Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers–A Book Review

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Review of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, the Secrets of Ancient Fermentation, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. (Siris Books: Boulder, CO) 1998.

Fermentation is an ancient art.  People have been doing it for millennia.  It makes sense then that it is surrounded by mystery as well as history. The history of mead, ale and beer making is a story of ethos, medicine, religion and politics.  It spans the full range of human culture and demonstrates the regulatory reach of government and church.  Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers is a history, a materia medica and a cookbook, written by one of the most respected names in the herbal medicine community.

The history of fermented brews is fascinating by itself.  Initially beer and ale were quite different than the drinks they are today.  Brewed with herbs like yarrow, bog myrtle and rosemary, ancient beer was stimulating, euphoric and aphrodisiac.  The brewing was controlled by the powerful Catholic Church. Brewers paid hefty royalties for the privilege of using the herbs, grown exclusively in monastery gardens.  With the Protestant Reformation came a reformation in brewing, as well.  Hopped beers became regulation brews, which put the drinker to sleep and suppressed sexual desire.

With the resurgence of craft brewing, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers offers a foundation for home fermentation.   The book begins with the history of beer, ale and mead making, drawing on ancient recipes, myth and poetry.  While today we understand fermentation to be a natural process, in the past it was steeped in magic, believed to be a gift of the gods to help mankind deal with mortality.

Buhner recounts a great many historical recipes for beer and ale, based on commonly available herbs like juniper berries, licorice, wintergreen, ginger, pine, birch and other herbs.  The recipes are adapted with modern measures so that the brew can be recreated in five-gallon batches for beer and one-gallon batches for mead.

Each herb used in the recipes has a brief materia medica so that you can see if those specific herbal actions are what you are looking for.  The reader is helped to choose recipes that will improve their health and well-being.  For instance, Maude Grieve’s Nettle Beer from 1931, includes nettles, dandelions, cleavers, ginger, brown sugar and yeast.  It was made as a remedy for gout and arthritic pains.

Traditionally herbal fermented brews contain a much larger amount of herb than herbal teas .  Maude Grieves recipe calls for a gallon of nettles, along with four handfuls of dandelion and cleavers.  On the other hand, herbal tea bags contain less than a teaspoon of herb. Herbal beer is tremendously strengthening and tonic, especially beneficial in spring, after winter diets lacking in fresh vegetables and the winter dearth of sunshine.  Such tonic herbs, however, are rich in minerals, vitamins and protein and thus are subject to spoilage.  Their shelf life, even with refrigeration, is less than 48 hours.  However, once fermented, herbal beer, mead and ale will keep for several months, allowing this highly medicinal drink to be imbibed for several months.

The book isn’t just a materia medica and craft beer recipe book, it’s also a recipe book for mead.  Many of the same herbs that are used in beer and ale making are used in mead making.  Some of the techniques for fermentation are similar.

One thing that stands out in the book, is the bold declarations that you don’t need antiseptic conditions or a master’s degree to make fermented drinks that are full of life and health.  Soap and water clean is enough in 99% of cases.  You don’t need to buy yeast over and over.  You can use it like a sourdough starter and take a small amount of a good batch and use it to start the next batch, as we do when making fermented vegetables.

You only need a small amount of specialized equipment – a jug, a fermentation lock, like we use with the Fermentools kit, a bung to fit the jug and bottles to pour the finished brew into.  So if you have an interest in history, herbal remedies and ancient fermentation, grab a copy of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers and try your hand at making something unique, healthy and fun.  My next project will be the rosemary, sage and lemon balm mead on page 454.


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