Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation

Stephen Harrod Buhner

Book cover

An interesting and very quirky book.

Strangely enough, it reminded me a lot of David Graeber’s “Debt.” Although the subject matters are obviously completely different, they share a feeling of great scope and broadening horizons. Both Graeber and Buhner work to show that “the way things are now” in Western society is an extremely narrow slice of a huge diversity of ways that things have been in other times and places. For Buhner, this means demolishing the equation of “beer” with “malt, water, hops and yeast,” especially hops. He discusses how, out of a vast array of herbal homebrewing traditions, hops came to be dominant through a series of historical contingencies.

For the most part, this is a recipe book, interspersing unwieldy recipes from the 1600s with some more modern ones. I have yet to try any of them, so I can’t really pass judgment. But I will say that they run the gamut from the appealing (spruce ale, sage ale) to the totally gross (mustard ale, banana beer).

Buhner also has a nice little section at the end (which I feel like should have come at the beginning) on the practice of brewing; basically, he is an apostate from the cult of wonkism and obsessive cleanliness that surrounds most homebrewing literature. It’s an interesting perspective for me, especially as I have generally been an extremely fastidious brewer.

You have to take Buhner with a little grain of salt. He is a true believer in herbalism and the wisdom of the non-scientific world; while I would like to think I appreciate this perspective, he starts to lose me when he talks about historical records of people living to be 150 (by subsisting on honey, natch) with a figurative straight face. He also spends large chunks of the book enumerating the healing properties of various ingredients in a very jargony fashion, and talking about how their efficacy has been proven by researchers in Romania. I learned just to skip these parts and thoroughly enjoyed the rest. Looking forward to trying some of these!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars