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Why we should really be grateful to nettles.

Byline: By Alastair Gilmour

Every week it's National Something or Other Week. National Breastfeeding Awareness Week finishes tomorrow and National Vegetable Week starts on Monday. National Temp Week is a permanent fixture in early June, followed closely by National Insect Week. Next week is also Be Nice To Nettles Week.

Nettles rank with wasps, slugs, dandelions, televised snooker, QVC and Pot Noodles in the National League of Uselessness.

To most people, they are no more than green clumps of vegetation that must be avoided at all cost. They grow where you don't want them to and they bite back when you try and do something about them growing where you don't want them to grow. Nettles do, actually, have several redeeming features ( and they make excellent beer.

This is being put to the test this weekend at the Alnwick Garden Nettle Festival where, among various events and competitions, visitors will be able to sample nettle beer with nettle ice-cream, nettle sausages, nettle burgers, nettle cordial, nettle chutney, nettle mustard, nettle bread and nettle cheese.

"We were invited to Alnwick Garden to talk about producing a nettle beer," says Steven Urwin of High House Farm Brewery, near Matfen, Northumberland.

"It was a bit worrying as we were only going to have one go at it because of the time scale. Ideally, we would have done some small-scale test brews."

Steven needn't have worried. The resultant Alnwick Garden Nettle Beer (4.5% alcohol by volume) ( delightfully light ruby-red in colour with no trace of green whatsoever ( is grassily fresh in flavour with a slightly earthy vegetable aroma and lingering aftertaste.

It's also following a well-trodden path. Honey, figs and dates were used in beer brewed by the Mesopotamians 6,000 years ago and the Romans uncovered the use of heather and bog myrtle in beer when they invaded in 55 BC.

By the 1200s, wild rosemary and the daisy-like yarrow were typical ingredients in German beers. Cinnamon was used in England and Wales as early as the 14th Century, along with aniseed, caraway and ginger. Camomile was an ale ingredient in 1700s England ( and is still in use today by several American breweries.

Fraoch Heather Ale ( a traditional Scottish island brew ( is now a very successful product in a range from the Williams Brothers Brewing Company that includes Kelpie Seaweed Ale, Groset Ale (with gooseberries) and Alba Ale, made from pine tips. Coriander is a traditional flavouring in Belgian beers, as are damsons, raspberries and cherries.

"The nettle beer recipe is a combination of 12th Century and 14th Century recipes," says Steven, "but we added a modern touch with a few Goldings hops for bitterness and aroma. I was worried nettles alone wouldn't have been enough.

"We also added some ginger ( mashed up in a food processor ( and some comfrey. We've got oceans of it in the fields ( it's part of our idea of using everything off the farm, such as the barley, for our beer.

"David Smith, the brewing consultant, helped compile the recipes and we scaled it all up to commercial brewing levels. People who have tried it are surprised by it ( and some have even said they're astounded by it."

The nettles also originated on High House Farm land; two huge bucketfuls pressed into service ( literally ( by Steven's wife Sally.

"We've done a full brew of 10 barrels (360 gallons) and we're bottling half that for Alnwick Garden's own label," continues Steven. "They're taking a further quarter in cask for the restaurant and the remainder will go on general sale in the likes of The Angel in Corbridge, the Crown Posada and the Free Trade in Newcastle.

"With some recipes, you put the nettles in the liquor but we added them to the boil.

"We also put a few hops in at the beginning to give the beer a bit of bite. It's quite an unusual taste and fairly sweet, which is different for us as our beers tend to be fairly bitter ( and the ginger comes through quite nicely."

York-based David Smith has been responsible for setting up many of the country's now-thriving micro-breweries, including the award-winning Jarrow Brewery. He designed the High House Farm operation in 2003 to Steven's specifications with a dream or two thrown in for that extra 'bite'.

"We'll be brewing three times a week from next week which I'd never have expected in the beginning," says Steven. "It was in the original plan, but it's fantastic that it's now what we have to do."

High House Farm Brewery, housed in a former grainstore (and a listed building), is being developed to include a visitor centre, opening this summer. It has a separate fermenting room, cool room and bottling area with a malt store and office above. A huge chimney dominates its roofline ( a reminder of the steam-driven threshing machine that once hissed and rattled inside at every harvest.

Before modern food preservation methods were taken advantage of, winter meals were limited to meat, stored grains, dried plants and fruits. The early dark green nettle plant was thought of as a spring tonic so was an important part of traditional diets.

Nettle stalk is extremely fibrous and strong, traditionally made into rope and woven into nets. Nettle also produces a very fine cloth when woven and makes a durable paper.

According to several sources, cows fed on a diet of nettles produce better milk and meat, and chickens eating them lay more eggs.

Medicinally, nettle possesses astringent, tonic, antiseptic, depurative, homeostatic and diuretic properties. It's been used in traditional botanical medicine for diarrhoea, dysentery, scurvy, kidney stones, haemorrhages, rheumatics, skin diseases like eczema, liver conditions and bowel problems.

Nettle also contains 47 parts per million of boron. The Rheumatoid Arthritis Foundation has found that three milligrams of boron, taken daily, can be helpful in treating rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

As for the other Nettle Beer ingredients, ginger ( traditionally the herb of choice for treating colds and flu ( 'quickens' the blood and stimulates peripheral circulation. Dutch researchers have found it is similar to aspirin in preventing blood from clotting. It also relieves flatulence.

Comfrey is particularly useful whenever the body has been highly stressed over a long period of time and its calming influence highlights its antidepressant and anti-inflammatory influences.

So, it's time to be nice to nettles. Settle down with a bottle or two of Nettle Beer and feel those aching joints ease into oblivion. And pop in a DVD. The Sting.

* The Nettle Festival at The Alnwick Garden, Sunday, May 21, 11am-4pm. Local nettle products will include nettle beer from High House Farm Brewery; nettle ice-cream from Wheelbirks; nettle sausages and burgers from Northumbrian Quality Meats and Turnbull's of Alnwick; cordials from Thorncroft; chutneys and mustards from Wynbeech; nettle bread from Donkins and cheeses from the Northumbrian Cheese Company.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 19, 2006
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