Friday, April 10, 2009

Book Review: Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers

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.


Unknown said...

I brewed a batch of gruit recently, though not from a recipe in this book. There was nothing sacred nor healing about that wicked brew. Between 5 testers, all felt like howling at the moon and taking a swing at the person next to them, and that was after two 12ox bottles.

jemphd said...

Thanks for taking one for the team with this book. Sounds ponderous!

Josh said...

The author was an anthropologist, not a brewer nor a microbiologist. Also some of the recipes are directly lifted from much older texts where the recipes are otherwise unclear or made cultural assumptions for measurement and what should or shouldn't be done. There's been attempts to modernize it.

Also pay attention to the toxicity of the stuff in there.

Thankfully there's notations in there for what will kill you. I agree with your review.

Anonymous said...

I do really like the historical beers section of Radical Brewing, but your review convinces me that I'll still be very disappointed with this book. Randy Mosher is passionate about beer, and therefore put a considerable amount of effort into his book to get the story right. It sounds like I would be questioning the authority of "Sacred ... Beers" every step of the way.

brix said...

I guess someone has to write the minority opinion on this one. Acknowledging Josh's note that the author is an anthropologist more than a brewer or microbiologist, I find it fascinating to intentionally approach brewing from a more spiritual angle.

And while I've rarely followed Buhner's recipes very closely, I've found them an invaluable inspiration for some of the most interesting beer I've brewed to date (the below are all sans hops):
- 'Old Twiggy' featured dandelion, sage, and kukicha twig tea
- 'Sage Barleywine' is perhaps my all time favorite beer
- Cardamom and brown sugar make a fantastic beer
- Gruit was also nice...a kind of sweet-sour change of pace.
- And Ground Ivy! What a unique and refreshing flavor!

It probably helps that I was interested in wild food before brewing, but I probably consult this book more than any other in my brewing adventures...

Grab a copy from the library and place an order from and take a chance! (Please don't start with mandrake, henbane or the like, though).


Sarah Hasler said...

Thanks for the review! This is a great classic and I'm glad to see it getting more exposure. I've actually made multiple beers from this book, and I'd like to make a few comments here....First, full discloser: I'm an herbalist. This means that I've gone to school (and yes it was "real school" with biochemistry and pharmacy and whatnot), I've worked with plants over the years, and I've used plants as medicine clinically.

Stephen Harrod Buhner is also an herbalist, and most of the recipes here do work, and work fairly well, because he's tried a lot of them. They've kept well after bottling (although they don't stay around long enough for me to see if they'd be good for months--they're usually pretty good!)

As for not using the beers for the medicinal value, I do take a bit of exception at that. Unfortunately, there is a pretty wide misconception that plants don't have a lot of research to back up their use medicinally. Frankly, this isn't true. What IS true is that plants don't have a lot of research done in the United States. There are entire journals dedicated to ongoing research on medicinal herbs. Many plants, such as turmeric, licorice, peppermint, ginger, chamomile, etc., have extremely well-documented, extremely efficacious medicinal usages. Buhner was writing a popular book about brewing, though, and it would be beyond the scope of the book to go into the research end of things.

As for not including information after 1900, I'd love to see some more modern references, too too...except there isn't much for him to choose from. As you're aware, brewing has pretty much been "hops-only" game for quite some time, and to do the subject of herbal beers any justice at all it would be entirely necessary to use older historical documents. Fortunately for us, Buhner has provided updates to these older recipes in many cases, and I've found the recipes to work well.

The use of sugars instead of malts can definitely be problematic, however, in some cases it's a beautiful thing. For example, I made a batch of the ginger beer. The heavy molasses character of the unrefined sugars used, along with the acidity of the lemon juice included in the recipe, worked AMAZINGLY well with the "bite" of the ginger. It actually ended up being a very dry, very flavorful beer that was a perfect summertime quaff.

Beers that involve Dandelion end up with a really pleasing well-rounded bitterness, and I think that Yellow Dock is going to be my favorite new aromatic. It's got a very complex, very clean taste that's impossible to describe, but would I plan to try to make an "IPA" with no hops, only dandelion and yellow dock, in a few weeks...once I bottle up the peppermint beer that's currently bubbling away in the carboy!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Thanks for the comment Sarah.

