licorice, so I'm ignoring those).
Making fermented beverages
There are lots of resources out there on how to make your own beverages, so all you have to do is visit a bookstore or online retailer to get a book. There's also plenty information online, but be sure to check multiple sources to make sure the information is accurate. Currently, I'm looking through a book called "True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home" by Emma Christensen. It looks to be a beginner's guide with lots of good information.
I've made root beer before (from a kit), but plan to make some ginger ale in the near future and keep on moving up. Sodas and fizzy drinks tend to be fairly simple. You use juices or extract flavors into liquid, add some sugar and a little yeast, bottle them up for a few days to allow the yeast to eat sugar and produce carbon dioxide (and a very small amount of alcohol), then refrigerate to slow the fermentation process. Beer and wine are more complex and require specialized equipment, so you will definitely have to plan.
And if you are interested in making your own beverages at home, there's no better source than a local expert. There are several homebrew and home-winemaking groups around the area -- so be on the lookout to join and get great tips from people who are already making their own.
John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.