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Full Review
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Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation
by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Siris Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Darin, 7/18/2005

Right from the start, Stephen Harrod Buhner claims his book is heresy, “that fermentation and plant use—as medicine, as psychotropics, as teachers, as companions on our life path—are an inescapable part of what it means to be human.” It’s not exactly clear what the heresy stands against, aside from a vague notion of “popular beliefs” regarding alcohol, and undefined “politically correct” assumptions of material reality. The disclaimer of what’s obvious to me (that historically, alcohol is part of human culture) seems highly unnecessary.

In his first chapter, the author describes a “fall of Eden” scenario in the history of brewing. According to the myths in many ancient cultures, fermentation was handed to humans as a gift from a god or goddess, to be brewed by women in a sacred fashion; however, as Western civilization has grown, the process of brewing has passed to male hands and eventually to machines. Ever since, brewing has become an economic enterprise, and modern culture has lost touch with the sacred and healing aspects of fermentation. We can reclaim our Eden by honoring those aspects and restoring them to their rightful place.

This premise is interesting at first, but it gets a little tired from reiteration, paragraph after paragraph. Still, reading the parallels between brewing myths from one culture to the next throughout the chapters is fascinating, reminiscent of Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s work. Regardless of the base of their beer — honey, bananas, agave, corn, rice, wheat, barley, millet — each culture has similar stories regarding the gift of fermentation, and each has discovered beneficial properties of local plants as medicinal additives.

An early chapter discusses the narcotic effects of heather and the amazing medicinal qualities of honey; it alone is worth the price of admission (and is an early reward for slogging through the introductory dogma). Other books on brewing will tell you that mead is regarded as being the first fermented beverage known to humankind, but no brewing book goes into the depth of honey and hive products like this one. Among the startling facts: honey has been known to provide faster wound healing than pharmaceutical medicines; several groups of researchers have lived up to three months on milk and honey alone; many researchers claim that humans could live on a diet solely of pollen and water; consumption of hive products has been linked to lifespans of 150 years and older… the list continues. Peppered with recipes, poems and footnotes, the chapter on honey meads and heather ales is quite astonishing and well-researched.

The chapters that follow describe histories and brewing processes for a wide variety of brews made from grains, fruits and saps, as well as medicinal qualities of various plant additives. Dozens of recipes appear, in their original context or scaled down for experimentation at home. All components of beer and similar brews are covered: fermentable sugars, yeasts, and bittering agents such as hops. Quite interesting is the history of how hopped beer came into favor, edging out the traditional European “gruit ale” favored at the time. Demonized during the Protestant Reformation by religious/political/economic interests for its “unhealthy” narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic qualities, the history of gruit ale prohibition — replaced by the hopped beer we know today — strikes a similar resonance to the prohibition of cannabis in American history.

The chapter devoted solely to “psychotropic and highly inebriating beers” is another eye-opener, exploring the often hallucinogenic effects of additives such as yarrow root, wormwood, mandrake, wild lettuce, and saffron. Although some of the plant additives are obscure or unknown to contemporary botanists, an appendix of sources listed at the back of the book could jump-start a search for rare ingredients. The author warns early on that he has not brewed every recipe listed, so your mileage may vary.

The book wraps up with chapters on beers made from medicinal trees (including recipes for alcoholic ginger, birch, and root beers) and medicinal plants (including recipes calling for mint, rosemary and St. John’s Wort). Concluding the book are appendices on meads, resources for supplies and further reading, and a section describing simplistic brewing techniques at home. It’s apparent that the author is a better historian than homebrewer, though he claims his homebrewing ideas are simply further extensions of the heresies expressed in earlier chapters.

I didn’t find the book all that heretical or shocking, though it might be considered so in highly conservative or tight academic circles. I did find it to be very informative, describing medical qualities of plants in a very accessible manner. There are certainly better books out there to help the beginning brewer, though experienced homebrewers looking for brews with healing properties or a hallucinogenic kick would find this book extremely intriguing.


  1. I just want to thank Darin for his sensitive and thorough book review.

    Comment by Tim — 7/19/2005 @ 9:28 pm

  2. As a homebrewer and an Erowid fan, I’ve got to say that I really like this book.

    Comment by Ryan — 12/30/2005 @ 2:52 pm

  3. Full of fun recipes any level of homebrewer could try, including medicinal brews…AAA+++

    Comment by Toby — 8/20/2007 @ 3:20 pm

  4. totally getting this.. especially want to get into that henbane pilsener!

    Comment by frank — 9/16/2007 @ 5:24 am

  5. As a beginner homebrewer, I find this book to be a refreshing break from the paranoid, ultra-delicate procedures of most modern brewing. If primitive cultures could spit some corn into a hole and get results, why not start your work there. Instead of investing a ton of money into my first ventures, I’ve been paying for sugar and sometimes buckets, that’s about it. Not everything works out, but it’s no big loss. Maybe someday I’ll get all technical so I can standardize production, but for now I’d rather toss some herbs, fruit, honey, and water into a pot and see what comes out.

    I do find his claim of “medicinal” brews a bit misleading. There are some recipes that would make effective remedies, but from the looks of most of them, creating effective potions is being left as an exercise to the reader.

    This book holds awesome potential as a modern herbal, straightforward, few if any extravagant claims, and enough recipes to keep even the most intense student busy for years.

    Comment by Potter Dee — 10/2/2008 @ 8:35 am

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