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Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation

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Boost your fermentation

534 pages, Paperback

Published September 18, 1998

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About the author

Stephen Harrod Buhner

43 books329 followers
Stephen Harrod Buhner is an Earth poet and the award-winning author of ten books on nature, indigenous cultures, the environment, and herbal medicine. He comes from a long line of healers including Leroy Burney, Surgeon General of the United States under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and Elizabeth Lusterheide, a midwife and herbalist who worked in rural Indiana in the early nineteenth century. The greatest influence on his work, however, has been his great-grandfather C.G. Harrod who primarily used botanical medicines, also in rural Indiana, when he began his work as a physician in 1911.

Stephen's work has appeared or been profiled in publications throughout North America and Europe including Common Boundary, Apotheosis, Shaman's Drum, The New York Times, CNN, and Good Morning America. Stephen lectures yearly throughout the United States on herbal medicine, the sacredness of plants, the intelligence of Nature, and the states of mind necessary for successful habitation of Earth.

Stephen has served as president of the Colorado Association for Healing Practitioners and as a lobbyist on herbal and holistic medicines and education in the Colorado legislature. He lives in New Mexico.



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5 stars
334 (48%)
4 stars
232 (33%)
3 stars
91 (13%)
2 stars
25 (3%)
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2 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
711 reviews53 followers
February 10, 2012
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!
Profile Image for Becky.
118 reviews17 followers
July 29, 2009
Free your brewing from the tyranny of hops and barley!

This is a specialized book. I gave it five stars, but I would only recommend it to someone who has interests in brewing and herbalism.

I certainly don't agree with everything Buhner says, but there is much food for thought mixed in among the recipes. And there are plenty of recipes.

This is a book to read slowly, browse through again every few years, brew from, and keep around for reference. As I learn more about the wild plants in my part of the world, it is fun to discover how many of them have historically been used for brewing; and how many of the resulting beverages were considered not just tasty, but good for you too.
15 reviews5 followers
September 27, 2012
Wow, this book is wild. The essential premise is: at this time Western culture consumes only two alcoholic beverages; all beer is a watery solution of fermented barley and hops, and all wine is fermented grape juice. But many societies, including Europe before the Reformation, consumed lots of different fermented beverages made from different sugars, juices, grains, and herbs, all with varying degrees of alcoholic and nutritional content.

Those beverages are what this is about. Sage beer. Gruit ale. Mugwort. Mead. Molasses beer. Maple syrup beer. Er...even banana beer and pine ale. I think there's hundreds of these variations, and for many of them the historical background is given. There's extensive quoting of historical sources throughout, such as old brew cookbooks and alewife's instructions.

Many home brewing books and resources prohibitively complicate things. What this book helps you realize is that alcohol fermentation doesn't have to be hard; all you need is a sugar source and a yeast source in solution (aka water). I mean Nigerians drink the watery sap from palm trees which is already being fermented off the tree by native yeasts.

So everything else besides yeast + sugar is optional and up for ideas. So look outside the confines of just hops and malt. This book can help you think about other flavors or herbs you might like to try.

What's bad:I don't trust the recipes, they're all over the place, so use them like guides.

Despite being all about ancient brewing methods, he kinda distrusts wild yeast and still resorts to storebought packets of yeast for all his recipes. Using the simple instructions in Sandor Katz's "The Art of Fermentation" I've got a pretty vigorous wild yeast starter from honey that I've sustained for a few months now. I don't think our ancestors got crazy about purchasing purified yeast strains.

Several probably dangerous and strongly psychoactive herbs (e.g. wormwood and many others) are freely discussed and recommended to the reader. The author has a low regard for drug laws and a sacred regard for altered states of consciousness. I don't know much about these plants, but I'd advise caution in seeking out any ingredient you don't already use and know.

Aside from that there's a lot of sketchy herbal medicine in here. I don't have a problem with generally accepted herbal medicine—I mean, via this book I just made a chamomile ale—just quackery. One herb "shows promise in treating Reynaud's disease." What does that even mean? "Fever patients" are told to drink wormwood ale "for thirty days"—I don't know what a month of wormwood does to you, but if you have a fever for thirty days, please get yourself to the ER. It's always "scientists are discovering" and "studies are showing" that X herb works like chemotherapy or Y herb helps with pneumonia or diuresis. Many sentences are taken up with this sort of thing, and for me this stuff just gets in the way.

