You've swilled apricot ales, spent summer drinking citrus-laced shandies and randlers, and you know pumpkin-beer season is just around the corner. But pause for a moment, if you will, to consider adding a lesser-known category of brews to your repertoire: flower beers. There are an increasing number of beers being produced with ingredients like flower petals, roots, and other botanical ingredients—and you should be drinking them.
"Our beer tends to have more aroma and more layers," says Robert Finkel, "rootmaster" and founder of Forbidden Root, a Chicago-based brewery that exclusively produces botanic beers. "For instance, the flowers we use in our WPA (Wildflower Pale Ale) aren't there as perfume—they soften the back portion of the beer's bite, and that integrates with the really beautiful hops we use, and in a way that becomes a chord, not just a set of notes."
Flower-infused brews have grown in popularity and production in recent years, but for the record, they're hardly a new trend. Beer has been around for at least 7,000 years, but the first documented use of hops as a brewing ingredient was only 1,200 years ago, meaning that flowers, herbs, and roots were all bigger players in earlier incarnations. We know for a fact that Viking clans in coastal Scandinavia made ales with heather, as did some tribes in the British Isles; in more recent times, modern-day craft brewers in Scandinavia such as Nørrebro Bryghus have revived these recipes and invented new ones that incorporate a variety of botanicals.
In spite of beer's botanic origins, however, brewing with flowers is still viewed as progressive and edgy, something offbeat for producers to try once in a while. Stateside, Dogfish Head was an early adopter with its line of Ancient Ales, including 2010's Ta Henket, made with chamomile and Middle Eastern herbs. In the years since, notable labels like Magic Hat, Smuttynose, Revolution Brewing, and many others have jumped on the train to a limited extent, occasionally releasing a botanical beer here and there, but some braver establishments are doubling down and including flowers in many if not most of their beers.
Consider Austin's Jester King Brewery, who Dichotomous series of limited-release beers made with ingredients like lavender, sage, and chamomile. At Wild Woods Brewery, in Boulder Colorado, "beer inspired by the outdoors" is the M.O., meaning jasmine flowers and whole vanilla beans are used in production. And then there’s Forbidden Root, which launched in 2014 and plans to spread the flower-beer love when its forthcoming brewpub opens in Chicago’s river North neighborhood this fall.
So why drink flower beers? Variety, first and foremost. You can have a strong, spicy ale brewed with seven kinds of edible flowers; a tart, refreshing brew made with hibiscus; or a sour beer featuring rose hips and elderflower, and that’s barely scratches the surface. Forbidden Root alone produces four intriguing beers that hint at the full range of possibilities for botanic beers, including Sublime Ginger, a highly effervescent wheat ale imbued with Key lime, ginger, and honeybush; and the eponymous Forbidden Root, a complex root beer in the truest sense, made with wintergreen, cassia, sandalwood, cardamom, and many other natural ingredients.
"Our beer is interesting to beer geeks who love the innovation of integrating hops and other botanicals to give them an experience that they haven't had before," says Finkel, noting that flower beers could also serve as an entry point for a broader audience that "has not been fully served by the craft-beer world."
But if novelty and variety aren't reason enough for you to give flower beers a try, think of this nascent category as an authentic link to the past, no different than back-to-basics trends like nose-to-tail dining and the pickling craze. As Finkel puts it, "Botanic beer is the history of man."