The Beer of Alchemists and Witches

Mon 16 Mar 2009 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | 8 Comments | Posted by: Michael

If you came to the Manual of Detection release party, you may have had the chance to sample my latest brewing experiment, the Legendary Black Beer of Aaaargh!–a first attempt at recreating a long-extinct style of medieval herb beer, flavored, in this case, with rosemary and sage as a substitute for hops. If you were one of the intrepid few, I thank you. It came as quite a shock to me how many compliments the black beer got, considering half the reason for the silly name was the reaction I expected it to get. The experience has given me hope that people are a lot more open-minded about their beer than the world’s brewing industry would have us believe.

That in mind, I’m going to talk some about how and why this style of beer went extinct, and how and why I might go about bringing it back.

The idea for this adventure (and for many more in the future) came from a book I’ve been reading, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, wherein, alongside recipes and discussion of each of the immense variety of herbal adjunct ingredients that have been used in beer by one culture or another through the history of the world, Buhner digs into beer’s ancient origins and its evolution into the rather narrow and heavily-regulated definition by which it is confined today.

I opened the Strawberry Wheat/Wine entry with a quote from the Reinheitsgebot, the 1516 beer purity law that legally defined beer as consisting solely of water, barley, and hops. Ostensibly, this could be looked at as a turning-point of human civilization, like that line in the Code of Hammurabi that made the watering-down of beer punishable by drowning: it established a standard, turning beer into a tradeable commodity and a cornerstone of the European economy. But it also outlawed a whole array of ingredients which had been used in beer for thousands of years.

What’s so great about hops, anyway? They make a decent preservative, helping beer to keep longer–but so do sage, mint, elecampane, St. Johnswort, and any of several dozen other herbs. Hops have a strong bitter flavor and a nice aroma, but again, many other herbs do both things just as well, if not better. And hops actually have a mild sedative effect–they’re why beer makes you sleepy.

So why did they pick hops and outlaw everything else? The church, the government and the people of Europe fought a pitched battle over that very question, which lasted more than four centuries and wasn’t put to bed until long after the passing of the Reinheitsgebot. According to Buhner, hops gained ascendancy–simultaneously with the rise of the Protestant reformation–not because they were in any way superior as a preservative or bittering agent, but because they were cheap, the supply could be easily controlled, and their side effects (mild drowsiness and loss of sexual appetite) were infinitely preferable, in the eyes of the burgeoning Protestant temperance movement, to the alternative.

The alternative? A century or two before the Reinheitsgebot, hops were relatively rare, their dominance supplanted by the likes of such terrifying and demented narcotic and hallucinogenic herbs as wormwood, bog myrtle, mandrake, clary sage, Scottish heather, henbane, and belladonna. That’s right! Once upon a time, beer wasn’t just a convenient means to make karaoke interesting and baseball fun to watch. It was how witches learned to ride broomsticks and transform themselves into cats, how prophets heard decrees from angels and learned to speak in tongues.

I suppose it’s just as well I couldn’t get my hands on any mandrake root, or Jed’s book release party would have been a different experience all together….

Heh. Just kidding. I’m not crazy enough to go haphazardly sprinkling my recipes with herbs that, imbibed in high enough concentration, have the potential to be deadly.

There’s an upside to having had one officially-sanctioned bittering agent in use for the past five hundred years, though Buhner isn’t much inclined to talk about it. (It’s a wonderful, engrossing book which I highly recommend, particularly to you literary beer-lovers. He tells some beer myths that’ll curl your toes. But his attention to the technical side of brewing, unfortunately, is somewhat lacking.) Hops, having been cultivated for so long, have made genetic leaps forward in potency and flavor, not to mention having been studied to the point that we can establish with great accuracy the varieties and quantities needed to achieve a desired result. Brewing with herbs that have been out of vogue for 500 years will require significantly more effort to perfect.

I went with rosemary and sage for my first attempt at a medieval herb brew partly because they’re safe–culinary herbs unlikely to convince me I have supernatural powers–and because I grew both in my garden last year, dried a lot, and so had a ready supply.

The Legendary Black Beer of Aaaargh!