My recommendation? I assume if you want to brew plain-jane beer at home, you would not buy this book first. If you're looking into 'wild' and 'natural' fermentation methods, go to Sandor Katz. But either way at some point read this book for the the possible ingredients and ferments that are out there.
Profile Image for Karen Brooks.
Author 16 books523 followers
November 15, 2011
This is an amazing book that explores and explains the traditional processes and meanings behind making mead, ale and beer. Included in the text are not only recipes from the MIddle Ages and Renaissance and explanations of how and why indigenous peoples made their brews, but detailed explanations of various additives (herbs) and their effects: in terns of inebriation, psychotropic and medicinal.

Thorough and clearly written with passion, this is an invaluable resource for home-brewers, anyone interested in herbal law and history as well as those who just want to avoid the clinical and commercial aspects of alcohol consumption. As a research text, I found it very useful and a welcome antidote to some of the drier accounts I have encountered that deal with ale-making and brewing in the past.

My only slight criticism is that it was a little too American-focussed for me, in that I would have loved a little more of the text to explore Britain and Europe and the techniques and natural products used. Buhner did do this but was obviously keen for his American readership to understand that they too could access many of the herbs and flowers he mentions.

Overall, a fascinating read.
Profile Image for Morgan.
5 reviews1 follower
May 28, 2008
Even if you're put off by the words "sacred" and "healing", I'd still recommend this book to round out a brewing education. For starters, there is a good bit of brewing history in here, detailing how beer used to be made (hops are relatively recent, for example). This book is great for identifying alternative bittering and aroma agents... useful knowledge for these current times of hop shortages.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
75 reviews24 followers
September 3, 2008
A wealth of knowledge and insight... This book brings clarity to why and how our culture is now seeing the dark side of addiction. Buhner encourages us to brew...and to connect to low-alcohol content substances that used to be a part of our everyday life.
Profile Image for Martin Doudoroff.
169 reviews7 followers
July 7, 2011
The new agey-sounding title is a turnoff for people like me, but this volume presents some clear, serious value for specific people with highly specialized interests. Here’s what you need to know: this is primarily a recipe book and the recipes are for fermented beverages with medicinal (folk healing), shamanistic and/or religious ethnocultural roots. The net is cast pretty wide. The author clearly has experience (re)producing many of the recipes, and shares his experiences along with some discussion of the botanicals involved and where to source them. The research itself seems to have good integrity (the end notes run for thirty pages and may be of interest on their own). If nothing else, there’s a lot of basic material here that helps contextualize aromatized wines, gin, absinthe, amari, etc.
Profile Image for Charlie.
75 reviews3 followers
December 23, 2009
If you brew or have a keen interest in the history of beer and fermentation, this is a must have for your collection. Lots of interesting history about the fermentation of beers and other beverages from all over the world, supplemented with a healthy portion of recipes in the appendix.
Profile Image for Janisse Ray.
Author 24 books205 followers
September 15, 2020
I love everything that Stephen Buhner writes. He goes down into very deep rabbit holes & everything he thinks about is incredibly interesting. I loved reading about the craziness of wild yeasts, toxic plants becoming sacred ales, beers from trees, and so much more. There are tons of recipes in this book. Now I have to get over my hesitations & do something new -- make a herbal beer. I'm giving this 4 stars because I can't figure out how much yeast to use. Most of the recipes just say "yeast." I'm afraid I missed something. Or maybe I use a packet of beer yeast? But hey. I know I'll get it figured out.
Profile Image for Cole.
81 reviews6 followers
May 28, 2013
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read this book cover-to-cover. That said, it's not the kind of book you do that with.
I was expecting more recipes, more "how-to", and less exposition on the history and folklore of this or that herb. I was reading it from the perspective of a brewer, not an historian, and it falls short.
This book does have recipes in it, but they are simplistic, and it takes some mental effort to adjust them should you want a different quantity or be working in different circumstances. Some recipes are for one gallon, some for three, some for five.

Here is my recommendation. Learn how to make beer - there are plenty of other books on the subject. Then flavor that beer with your favorite herbs. Get a book on herbalism if you want to look up the healing properties of the plants - it will be much easier than relying on this book.

