Tree Beer: Brewing with Wafer Ash

Behind the Bines by | Aug 2017 | Issue #127
Wafer ash used instead of hops in an experimental test batch by Jester King. | Photo by Averie Swanson

Throughout brewing history, fermented beverages have used native ingredients. Plentiful and readily available, honey, dates, corn, as well as various herbs and spices often appeared in the recipes of historic or ancient beers. In much of Northern Europe, grog, Gruit, mead, and Braggot were commonplace before the German Reinheitsgebot, or purity law, of 1516 was instituted specifying that beer should contain nothing more than barley, yeast, hops, and water.

Once European settlers began arriving in North America, they lost ready access to malted barley and hops. Not ones to do without fermented beverages, these resourceful colonists substituted fruits and vegetables and other local ingredients, like spruce tips, to make their beer.

By the 1800s, standard brewing ingredients were widely available in the United States, yet some parts of the country still lacked key raw materials. Sometimes necessity truly is the mother of invention. Enter the Ptelea trifoliata, also known as the hop tree or wafer ash, a shrub or small tree found throughout the Eastern half of the US and Canada.

This perennial has four to five stems and a thin, small, greenish yellow wing-like fruit, which provides bittering characteristics in a beer. Historically, wafer ash had medicinal and homeopathic uses, though it was never formally made into a drug. The wafer ash’s antiperiodic and stomachic properties were used to help treat diseases such as dyspepsia and debility. Tonic made from the plant was able to soothe mucous membranes, promoting appetite in sick patients.

Although little documentation exists on the use of the hop tree as a bittering agent for beer, we do know that pioneer homebrewers experimented with it more than commercial brewers. An 1870 issue of The American Entomologist describes the fruit of the tree as “aromatic and bitter, and is stated to be a good substitute for hops.” Today, as brewers try to give their beers a sense of place, we’re seeing a bit of a resurgence in this approach to brewing.

Jester King, a craft brewery that often emphasizes local and alternative ingredients, recently made a nearly entirely Texan beer that included wafer ash. Just west of Austin, on the way to the Texas Hill Country, Jester King happens to have a lone wafer ash tree growing on its property. “We’ve been really wanting to explore this unique brewing ingredient for some time now,” says founder Jeffrey Stuffings.

Since no detailed records exist of exactly how pioneer brewers used wafer ash in the past, however, the process had to rely on experimentation.

“We decided to keep the recipe simple,” explains Averie Swanson, Jester King’s head brewer. “Using our farmhouse table beer Le Petit Prince as a template, we gathered Pilsner malt from Blacklands Malt in Leander, Texas, Texas wheat, our house-mixed culture, untreated well water, and the wafer ash to bitter.” Since not enough flowers could be harvested from its tree, Jester King employed a local forager to gather flowers from wafer ash trees in the surrounding area.

Swanson says the idea was to dry out the wafer ash flowers and boil them separately from the main beer. Then the wafer ash tea would be added to the wort. A date for the final production batch hasn’t been set, explains Swanson, noting that they’re still working with experimental batches, though it would seem that Jester King is off to a promising start.

“We pulled off 6 barrels worth of Petit Prince wort to add the wafer ash to for this experiment. Next we pulled off a couple gallons of wort into a small kettle and boiled it with about 2 pounds of wafer ash and made a concentrated tea of sorts. We then added that to the remainder of the wort after it went through the heat exchanger. We pitched our house yeast as usual and the batch has been fermenting away. Initially, the wafer ash batch was not as bitter as the hopped version, but I am excited to see how it continues to change through and after fermentation,” says Swanson, who added that the fermenting beer has produced more of a tart and green character than expected, though it was soft and incuded quite a bit of perceivable bitterness.

Although not quite ready to begin brewing batches itself, Scratch Brewing in Ava, Ill., also has an interest in wafer ash. “We at Scratch spend a lot of time walking through the woods. I happened to notice a tree on one of my regular walks to the lake near my house that was flowering in late summer and looked remarkably like hops,” says brewer and co-owner Marika Josephson. “We’d found wild hops growing near the brewery but this was different, as the ‘flowers,’ which I found out later were the fruit, were hanging from the branches of a tree. I walked closer to it and picked one. As I remember, it didn’t smell especially like hops, and up close it looked less similar than it did from afar.”

Scratch is hoping to run the wafer ash through a series of small-scale experiments later this year to test its bittering, flavoring, and aroma potential.