Woodman’s Wild Ale specialises in beers brewed with seasonal and wild plants, with a particular interest in the use of wild yeasts and bacteria in producing sour and farmhouse ales. They brew both historical and modern styles, taking inspiration from different countries’ brewing traditions, as well as the beautiful countryside of Cornwall.
Locavore spoke to Stuart Woodman about wild yeasts, the terroir of beer, and knowing when to intervene and when to let nature do her thing.
How did Woodman’s Wild Ale begin?
Woodman’s Wild Ale was set up in late 2016, and evolved from my work teaching foraging and wild food cookery and my interest in homebrewing. I had worked in the food and drink industry for a number of years previous to this, and with a growing interest amongst the general public in craft beer, foraging and seasonality in food I felt it was time to take the plunge and turn my daydreams into reality. I’d trialled a couple of my recipes out on another brewery’s equipment and met with overwhelmingly positive feedback, so decided the time was ripe for a brewery in Cornwall to start producing beer a little out of the ordinary.
You say you have a particular interest in using wild yeasts and bacteria in your brewing. What do you mean by wild yeasts?
Wild yeasts are in the air all around us and on the surface of fruits and flowers. When you make sourdough bread you are using these same wild yeast strains which give the bread its characteristic sour tang. In beer, wild yeast and bacteria can impart a whole extra dimension of flavour. It can be something of an acquired taste, but is fast becoming one of the most exciting areas in craft brewing, although has been common practice in certain beer styles in Belgium and Germany for a number of years and historically even here in the UK.
How did you get into foraging? And what can wild ingredients bring to the table and the beer glass?
My grandfather was a keen forager and instilled an enthusiasm for wild food in me from a young age. Countryside walks in the New Forest, where he and my grandmother lived, were always an adventure and an education. In my adult life this passion for foraging and wild food was rekindled by the early series of River Cottage on TV and has continued ever since. Wild ingredients allow us to connect with many new flavours, which broadens our palate and can increase the complexity of a dish or a drink, giving it a different quality. Today they might be regarded as new and fashionable, but often these wild foraged ingredients would have been familiar to our ancestors, and used commonly in food and drink for centuries.
How does sustainability inform your business?
As a member of the Association of Foragers, sustainable harvesting and environmental stewardship are at the core of my practise, and I strive to incorporate the most ecologically sound methods in my brewing processes too. I’m always looking to find new ways to deal with my waste materials, such as composting spent grain and hops, with a goal to becoming a carbon neutral business. Its not always the easiest or cheapest way to go, but as I rely on Mother Nature for all of the ingredients in my beer it just makes sense to give back in return, and take care of her as much as I can.
Using wild ingredients means a strict seasonality. What limitations and opportunities does this bring?
Just like you have an annual harvest of grapes in winemaking, there is an annual crop of each and every wild ingredient I use. Sometimes ingredients can be dried and preserved to allow a longer season, but predominantly beers are brewed when a particular ingredient is at its peak. This does mean a limit to the amount I can pick and to the amount I can brew, but also connects the consumer to a time and place so much more, and hopefully makes them more aware and more mindful when they are drinking; to really be in the moment and to really appreciate what they are tasting, and the love that has gone into creating the product in their glass.
Do you think a beer can express the terroir of its genesis in the same way as a wine can?
There are many similarities between the types of beer I produce and the classic notion of terroir in wine. Although in wine the terroir is related to the particular location of the vines in a given vineyard, with beer the terroir comes more from the microflora (the wild yeasts and bacteria in the air all around us) of where the brewery is situated, and where the ingredients have been harvested. There’s also the fact that water is the main ingredient in beer which varies in taste and mouthfeel in different parts of the country. Although in reality water chemistry is something a lot of brewers will actively change to brew a particular style of beer, and something which generally improves the overall quality of the product. I suppose much like wine there is a skill required by the maker to harness the best qualities of the raw materials used, to know when to intervene and when to let nature take the lead.
Do you have a favourite beer to brew, and to drink?
There are certain styles which are more challenging to brew and also to gather ingredients for, but to single out a favourite is impossible. I do have a soft spot for darker, stronger beers in general, but equally I love a low strength, pale and refreshing beer like a Saison or a Berliner Weisse on a hot summer’s day.
You also run foraging walks. Can you tell us more?
I have been teaching foraging and wild food cookery for many years now, and to me the process and practise of foraging is key to what I do. So I want to continue to share my knowledge, not just of the plants and their habitat but also their culinary uses. I’ve always loved to show how an ingredient can taste one way when eaten raw, straight from the plant, but how that same ingredient can be transformed by the process of preparing or cooking in conjunction with other ingredients. Food and drink are a necessary fuel for us to survive, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take great pleasure from what we eat and drink and also in how they are prepared. If you teach someone how to safely and responsibly gather food from the wild and teach them how to use the food they have gathered, then they have that knowledge for life and can continue to explore their relationship with nature and hopefully share that knowledge with others.
Have you seen an increase in interest in wild foods?
Definitely. Over the last 10 years I’ve seen a real growth in the appreciation and use of wild foods and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. Foodies and outdoorsy types have naturally been a big part of this renewed interest. However, I’ve seen urban children blown away by some of the flavours they’ve tried for the first time, or really thinking about where their food comes from when they’re faced with butchering a rabbit or filleting a fish.I genuinely hope that this interest continues as it brings with it a deeper relationship with nature which can only be good for the planet and for us too.
What plans do you have for the future?
My long term goal is to set up a farmhouse brewery in Cornwall, where people will be able to come and see the beer being made and enjoy drinking it paired with seasonal food, much of which I hope to grow on the farm alongside ingredients for the beer, all fed with compost from the spent brewing grains and watered by waste water. Foraging will still play a big part, so I’d want to create nature-rich environments where wild foods will thrive and which will enable me to keep doing what I do and keep doing it well.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
To do what you love and to love what you do isn’t work, its a calling. For years I worked in jobs that payed a decent wage, but didn’t make me happy. So I stopped, decided to follow my heart and have been on a journey ever since.
Photography: Jaime Molina.
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