Sunday, July 3, 2016

Book Review: Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers

Okay, I'm going to do something a little different; rather than a recipe, I'm going to write a review of a fascinating book I just finished reading.

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I was at the supermarket and picked up a copy of "American Survival Guide" on the magazine stand because it had an article on healing wounds with sugar.  After watching The Equalizer and The Shooter, I thought, wait, how do you use honey or sugar to help heal wounds?  On page 112 of the magazine was an article titled, "Brewing - A Survival Skill?" that talked about how, during times of social chaos and hardship, some folks have turned to brewing in order to have something to barter with.  The article even provides a pretty simple recipe that you can make at home, using mugwort and lemons.  In the article, Buhner's book was referenced as the "bible" for wild brewing.  I thought, okay, I have a B&N gift card that's gathering dust, so I got online and purchased the book.

Once the book arrived, I could hardly put it down.  My educational background is in engineering (BSEE, MSEE), and my first career was in the military.  However, what I read completely fascinated me, and drew me in.

I consider myself to be a critical thinker (or at least tending in that direction...), and for as long as I can remember, I've not been one to follow the crowd.  In fact, the larger the crowd, the more likely I am to find my own path.  One the things I really appreciated about Buhner's book was places where he pointed out fallacies in Western thought; specifically, when it came to why indigenous people drank fermented beverages.  I think that the error of Western thinking, due to cultural ignorance and more than a little arrogance, in many ways parallels what I have seen over the past decade or so in my "day job".  In particular, a cyber attack may be attributed to someone of a different culture (Chinese, Russian, etc.) and someone will make assumptions as to why the attacker did something.  Like I said, I found a lot of parallels, and value, in the statements Stephen made.

I didn't start drinking until later in life.  I spent four years at a military college, and only really drank one time besides my 21st birthday, and in both instances, in accordance with the culture, it was about getting drunk and little else.  I spent eight years on active duty in the military and really didn't drink much during that time, either.  It wasn't until I was 36 that my wife introduced me to social drinking, and to be honest, I really wasn't interested in drinking to get a buzz.  I quickly became intensely interested in much more than just drinking beer, and started making it (but honestly, we all see that in other areas, as well).  In the short time that I've been home brewing, I've found it fascinating how many "purists" know very little about craft brewing, and I've encountered a lot of folks who speak with authority on topics for which they are just wrong.  Stephen's book really shows how ignorant someone is who thinks that pure beer brewing starts and ends with the mass-produced, commercial beers.  Stephen illustrates in very easy to read language how fermented beverages not only sustained the people who made and drank them, but also sustained their culture.

Something else I really liked about the book was the first appendix, which presented four heretical rules of brewing, as well as a number of heresies.  Stephen's comments were spot on...while I had a great teacher who initially got me started by sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm, I tend to believe that his assistance was required, as I had run into a lot of the "suck the joy out of the experience" kind of instruction early on.  Stephen's comments echoed a lot of my own experiences, and more than anything else, really laid bare a lot of what many new to home brewing may initially see as "the right way" to do things.  While there are somethings that are necessary, as Stephen points out, if it all falls apart, you've got some good fertilizer on hand.

Stephen's book isn't just about the history or "why"...he also presents a number of recipes for other types of fermented beverages, and provides a great deal of the "why" behind the beverage itself.  Some of the things I found fascinating included how the medicinal essence of a plant was conveyed or even enhanced through the fermentation process.  Vitamins and minerals provided by various plants would sustain those who drank them by providing the resources their bodies needed to fend off diseases; hence, when religious groups brought the idea of temperance to isolated cultures, those who stopped drinking the beverages fell victim to diseases.  Stephen provided a number of interesting recipes for everything from mead to nettle or dandelion beer.

Like I said, I was continually fascinated by what I read, and could hardly put the book down at any given moment.  I quite literally had to ration my reading...I knew that if I had 15 or 20 minutes to sneak some reading in in order to shift gears and give my brain a break, I could not pick up Stephen's book because the 15 minutes could quickly become over an hour.

Thanks, Stephen, for your great work, and for sharing it with the rest of us!


  1. Excellent review. I am now tempted to purchase the book based in no small part upon your unbridled enthusiasm over it. I too started drinking beer later in life. The American swill called "beer" which I began imbibing in my teens does not count. I was introduced to real beer on my first tour of Germany and I never looked back. I realized with the vast array of beer types and flavors available there, given the constraints on ingredients by the purity laws, I knew the big American breweries were missing something. I really want to master the art of brewing. Thanks for sharing part of your journey

  2. Happy to share, and thanks for commenting!

    I think one of the biggest eye-openers for me was that early on, I was listening to someone tell me how they really liked the big American commercial beers, because they could get one on the East Coast, and six months later, get another somewhere else in the country, and both would taste identical. Their feeling was that that level of consistency was incredibly difficult to maintain...and I agree. But "beer" is so much more than just grain, hops, and yeast, and the original fermented brews had so much more to do with the culture of those who drank them than simply getting drunk. The book was a real view into the ignored truths of brewing.