I don’t think this book did anything to change the “misconception” that the use of plants as medicine is a poorly researched area. If it was not out of the scope of the book to claim medicinal value (based on centuries old texts) then it is not out of the scope of the book to say which claims have been supported by modern scientific analysis. If you believe that some of these herbs/spices have potent effects, it would be all the more reason to give the full picture before people decide what to use.

When I was suggesting modern references be used, I was talking about the medical claims made, not the brewing techniques/recipes (that said there are loads of commercial herb/spice beers out there, I’ve had them with saffron, ginger, chamomile, coriander, pepper, anise, cumin, jasmine, chrysanthemum, cardamom, hibiscus, juniper, cinnamon, nutmeg, spruce, sage, yarrow, sweet gale, rosemary, bay leaves, lemon grass, caraway, and I’m sure others).

I am very glad to hear that the recipes have worked out well for you. I’ll have to give one a try this summer while it is too hot for full all-grain batches in my DC apartment.

Ninkasi said...

With regars to the thought of using 1/2 oz of saffron in anything please consider that the German Commission E notes the possibility for adverse effects with dosages over 10 g, which are used to induce an abortion.
10 g = 0.352739 oz
It is therefore contraindicated during pregnancy.
Also Saffron's Lethal dosage is typically 65 mg which is 0.002292 oz.
So according to this figure a 1/2 oz of saffron is well over the lethal dose

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I think your number for the lethal dose must be off unless it is for some component of the saffron. How could it be that much lower than the abortive dose? 65 mg would also be far less than is in a standard serving of many traditional dishes.

Śambhu शम्भु said...

Thank you everyone for your comments.

Does anyone have suggestions for other references to wild-herb brewing for health and longevity?

chas said...

Of course anyone who hews to the "scientific" worldview should stay away from Stephen Buhner. To condemn a book because the author doesn't share your worldview seems rather limited to me. And to expect someone who doesn't share your worldview to then offer you up pages of "proof", well, that's what google is for. If you are skeptical, look it up. You will find plenty of "evidence" to support whatever side of the argument you are leaning toward.

Personally, I'm with Sarah--I find this book fascinating and have had much luck with the recipes that I have used. This is not a "cover to cover" read, however. Most of the first 1/3 reads well straight through, and then it's more of a dip in to a recipe that you are interested in kind of thing.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson

Unknown said...

I do not agree with the commenter's criticisms of Buhner's book. I had never brewed beer before reading the book and yet, following the instructions in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, have been able to make unbelievably nice beers using medicinal and/or edible weeds collected from the outdoors, brown sugar bought on sale at the grocery store, and a 2.5 gallon glass canister with glass lid purchased at Walmart for a couple of dollars.

I am an herbalist in the same tradition of western herbalism featured in some of the historic recipes offered in Buhner's book.

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers is an extraordinarily engaging masterwork that purposefully sidesteps modern technology while illuminating the vast, colorful, planetary historical context of brewing.

Unknown said...

I've brewed a few gruits using the information in this book, and have a few notes to people considering it.

Firstly, it's a good source of information in terms of taste, effect, and amount of a variety of herbs to use in gruits. Information on this subject is really hard to come by, as most of the information on the internet comes only from this book... trial and error are needed.

Secondly, as many have noted, the author is a bit of a crackpot. He seems to think that mankind can converse with plants, for example. Take everything in the book with a grain of salt.

As Paul commented almost eight years ago, some of the brews seem to have a much more potent effect than their ABV would suggest. The author DOES list effects like delirium, rage, frenzy, etc. under the entries for quite a few of these herbs. Caveat cervisaror!

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

If anyone is thinking about dabbling is foraged/herbal beers I'd suggest The Homebrewer's Almanac from the folks at Scratch Brewing. A couple dozen recipes they've brewed with specific suggests on what part, when, and how much to add from experience. Stan's Brewing Local is another good choice and has a bit more narrative and scope, but isn't as practical. I still don't find myself going back to Sacred and Herbal, even during a recent run of "tree" beers (maple bark, juniper branches etc.)

Jaafar said...

For Saffron, doses of 10 to 20 g may be fatal (not 65 mg). I personally use a gram when making rice;)