Elderflower – Sambucus nigra

DescriptionShrub/small tree. Up to about 3m high. Umbrella shaped flower sprays. Purple/black berries.
UsesFlowers in cordials, champagne, beer aroma, desserts. Berries as any other berry - wines, addition to dark beers.
HabitatHedgerow, roadsides.
SeasonFlowers Late May-early July. Berries August/September.
DistributionAll 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).

elder elderflower tincture brewing alcohol

Here’s one I made earlier – elderflower tincture with a neutral spirit

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:
  1. Make up your elder infusion/tincture/cordial
  2. Take a small quantity (100ml) of the beer in a good aroma-catching sampling glass (tulip shaped is fine)
  3. Mix it with a very small measured quantity (e.g. 0.5ml) of whichever infusion you plan to use.
  4. 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.
  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.

Jim's Elderflower Champagne Recipe
Print Recipe
Bright, fresh, heady floral elderflowers go into this champagne. Whatever you do, wait for the fermentation to finish before bottling!
Servings Prep Time
16 litres 30 minutes
Servings Prep Time
16 litres 30 minutes
Jim's Elderflower Champagne Recipe
Print Recipe
Bright, fresh, heady floral elderflowers go into this champagne. Whatever you do, wait for the fermentation to finish before bottling!
Servings Prep Time
16 litres 30 minutes
Servings Prep Time
16 litres 30 minutes
Servings: litres
  1. Sterilise the FV and all implements.
  2. Dissolve dextrose/sugar in 1l warm water - heat and stir till dissolved.
  3. Add everything apart from the yeast and the honey water to your sterile fermenting vessel (FV).
    elderflower champagne brewing homebrew
  4. Rehydrate the yeast in 100ml lukewarm water.
  5. After 30 minutes, check the temperature of the bucket. If room temp, then pitch in and stir.
  6. Measure OG with a hydrometer. Should be around 1.055.
  7. Wait 2 weeks until bottling.
  8. Syphon to another sterile vessel.
  9. Measure final gravity - should be around 1.004 (7% ABV). If it's around 1.010 then don't bottle yet!
  10. Add the 100ml honey water (for your bubbles!).
  11. Bottle in brown glass bottles or soft drink bottles - keep in a cool dark place.
  12. Drink after 2 weeks.
Recipe Notes

Conclusion - amazing. Slightly cloudy, very well carbonated! Fresh aroma and taste. And not too dry.

Tasted after 2 weeks in bottle. Ready to enjoy! A good improvement on last year.
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One thought on “Elderflower – Sambucus nigra

  1. Charlie says:

    Looks like a winner, looking forward to giving this a go! Although am I the only person who gets a bit angry at honey being measured in spoons?

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