‘Wildcrafter’ Pascal Baudar discusses brewing beer from foraged ingredients

By Richard Foss

Baudar turns wild-growing plants into pre-1600s ales

Wild Beer Brewing with Pascal Baudar 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, Santa Monica Public Library, 601 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, urbanoutdoorskills.com

In just about any anthropology textbook there’s a section about hunter-gatherers, the Stone Age societies that exhibited the first modern human behavior. People foraged their food for hundreds of centuries, but that lifestyle went into decline after the invention of agriculture about 30,000 years ago. Farming’s more stable diet allowed people to settle in one place and develop art, science, literature and eventually, restaurants.

It therefore comes as a surprise to meet a modern forager who is keeping those skills alive. The hills around Los Angeles are a grocery store for Belgian native Pascal Baudar, who has been a “wild food consultant” for television and teaches classes on wild plant harvesting and cooking. On Saturday, Baudar stops by the Santa Monica Library to give a free presentation about making beer from wild ingredients.


You call what you do wildcrafting rather than foraging. What’s the difference?

I am taking foraging and making it good for the environment. Mostly I look for foreign and invasive plants, and I replant with native plants. Some people forage on a commercial basis, and when they do it carelessly there are consequences. In Vermont so many people foraged for fiddlehead ferns that they almost wiped them out. In California you have people picking white sage at the same unsustainable level.


Where do you do this?

Even walking through my neighborhood it’s unbelievable what things I can find, but people may have used pesticides or may be planning to harvest things themselves. I only collect on private property if I have talked with the owner. I don’t do most of my foraging inside the city. It is legal on BLM and National Park land, where you are allowed to pick food for your personal use as long as it is not commercial.

There is also a permit you can get for foraging in a national forest. I have been in the forest and stopped by a ranger who said, “Let’s see what’s in your bag.” When he saw that I was picking all non-native plants, he said, “Please, go for it! We are spending money trying to remove those same plants.”


What are the most useful invasive plants?

I could give you a list of 50. … We are in the season for nettles, which taste very much like spinach. When I was in Belgium my grandma made soup from them, and here in California I use the leaves in sauces and the seeds in pickling. I use dandelions, too — they’re bitter greens that you can cook with mushrooms, and they’re beautiful. Cress is a little bit spicy and peppery, good in salads. There used to be native cress, but the European cress has almost completely displaced it.


What about mushrooms? Aren’t some of them dangerous?

There are mushrooms that are poisonous, and with them you have to know what you are doing. I am a plant guy; mushroom people are different. There are not many poisonous plants in California, and I have never heard of anybody being killed by mistaking one for something edible. You don’t want to swallow poison oak, for example, but it is easy to identify. That’s why people come to classes, because they want to understand what they’re doing. You can’t just assume something is edible because you saw something like it in a grocery store.


What kind of person attends foraging classes?

A lot of people come to my classes because they like to go hiking, but they don’t understand the place they love. It is like someone from the countryside coming to a city but they can’t read all the signs.

How did you get the idea for wildcrafted beer?

I grew up in Belgium, which is a country of beer, and I love beer. We lived in an old farm in a small town, and we had a huge garden and a nearby forest where we also foraged for food. The beer and the foraging were both part of our tradition.

If you go back to the old days, people used hundreds of different herbs to make what they called wild beers. The Vikings and Celts used mugwort, which grows everywhere in California. Like hops, it’s a bitter but very aromatic herb. So is horehound, which was a traditional cure for sore throats in the 1800s and makes a good flavoring in beer.


But is what you make actually beer? In many places, beer means grain, hops, yeast and water.

I use the definition from pre-1600, which allows that it may be made from things other than grain and use different flavorings. I make it with a mix that might include molasses, tree sap like maple or birch syrup, sometimes a bit of honey, and flavor it with mugwort and yarrow. Archaeologists have analyzed scrapings from the bottom of centuries-old pots and found the same kinds of mixes, along with berries and other fruit. For centuries brewing was a talent just about everyone had, and people made drinks with whatever they had. Compared to the rest of human history, modern breweries are an aberration.


Are any commercial breweries experimenting with these flavors?

There are craft breweries that have started bringing back wildcrafted ingredients, but none of the major brands. It would be good if the practice became more common and there was more money in it, because that would encourage people to maintain wild places.