Overall, "Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers" offers nothing of value that a serious herbalist and / or brewer won't already have in her library.
Profile Image for Angie.
3 reviews3 followers
January 23, 2008
Well, it was from this little tome that I was indoctrinated with the information that I like spread while others are drinking beer, that is, that it was during the Protestant Reformation when the Protestant's intolerance of Catholic indulgences led to the ban on all herbal and psychotropic beers in favor of the more sobering and sex-drive-inhibiting hop beer. Thus, a long tradition of herbal beer making was lost but this book approximates some of the old recipes for those of us who want to try.
Profile Image for Julene.
Author 14 books52 followers
December 30, 2008
Love this book, beer used to be made from many different plants and used medicinally. Here is the history of beer way back to traditional cultures and recipes. I read it and then gave it away to a friend because I have no intention of making beers, but I miss the book because it is so wise.
Profile Image for Jonny Henningson.
3 reviews9 followers
January 31, 2012
Inspiring! Amazing! Totally cool stories and information, the recipes aren't very good (at least to my modern white-boy pallet, and I have admittedly only made a few of them.) still a very fun and informative read.
Profile Image for Susan Albert.
Author 92 books2,211 followers
January 16, 2015
So much herb lore packed into this reference book! Not a how-to manual (although there's some of that), but a collection of poetry, shamanic wisdom, and cultural understandings of plants that humans have used to alter consciousness. Belongs in the library of every serious herbalist.
8 reviews1 follower
December 12, 2009
This book has extensive and hard to find information on a lot of herbs. It also gives a lot of alternative fermentation methods. Really informative and well researched book.
Profile Image for Theresa.
129 reviews3 followers
July 8, 2011
This book is a masterpiece! What a fascinating read! Even if you're never going to brew yourself, this book is a page turner. Goes nicely with a frosty micro or home brew as well.
64 reviews
November 18, 2020
The author appears to enjoy mead in its most historical context. In reading this tome I find myself curious to try fermenting some of my own.

What I truly came for is found in Chapter Seven. The details of yarrow, myrica Gale, wild rosemary, wormwood, sage, broom, henbane, and later of mugwort are informative. Cautionary tales of some other herbs in the same chapter will steer me clear.

Chapter Eight, on trees, held a few surprises. Juniper, birch, maple, and spruce were expected. Oak, pine, and fir less so. I may have to explore using woods in the brew.

I recommend the read if you want to read from an historical and semi anthropological perspective. I would not recommend the recipes as written. Use only the ratios of herb to final ale as a guide.
Profile Image for Alex Williams.
92 reviews1 follower
November 23, 2022
It took me months to finish this because it's massive. It could be several books.
It could be a book on the history of fermentation processes and one on the mythology of fermentation. One on bees and honey. One on the medicinal properties of herbs, one of poetry about medicinal herbs and a massive brewers recipe book. But I'm glad it's all together because together it captures the radical humaness if fermentation and what was robbed from us by capitalism, with out saying anything like that at all.
It's an impressive feat of research, and I look forward refering to it while I brew my medicinal sodas.
48 reviews
September 2, 2017
This book is amazing for anyone interested in herbal medicine or traditional fermentation practices. It provides a wonderful balance of folklore, history, anthropology, and practical techniques. In particular Buhner makes the seemingly frighteningly exact process of home brewing far more accessible for those of us mortals who can be frightened off by the incredibly technical nature of many fermentation guides. I would give this book six stars if I could.
Profile Image for Bobarian.
71 reviews
March 19, 2018
Contains interesting historical information about fermentation and beer. There was lots of research done and many individual cultures were talked about in depth. Around 25% of the book is about recipes for making these types of beers but nearly all of them are useless. You need very specific and hard to find ingredients or you need particular instruments. It's interesting nonetheless if you like history, natural living, or just beer, it's worth a browse.
1,728 reviews53 followers
May 22, 2017
Definitely a labor of love here. There is a lot more history/background than I cared for but someone who is more interested in beer would love this. I was personally hoping for a more high level coverage that I could use to make these beers in a low to no alcohol fashion. I might try to make some vinegars at some point using a recipe here, but it'll probably be a while.
Profile Image for Robert Edwards.
27 reviews
January 2, 2022
A very comprehensive book including a section on psychoactive beers which was actually the reason I bought it. I brewed a few beers from this book. This book actually taught me that hops was added to beer in the 16th century by the church to suppress sexual appetite.
Good for any home brewer or anyone interested in history.
Profile Image for Anne Earney.
613 reviews9 followers
July 7, 2022
It took quite a while to get through this - at one point I gave up, then picked it up again, but I read this whole thing and learned a lot, much of which I immediately forgot. I liked most the first appendix, about simplifying brewing, and the chapters on herbal brews with psychotropic qualities. Now to try brewing something...
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
686 reviews13 followers
October 10, 2018
This book is full of historical information about the topic, but it lacks equal knowledge of modern brewing techniques. The vast majority of the recipes must be modified by the modern brewer both for optimum fermentation and for modern taste buds.
Profile Image for Rocky.
28 reviews
October 27, 2022
I don’t recommend this for someone who has never home-brewed before. It’s an extensive collection of recipes but most are from historic accounts. It’s not a how-to, but an amazing collection to explore once you have some experience. Ideas and some global historical context. So glad I picked it up!
Profile Image for Natalie Ison.
4 reviews
January 4, 2023
My only complaint is that yeast is not in the plant kingdom, but rather the fungus kingdom. Hard part over. If you love brewing and the history of alcohol, please read this book. There are many ancient recipes found within these pages. Brew at your own risk.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
678 reviews52 followers
October 28, 2015
I give this book 5 stars because I appreciate it and the information it gave me so much. But really it's a 3 or 4-star book due to the organizational structure. Perhaps around ingredients would have been better? Or maybe world location. He made some comment about fat in the book that makes me think he has not looked into Weston A Prices research on indigenous diets. And he doesn't make clear that though beers were made everywhere and they were all a little alcoholic, many were very low--like kombucha. 1-3%

