Foraging for Wild Yeast in the Woods

August 5, 2020 · 4 minute read
Foraging for Wild Yeast in the Woods

I’ve always wanted to try to make my own wild soda and wild fermented beer from berries that I found in the woods, using their native yeast to get the process going.

So what or who has inspired me to think about fermentation? First is the book The Wildcrafting Brewer by Pascal Baudar. Another is Tabol Brewing here in Richmond where I believe most of their beers are made with wild yeast they have collected. And another would be making my own sauerkraut with my wife.

Most fruits in the wild, like blackberry (still around right now), huckleberry (might find a few huckleberries around still in Richmond; they look like blueberries but actually are huckleberries), blueberries and eastern red cedar (they have berries) are all loaded with wild yeast. The cedar tree has berries that are actually not berries but really a fleshy cone. And speaking of eastern red cedar, it’s actually a juniper (Juniperus virginiana).

Tree on left is a male eastern red cedar and the one on the right is a female.

The blueish color you see on the cedar berries is called glaucous or glaucous bloom which is a covering of native yeast on the fleshy cone.  Do you know any other fruits with a cloudy grayish or bluish color on their skin? (How about grapes, blueberry, and plums.)

So, if you look at your window right now or take a walk in your neighborhood, go and look for the disturbed areas that are unmowed or left untouched (edges of woods, right of ways, fields, etc.) and I bet you’ll find some eastern red cedars. So you found a cedar that doesn’t have berries? Not all of them do. Cedar trees are dioecious, which means that they have either female parts (berries (fleshy cones) in cedar) or they are male (small cones that produce a lot of pollen in the spring).  Monoecious are trees that have both male and female productive organs; for example, if you have an oak tree, you get the pollen in the spring from the catkins and then later in the year the same tree will produce acorns.

So I’m setting off to go and harvest my berries. I had been on two long bike rides this weekend and saw piles of cedar trees full of berries. I told my wife on this day that I’m off for a bike ride to get some cedar berries. As I’m walking out my door, I’m thinking that although I’d love to get on my bike, I’m sure I can walk to find what I am looking for. I know the cedar in my front has never produced any berries (because it’s a male cedar) but then I start thinking I have power lines behind my house so I decided to walk down my yard to look for berries. Fifteen-feet off my deck I find my first cedar with berries. Another 20-feet, another cedar then into the back power lines I find more.

Close up picture of the fleshy cones on female eastern red cedar

All the fruit (the fleshy cone) I harvested had the glaucous bloom on them so I am hopeful I will get my soda soon. When these fruits mature in fall I hear they can be dried and used as a spice or flavoring. The distinct flavor in gin is from juniper berries. Also, I read that you can use juniper berries to help make a sourdough starter. So, I took my handful of juniper berries and added them to a 1 part sugar to 3 parts filtered water solution to feed the yeast and get the fermentation started. I also used a Ball jar with an airlock lid to let gasses release but also to keep bad bacteria out of my starter.

Fresh eastern red cedar in sugar starter with airlock top.

Why do I run around and collect wild foods and nibble on plants everywhere I go while I ride or walk? I want to reintroduce my body and more specifically my gut biome to wild bacteria and yeast you only find in the woods and in nature (it can not be found in a store or a bottle). I want to eat and breathe as much diversity as I can and visit as many diverse environments in the wildlands here in the RVA.  This journey to gut health made me realize how important healthy soils are for our trees too.

So what else did I find on my ride this past weekend?



Peach trees in lawns

Pear trees in lawns

And one of my favorite mushrooms: Chicken of the Woods

Until next time.  See you in the woods!