Labrador Tea is a common enough sight in the hills around St. John’s. Shrubs bearing clusters of white flowers, the furry underside of the plant’s leathery leaves make it easily discernible from the toxic sheep laurel, sometimes known as lambs-kill, which tends to grow in the same areas. They are in fact both members of the Ericaceae  family, along with things like rhododendrons and crowberries.

Traditionally consumed as “bush tea,” Labrador Tea  does have its own dangers, namely the terpenoid ledol and grayanotoxins present in the plant, albeit in relatively low doses. For this reason Yellowbelly brewmaster Liam Mckenna had reason to pause and think very hard about the idea he and Jeremy Charles were discussing over an after work pint one evening a couple of years back.

Bantering and brainstorming about new ideas for products with innovative use of local botanicals, Charles had suggested brewing with Labrador Tea might be interesting. Certainly, concurred Liam, but also dangerous if not processed right. The challenge proved irresistible, and many moons later Big Land Lager has finally been released for public enjoyment.

30 years of craft brewing and some great connections at the biochemistry department of the  University of Guelph made Liam the right person to pull this beer off. Research was done on how to safely remove any toxins from the plant while keeping the flavour, though in a less bitter form than the bush tea made with the leaves.

A balanced and drinkable beer is of the utmost importance to Liam, so rather than being bonked over the head with over the hop herbal flavour, the tang of the plant is mild, registering  citrus, mint, and pine notes. It’s a highly sessionable beer.

Semintha Nutraceuticals contributed local birch sap, which was used instead of water in the mash, deepening the foresty aroma of the beer and providing a wealth of micro nutrients for the yeast to feed on while brewing.

The final result is a pale, golden ,straw coloured lager which is clean, light, and summery. The combination of the sap and the Labrador Tea leaves may well be a first, though historically the leaves have been used in brewing along with or in the place of hops.

Already available on tap, Big Land Lager will be released in bottles at the brewery today (Friday, July 28th).

Photos by the author