Magic Herbal Healing Beers

Go to a liquor store with a good craft beer selection, and you’ll see ingredients like chamomile, lemongrass, honey, black pepper, and even bananas challenging the standard formula of barley, hops, and yeast. But today’s creative brewers are hardly breaking new ground. Many of them were inspired by a book not well known outside the beer geek world: Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Published in 1998, it details beer’s 30,000-year history as an amazingly flexible and experimental beverage used in both ritual and recreation. We caught up with Buhner on the phone from his home in rural southern New Mexico, to find out how he thinks the craft beer industry has evolved—or not—since his seminal book was published.

You write in your book about a vast array of beers (oak bark, caraway, wild carrot seed), some of which attained mass popularity in their day. How did hops conquer all to come to be the industry standard ingredient?

Beer was made with many things: mistletoe, mandrake, etc, before the passage of the German Purity Law [of 1516, which mandated that beer could only contain barley, hops, and yeast.] The original pilsners were actually made with henbane, a relative of Jimson weed, which is psychotropic. That was one of the particular things that led to the adoption of hops with the German Purity Law. Because, basically, with henbane, the more you drank, the crazier you got. Hops, on the other hand, put people to sleep.

You quote a German writer who experimented with henbane and said he was filled with “extreme terror,” and heard a “almost a coyote laughter in the back of his mind.” That sounds scary. Have you tried henbane ale?

No. Once I read that guy’s description, I never could quite summon up the courage to do it. I even have the henbane. What I really want to try is mandrake ale. That was the ancient Egyptians’ favorite [and a highly-sought after aphrodisiac.] I can’t find a supplier for it, though.

What’s changed since you wrote the book?

There are more herbal beers out there than there used to be. Bruce Williams, out of Scotland, makes a whole line of unhopped beers. He makes a heather ale, for instance. There are a handful of places making gruit, which is an old style of beer that was very popular for a long time that typically contains myrica gale, yarrow, and wild rosemary. But for the most part, people still are fixated on the idea of using hops. I don’t like hops because I don’t think they’re good for you. Unless you need to go to sleep or you’re a woman going through menopause. [Note: hops contain chemicals that, when synthesized by the body, create an estrogenic compound, which scientists believe may be helpful in alleviating hot flashes]

Why don’t more people make beer without hops?

Partly, I think it’s the Germanic influence. And there’s a kind of mental intensity and geeky scientific mindset with brewing now. Many professional American brewers went to brewing schools. Those programs are very rigid, very technical: you get trained as a specialist in your discipline, and it’s a very different mindset than say, “Hey, you just put this together and have some fun.”

Beer is something of a man’s world these days. But according to your book, it didn’t used to be.

The primary brewers, everywhere, used to be women. In early America, women were the household beer makers. It was part of their cooking. Martha Washington would brew her birch beer every year. That was the first sap that would begin to run in the spring. Then it was maple, then usually nettles.

Your recipe for birch beer calls for birch sap, honey, budding birch twigs and and yeast. No grain at all. So how is this even beer?

Why is it beer as opposed to wine? But then people think of wine as only being made from fruit. These terms: beer, ale, wine, are ultimately not well defined. I just think of it all as “fermented beverage.”

How do you recommend people experiment making beer at home?

The easiest way to play around is to make one gallon batches of beer with stuff you have in your kitchen. If it turns out bad, there’s less beer to pour out, and you can try different recipes. I know there are people out there making beers from my book, but only three people have ever offered me samples. For years, people have been coming up to me at conferences and saying, “Your book is great! We made a bunch of those beers and brought one for you to try—but we drank it on the way!”

To learn how to brew small-batch, one-gallon beer in your kitchen, read this.

Image courtesy of Julie McIntyre

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