Mash 45 minutes at 154 degrees F:

  • 1 quart water
  • 4 oz 90L crystal malt
  • 3 oz black patent malt
  • Sparge with:

  • 7 quarts water at 170 degrees F
  • Bring to a boil, and add:

  • 2.5 lbs liquid amber malt extract
  • 1/5 oz millenium hops, alpha acid 15%
  • 4 oz wildflower honey
  • After 45 minutes, add:

  • 2 grams dried culinary sage
  • 2 grams dried rosemary
  • Boil 15 more minutes, cool to 90 degrees F, and siphon into two 1-gallon jugs. To the first, add:

  • 2 grams dried culinary sage
  • 2 grams dried rosemary
  • ale yeast
  • To the second, add:

  • 6 grams hallertau hops
  • ale yeast
  • Ferment to dryness 5-7 days, siphon off to clean jugs and allow to clarify two weeks before bottling with:

  • 2 oz corn sugar

This recipe is informed by, but not particularly faithful to, a modern German black beer style called schwarzbier. And yes, I hedged my bets with hops, because I wasn’t sure how much bitterness the culinary herbs would add. Not a lot, it turns out. Sage was the more powerful of the two, and if I were to brew a second batch of this without hops, I might go with double the weight of herbs, with sage in a 2:1 ratio to rosemary. But it’s all kind of a crapshoot, sadly.

One way around this uncertainty, which Buhner references but doesn’t much elaborate on, would be to extract the flavor from the herbs ahead of time by pre-boiling them in water. This would make the process take a bit longer, but would allow me to taste the bitterness of the herbs ahead of time and adjust by adding water. I’ll try that with my next attempt.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in exploring further into herbed and unhopped beers, you might check out, “dedicated to the revival of Gruit Ale, the beer which stimulates the mind, creates euphoria and enhances sexual drive”. Whee!

I’ve also sampled a few excellent herb beers from brew pubs around the northeast that you might seek out:

  • The Vermont Brewpub in Burlington, VT has a seasonal specialty “absinthe” beer, straw-colored, with wormwood, lemon balm, licorice root and 3 or 4 other herbs. Really good. Much easier to savor than the absinthe I’ve had, subtle and complex. It’s a beer they obviously put a lot of thought into.
  • Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, PA makes a spruce beer based on a Benjamin Franklin recipe that I really enjoy.
  • Old Dominion Brewing Co., in northern VA, has a spring offering this season, a lightly sweet German golden ale brewed with chamomile. It has hops too, but the chamomile is evident and a very nice addition, I think.

Just wait. Someday I’ll get my hands on some mandrake, and then, oh man, look out. Until then… Juniper beer? Heather beer?

If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry, and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck.


8 Responses to “The Beer of Alchemists and Witches”

  1. Wendy S. Delmater on March 17th, 2009 2:05 pm

    Fascinating post. Thank you. I have an interest in heirloom vegetables that you can get from the Seed Savers Exchange. It’s not just beers that have gotten boring and all-the-same.

  2. Brian Baldi on March 17th, 2009 2:17 pm

    I can’t decide which I like best: the beer or the explanation of the beer. Both were/are insightful and verve-provoking. Thanks, Michael!

  3. Michael on March 17th, 2009 2:31 pm

    Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it.

    I too am a lover of heirloom vegetables. I’ve grown five or six varieties of heirloom tomato in my garden the past few summers–brandywine and purple cherokee varieties, in particular, I can’t get enough of–and reading Buhner’s book has filled me with ambitions to try growing herbs like yarrow and bog myrtle. I would try mandrake too, but experience teaches me root vegetables don’t tend to do very well in my soil.

  4. James on March 17th, 2009 6:55 pm

    Was it the New Yorker that recently ran an article about a craft brewer who’d had success resurrecting several ancient beers–Egyptian honey brews and other herbal stuff like the beers you mentioned?

    I’ve always wanted to taste the same beverages that were consumed in mud-walled taverns by ziggurat builders after a hard day on the job.

  5. Michael on March 17th, 2009 7:40 pm

    There are a few craft brewers doing that now, actually. Berkshire Brewing Company here in Western MA has a specialty series that includes an Egyptian honey brew–I haven’t tried any of those yet (they seem to be in very limited release), but I’m looking forward to it.

    But I think it was Dogfish Head that started the craze–their “Midas Touch” is based on a recipe recovered from a 2700 year-old tomb in Turkey. It’s 9% alcohol, and has muscat grapes and saffron. I really like it–though I wouldn’t want to drink more than one in a sitting. 🙂

  6. Scott on March 28th, 2009 11:43 am

    I’ve had beer made with spruce needles. And it was DELICIOUS. Excellently astringent, and a touch bitter, and just lovely. Also, a homebrewer friend made some lovely lavender-infused, honey-sweetened beer for my wedding that was simply awesome. Kind of halfway between beer and mead, and loved even by beer-haters. So there are a couple more ideas for the herbal enterprise.

  7. Michael on March 28th, 2009 1:03 pm

    Lavender and honey! That sounds really good.

  8. Fermented Adventures » Blog Archive » Mead Manifesto on February 26th, 2013 4:02 pm

    […] no brewing purist. Yarrow, lavender, sage, cacao nibs, chile peppers, peaches–I leave a lot on the table. I want to bring stuff back to […]

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