Invasive brewing

Harvesting blackberries for beer

Photo by Jason Lander (via Flickr)

’Tis the harvest season for Derek Smith, brewer at Moylan’s Brewing Co. in Novato, who pays a visit most summers to a giant wall of blackberries near his in-laws’ home in Placerville. There, he and his wife “make a weekend of it,” spending four to six hours in each of two days before returning home with 50 or 60 pounds of ripe blackberries.

Smith freezes the harvest—mostly at the Moylan’s brewpub—and eventually adds the fruit to fermenting beer. He has used blackberries in several recipes, but had the most success with his Ryan Sullivan’s Imperial Stout. He plans to release his next batch of the beer in November.

To make it, Smith brews the stout as he normally would. After the beer has finished its primary fermentation—the initial brewing stage in which the beer explodes into a violent weeklong froth before calming down as the sugars are converted into alcohol—he transfers the beer to another tank where “secondary fermentation” commences. At this point, he adds the berry puree, which steeps in the quietly fermenting beer.

“That way you don’t blow off all the flavors in the primary fermentation,” Smith said.

The beer is a heavy hitter—high in alcohol, rich in warm coffee and toast flavors—but Smith insisted that “you can totally taste the berries through the beer.” The fruit, he said, adds a bright sweetness to the robust beer.

Smith said the quality of California’s blackberries seemed to take a dive during the drought, when stressed vines produced lots of small berries with a higher seed-to-juice ratio than was palatable. Now, the berries are fat and juicy again.

He is hardly the only brewer who has taken advantage of California’s most cherished invasive species. San Francisco’s Almanac Brewing Co. has made a beer called the Farmer’s Reserve Blackberry, and Anchor Brewing—which, by the way, was bought recently by Sapporo—has introduced its Blackberry Daze IPA. I discovered this one recently in a Safeway supermarket, and I laughed out loud in the beer aisle as I read the bottle’s label. The story explains that the San Francisco brewery chose to make this beer “[b]ecause the blackberry was once rampant in California …”

Once rampant? Have Anchor’s marketing directors not been outside recently? Blackberries are an icon of the Northern California landscape—as prominent and ubiquitous as coconuts in Tahiti, figs in Greece and avocados in Santa Barbara. Few invasive pests have cost government so much money to fight back as the Himalayan blackberry, and perhaps no other fruit offers such an abundance of free fruit for the picking.

We have our native blackberries, but the most prolific type—and the one most of us curse for its thorns and praise for its fruit—is the Himalayan blackberry. It was introduced to California by Sonoma County resident Luther Burbank in 1885, when the famed horticulturist placed an order in an Indian gardener’s catalog for a handful of seeds from Rubus armeniacus. The vines took, and thrived and rampaged across the continent.

Today, the Himalayan blackberry is recognized as one of the most problematic invasive pests anywhere. It has overtaken streams and native woodlands in New Zealand and Australia, Africa, western Europe and much of the New World.

Oh well. When the berries in Bidwell Park and along the back roads of Nor Cal are hanging heavy, fill your buckets. But leave some for the brewers.