"In the folktales of tribal Africa, a black Pandora repeats her Greek sister's rash act except the African makes a different discovery remaining in the casket. Not hope... but rather, a gourd of beer."
"In all ancient societies, in the religious mythologies of all ancient cultures, beer was a gift to women from a goddess."
"The ancient beers, created independently around the world between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago, were quite different from what we know as beer today. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them, using some 20 different kinds of yeast, perhaps 15 different sugar sources, and more than 200 different plant adjuncts."
"They call fermentation 'boiling,' and once a jar 'learns to boil'..."
-"Meade and other beers were made by all cultural groups... Tribal cultures in North America, contrary to common belief about their historical access to alcohol, also fermented corn and other beers."
"Eat thee of honey wherein is healing for mankind (the Koran)"
"Regular consumption of meade, it was claimed, would resotre youthfulness, increase sexual drive, prevent illness, and cure diseases such as arthritis, stomach ulceration, bronchitis, impotency, general weakness and debility, heart disease, and cancer, as well as many others."
"Honey, often insisted to be just another simple carbohydrate (like white sugar), actually contains, among other things, a 'complex collection of enzymes, plant pigments, organic acids, esters, antibiotic agents, and trace minerals.' Honey, in fact, contains more than 75 different compounds... and many of the substances are so complex that they have yet to be identified." *Not sure if this is true of pasteurized honey as well as raw honey.
"Honey has been found to possess antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti carcinogenic, expectorant, antiallergenic, laxative, antinomic, and tonic properties. It is also anti fungal and an immune stimulant. Because honey increases calcium absorption in the body, it is also recommended during menopause to help prevent osteoporosis. It has been found to be highly effective for treatment of stomach ulceration, all seven strains of Helicobacter pylori bacteria are completely inhibited with a 5% solution of honey...The British Journal of Plastic Surgery reported that clinical trials found honey to provide faster wound healing than traditional pharmaceuticals."
"Done correctly, mead will taste, depending on the type of honey used, like a fine, dry champagne or wine." :)
"One recurring problem with the discussion of indigenous beers is that the word 'beer' is never used within the indigenous cultures themselves. Each sacred fermented beverage has its own, unique name."
"The widely publicized negative effects of alcohol come from, as noted earlier, the separation of alcohol from its original plant context."
"Alcoholism, solitary drinking, and the various diseases attendant with alcohol abuse do not exist in indigenous cultures, irrespective of the amount of fermentation and drunkenness they engage in."
"A number of researchers... have proposed that it was the discover of grain malting and its subsequent fermentation that was the original motivation of societies to settle in one place and begin intentionally growing grains." OMFG THAT MAKES SO MUCH MORE SENSE THAN GRAIN AS A FOOD SOURCE! According to Weston A Price grains were NEVER eaten by traditional societies unfermented.
"By eating the body of the god [man] shares in the god's attributes and powers. And when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body; when he is a vine god, the juice of the grape is his blood, and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine the worshipper partakes in the real body and blood of his god."
"Malting a grain considerably enhances its nutritional qualities."
-The church pushed for hops beers since these made the dinner drowsy and diminished sexual desire (compared to other beers) Hops beers became okay. Other beers became drugs.
-For high blood pressure eat saffron
-Nettle for arthritis. Author of the book uses personally and has found much success. (i.e. make/
drink nettle beer!)
"There were times in the country's history before the introduction of lager beer when the commercial sale of ginger beer exceeded both hopped beer or cider." *I made ginger beer and it is my personal fave.
"Fermentation in most of the world is done in conditions that most brewing advocates find to be distressingly unsterile and unscientific. Yet they are consistently amazed to find that those beers are of exceptional quality--quite often rivaling the finest beers made in high-tech operations."

Profile Image for Heaether.
339 reviews8 followers
April 19, 2018
Amazing resource of information - I want to tackle all of the recipes!
8 reviews
September 13, 2020
Awesome, I haven't made any of the beers. However I have learned so much and incorporated this wonderful new food matrix into my diet. Great work.
105 reviews5 followers
October 7, 2020
Beautifully told stories about our history, beer, and plants.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews

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