Why brew with herbs?

Why brew with herbs?

People take up brewing for all sorts of reasons: to save money, to geek out on cool tech, to be popular at parties, to participate in an ancient and mysterious partnership between humans and microbes, or just to have a huge amount of fun messing about in the kitchen or the garage. I’ll admit I’ve always been a little baffled by the clone-beer crowd: Why would you go to so much trouble simply to reproduce a commercially available beer? For me, homebrewing is a chance to experiment and make things that are hard if not impossible to buy, and since I’ve always really been into botany, that’s the direction my brewing has taken.

The Witches Cauldron German Woodcut
Historically, most brewers were women, so when I brew, I feel I’m getting in touch with my feminine side. Apparently, she’s a witch.
I’ve lived most of my life out in the country and grew up knowing about wild foods and herbs, so it didn’t take me long after I started brewing to ditch the hops for things like mugwort, yarrow, and dandelion roots. My interest in herbs and spices is mainly culinary, but I enjoy learning about plants’ other properties—how for example an herb with anti-microbial properties might help prevent infection both in the beer and in the body of the drinker. I learned that hops were a powerful sedative, and that their dominance as the bittering agent and preservative in beer may have been less due to some inherent superiority over other brewing herbs and more a matter of historical happenstance, ultimately depriving beer drinkers of a huge diversity of delicious, aromatic, and healthful alternatives. Sure, you can get an astonishing range of flavors just from different hop varieties, and I remain in awe of brewers who have learned and mastered this aspect of brewing, but to me that’s as limiting as learning to be a great painter but only ever painting cats.

I would go so far as to suggest that hops are not even necessarily the most interesting or enticing herb out there. Just as with sour beers, gruit beers often seem like a much easier sell to people who don’t think they like beer. In so many cases, I suspect, it’s actually the hops they don’t like. I once went for a couple of years only drinking my own gruit ales, and when I tried a standard craft beer again, I could hardly finish it. Which is precisely the reaction I’ve gotten from some hop-heads to my weird brews.

In recent years, I’ve made my peace with hops and use them fairly regularly, but still make a half-dozen hop-free beers each year as well. And I’ve branched out to experiment with things like fruit beers, Belgian Trappist yeast, and kveik. I once even made a beer fermented solely with kefir, following some vague instructions on the wonderful Milk the Funk wiki. It was delicious! But herbs and spices continue to be a main focus of my brewing. And now that I spend half the year in London and half the year in central Pennsylvania, I have more varied materials at my disposal than ever… and the exorbitant price of beer in the UK has even made me begin to reconsider my opposition to clone beer brewing.

These days, I feel as if I have most in common with the wild beer crowd who go about capturing and trading yeasts to make sour beers, exploring terroir at the microbial level. And I’ve been excited by the small but growing number of regional maltings. Learning how to use locally available brewing ingredients of whatever sort is just a great way to feel more at home, more connected with your environment—even if you’re living in a city and most of your foraging is in the neighborhood bodegas and farmers’ markets. That too is terroir. I want not only to savor the unique tastes of home; I want them to alter my consciousness. I want to learn from them.

Of course, there’s also value to pursuing a line of inquiry long enough to develop a bit of expertise. I suppose that’s where I am now with botanical brewing. But I do always strive to remember Shunryu Suzuki’s teaching about beginner’s mind:

Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is always rich and sufficient within itself. You should not lose your self-sufficient state of mind. This doesn’t mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.

A wild herb, tree, or vine knows exactly where it is supposed to be and what it is supposed to do. Do we?

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