When Stephen Harrod Buhner wrote his book “Sacred and Ancient Healing Beers,” he looked carefully at the difference between the perspective of primitive man and that of our modern technological society. He observes that the ancient view was one in which “sacred is ever present with us, where all things possess a soul,” including rocks and other inanimate objects. Plants could project thought, teach other plants to “boil,” or ferment, and take human beings to states of existence that would help them walk in the spiritual world - with ancestors, sacred beings, and healers.
He contrasts those beliefs with those of our Western philosophy - the ideas that only specific life forms (those with a brain?) have a spirit, and that others – plants, soil, water, air – are without awareness, and therefore, have no real place in the world of sacredness.
If we believe that, it is easy to scoff at the idea that plants and herbs would have healing powers, or take us to a different level of reality. Drunk is simply drunk; whereas, for the ancients, drunk allowed its peoples to achieve a personal relationship with their supernatural beings.
They, therefore, brewed beer with many plant-life forms that we don’t commonly use today. Some imparted psychotropic properties. Combined with the alcohol produced in fermentation, these had the ability to be quite powerful – far beyond that of simply measuring ABVs and IBUs.
Gruit Ales come closest to these beers of the past, although there have been experimental and extreme beers made in the commercial sector that could fall into this category: Fraoch Heather Ale from Williams Brothers Brewing in Scotland; Paardebloem and Gruit Ale in the Lips of Faith Series from New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado; and Old Bongwater Hemp Porter from Kettle House Brewing Company in Missoula, Montana, for example. These styles are less common. Commercial beers are typically brewed on a large scale, so the sacred and gruit styles are easier brewed on pilot systems for the sake of the smaller batch, and homebrewers seize the opportunity to use these ingredients whenever they feel the need to stretch outside the box.
Some of those ingredients used may include:
Honey is not so unusual for brewing, but was one of the earliest ingredients used in fermented drink - Think of Odin and his search for the Mead of Kvaser in Norse mythology. Although Honey is the fundamental component in mead, many brewers have created beers that are dependent on honey for their flavor profiles: Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin; Somer Orange Honey Wheat from Rogue Ales in Newport, Oregon; Samuel Adams Honey Porter from Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts; and Bison Organic Honey Basil from Bison Brewing in Berkeley, California.
Heather was used by the Picts and the Celts, and was common in Druidic ceremony. According to Buhler, heather ale “is thought to be the first fermented beverage in the British Isles.” Williams Brothers is not the only craft brewery brewing with heather. Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts crafts Heather Ale, as does Kuhnhenn Brewing in Warren Michigan. New Belgium Brewing produces Dark Heather Saison, again, in the Lips of Faith Series. Trinity Brewing in Colorado Springs, Colorado brews Wee Banshee Irish Heather Ale, and the revered Thornbridge Brewing in Bakewell, England crafts Thornbridge Hall Heather Honey Imperial Stout.
The ancient beliefs of the Tarahumara include the idea that each person have many souls within them that influence their lives. Pulque – and those drinks made with agave – has the ability to free the heart soul, along with the mind soul, when enough is consumed. It is then that the body gains knowledge. Breckenridge Brewing in Denver, Colorado crafts Agave Wheat, and the Lost Abbey in San Marcos, California delivers its own kind of knowledge with Agave Maria. Elysian Brewing in Seattle, Washington crafts Ruin Rosemary Agave IPA. Short’s of Bellaire Michigan created Agave Peach Wheat, and Uncle Billy’s Brew & Que in Austin, Texas has Agave Wit, a light 4.6% ABV Witbier with light, bubblegum and citrus notes.
From the Scandinavian peninsula, Juniper was common in brewing at one time, but has largely fallen out of fashion. Seven methods may be employed when brewing Juniper Ale, rocking back and forth between boiling in the mash and wort, or in one, and not the other in various degrees. Rogue Ales crafts John John Juniper, while Boston Beer Company makes Sam Adams Juniper IPA. Grand Ridge Brewing Company in Mirboo North, Australia produces The Dark Side of Juniper, a Euro Dark Ale of 5.2% ABV hopped with Nelson Sauvin , leaving a spicy tang on the tongue, alon with malty breadiness.
You may not have thought of these ingredients to be sacred or ancient, and there is certainly more exploration possible with herbs and plants: Ginger, Dendelion, Sweet Flag, and Elderflowers. We’ll explore these in another segment.