Description Shrub/small tree. Up to about 3m high. Umbrella shaped flower sprays. Purple/black berries.
Uses Flowers in cordials, champagne, beer aroma, desserts. Berries as any other berry - wines, addition to dark beers.
Habitat Hedgerow, roadsides.
Season Flowers Late May-early July. Berries August/September.
Distribution All over UK except northern Scotland.
Anybody put off by the word ‘foraging’ and all the dangers should relax a little. Elder is one of the easiest plants to identify and a walk around the block of most cities should turn up a few plants, identifiable by their sprays of white flower bunches.
I’ll chuck in another post about the berries closer to the season.
The flowers provide a heady, rich aroma that sometimes has a hint of cat’s wee. I know I bang on about this, but it’s there, trust me! Just like those citra hops. You may find different trees give off different scents – always smell the flowers before picking. It’s also advised to wait some time after rainfall as the aroma needs a day or two of dry weather to pick up again. Pick the flower heads whole but when you get back home, use a fork to remove the flowers from the head as the stem has a bitter taste to it.
If you’re considering adding this to a beer, quantities of 0.5-1g/l are recommended. I’d personally go for a light beer like a pale ale, wheat, Belgian blonde or a saison. Heck, a Berliner weisse or gose may do well with elderflower. The sweet esters/phenolics of the Belgian/German may prove complimentary to the heady floral smell of the elder – the flower may overwhelm them though, so play safe on quantities unless you want to go all out elder.
If you’re feeling reckless – chuck the flower heads in at flameout or the last 5 minutes of the boil. You don’t want to boil off all those delicate aroma compounds. Personally if I were to make an elderflower beer again, I’d chuck the elder in after primary either as an alcohol tincture or tea (even cordial).
I picked these elderflowers from the above photo from the bottom of my garden. The flowers didn’t have a truly floral smell but something in between citrus/floral/catty. It’s quite complex and interesting. I don’t know if it’s the alcohol tincture or just these specific flowers. I’m almost tempted to just drain off the alcohol and drink it as a spirit.
The Cautious Method of Adding to Your Brew:
- Make up your elder infusion/tincture/cordial
- Take a small quantity (100ml) of the beer in a good aroma-catching sampling glass (tulip shaped is fine)
- Mix it with a very small measured quantity (e.g. 0.5ml) of whichever infusion you plan to use.
- Smell the beer – do you detect any change? Is the aroma balanced? Personally I like depth and balance in my beer, so I’d not want any one aroma element to blot out another. If I had an apple-y Berliner, I’d love there to be an interplay between the floral and the fruity. Not strong enough? Go to step 5.
- Increase that quantity until the desired aroma is reached. Scale up for the whole batch – or maybe just a gallon of a 5 gallon batch.
Elderflower is a very strong smell and personally, I don’t find it is suited to session-type beers. You may find that what you like initially, you get tired of very quickly. Also, if you’re using cordial – don’t forget that you’ll need some time for the sugars in the cordial to ferment – so don’t bottle straight away and only judge your sample beers on aroma, not taste – as it’ll be sweeter than the final beer.