Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner is a book that takes a devotes more than 500 pages to the ingredients and techniques that were once apart of beer brewing before the pale European lager conquered the world. It covers some beers that most beer nerds will have heard of and a few will have brewed, gruit, kvass, and sahti for example, but for the most part it talks about things that very few people will have heard of (let alone brewed), nettle beer, oak bark ale, and saffron beer for example.
To being truthful I have not read this entire book. Large sections are not so much about the flavor/technique of using these ingredients as much as they are about the history and supposed health benefits of the different herbs/spices discussed. I do not see enough evidence to support the health benefits of self medicating with plant material, so these sections just did not hold my interest.
Content: The first chapter starts out with a nice story about the trek into the rain forest to taste a primitive beer. A beer which given the rapid spread of "culture" and mega-breweries is now in danger of being a forgotten relic of the past. The tale and the rest of the first chapter provides the framework for the rest of the book: tradition, respect for nature, and the healing powers of plants.
The second chapter covers honey and mead. The author claims that traditionally mead makers would simply put the entire hive (angry bees and all) into the water to extract the honey. He claims that this technique lead to getting a much better nutritional punch from the mead as it contained such ever popular folk remedies as royal jelly, venom, and propolis.
The third chapter talks about yeast. I had heard some similar stories of how people originally preserved their yeast between batches (drying it onto a stick, vessel, or cloth), but it was interesting to read about this in more detail since wild yeast is something of a passion of mine. The author makes an attempt to talk about wild yeast, but ends up referring to several strains of bacteria as yeast (clearly microbiology is not his strong suit).
The fourth chapter looks at "sacred" indigenous beers. This is one of the more interesting chapters as it covers different styles that you may have heard of, a couple of which are still produced commercially. I have gotten the chance to try some of these beers like Sahti, and while it was not to my taste I could see someone actually wanting to brew a full batch of it.
The next chapter is a pretty short chapter looking at the role of alcohol culturally and on the body (through the eyes of native people). The author's main point is that alcohol has a long standing role as an important additive to human life and culture, and is inseparable from the alcoholic beverages we enjoy.
The six chapter discusses the different grains used in brewing. It makes you appreciate just how lucky we are to have malted grains so we don't have to use the amylase enzyme in our saliva to covert the starches in grains to sugar. The chapter does a good job discussing the fact that the barley we consider to be the basis for brewing is really just one of many different base grains used through the history of beer.
The seventh chapter looks at "highly intoxicating" brews. This may be the chapter that some of you are the most interested in. That said given the low level of "modern" (that is to say reliable) sources sited I would be worried about throwing in some of the proposed ingredients into one of my brews.
The next two chapters talk about the wide variety of brewing ingredients that come from trees and other plants. Each section talks about how a particular herb/spice/bark/extract was traditionally used in beer making, its purported health benefits, and a sample recipe to try. The outlandish health benefits that are claimed for many of the ingredients often make you laugh, as do the calls to arms against the modern treatment of disease.
The appendices cover such things as basic (and I do me basic) brewing technique, mead making, and sources for some of the stranger ingredients mentioned. The brewing instructions are so lax that they make Charlie Papazian look like an uptight process nerd. I understand that ancient people did not have star-san (or germ theory) and still made passable beers, but I doubt many batches hung around for more than a week after brewing.
Recipes: The recipes are pretty much all over the place. Many of the recipes appear to have been plucked directly from old texts, so they should make for pretty authentic beverages. That said for the most part they seem like they would taste terrible. Many of the recipes contain no malt (lots of sugar/molasses based recipes).
I often feel like the herbs/spices used are also in ludicrous amounts (1/2 oz of saffron in a 1 gallon recipe? Granted he is trying to get a psychotropic effect, but that's $132-$230 at Penzeys). Things like this make me doubt whether the author tried brewing many of the recipes in the book. It would have been very interesting to see the tasting notes for some of the recipes at least.
As a result I don't feel confident using them as a guide when designing my own recipes.
Accuracy: My major complaint is the author seems to take anything that was written before 1900 and assume that it is accurate. If a claimed health benefit or recipe sounds a bit off, the author should make a note to let the read know. Citing several hundred year old references for the aphoristical qualities of gruit ale as if they were from a recent issue of JAMA seems irresponsible to me.
In general this book is written by someone who doesn't seem to care about science. He calls yeast a plant for example (a kingdom level mistake is pretty embarrassing).
Readability: Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers is a pretty dry read unless you are interested in more than just the brewing information. If you have an interest in a particular additive or historic beer that section would be a decent reference, but in terms of a casual book for the average homebrewer it is close to unreadable.
Overall: While it has some interesting parts, overall it is not a great brewing book. If the historical recipes section of Radical Brewing really caught your imagination this would be a worthwhile read, otherwise you probably don't need a copy.