Beer brings us together. From mead-hall toasts to happy-hour pints, backyard keggers to sunny afternoon biergarten picnics, downing a few beers connects us — kings and subjects, brothers and sisters, friends and strangers. Sharing beer is an important ritual, and has been since we first started brewing at the dawn of civilization, 10,000 years ago. Beer makes us human.
Problem is, most beer today is soulless. It’s lost its place in the world. Made with chemically treated water, imported hops and grain, lab-calibrated yeast, and by enormous internationally-owned corporations, most of today’s most popular beers are abstract, buried under ads and image. A can of Budweiser, like Warhol’s Coca-Cola, tastes the same in Denver or Detroit — and might have been brewed in Brazil.
And almost all beers — wheats and stouts, pale ales and porters, hundreds of styles, thousands of brands — have one little green thing in common. Hops. The bitter, leafy flower cones of the humulus lupulus plant are, in fact, required by law. Brew without them, and it’s not beer, technically, but a food product — and regulated by the FDA, a legal snafu most professional brewers would rather avoid. So hops, today, are nearly universal. But it wasn’t always so. Far from it.
Hops, or Humulus lupulus, the wolf weed, grows fast — a foot a day in the heat of summer. But it doesn’t grow everywhere. Think wine country: today’s hops come, mainly, from the Pacific Northwest, Germany, and, yes, China. Back before pressed and packed 200-pound bales of hops crisscrossed the continents, brewers flavored their wares with whatever they could find, whatever grew nearby. Heather flowers in Scotland, juniper berries in Norway, chamomile in Egypt, pine needles in Vermont. Foraged herbs and spices weren’t just convenient — some had magical power, and brewers used them to make their beers medicines, drugs, and gateways into the spirit world. Herbs like henbane, mandrake, mugwort, and labrador tea can be painkillers, dream enhancers, or even hallucinogenic. In 1699, diarist John Evelyn wrote that a dose of borage beer would “cheer the hard student.” Horehound cured a rabid dog bite. Extra-strong yarrow beer was the celebratory punch at some medieval Scandinavian weddings — Linneaus wrote that it “stirs up the blood and makes one lose one’s balance so that the guests became crazy.”
At an early brewery site in Skara Brae, Scotland, archaeologists found residue of a beer made with henbane, hemlock, meadowsweet, and nightshade. Henbane is mildly narcotic, supposedly producing a feeling of flight, and was a common component in witches’ flying potions. Nightshade or Belladonna, causes delirious hallucinations. (Ironically, it was used during the Inquisition to torture some of those same potion-wielding witches into confessing.) Meadowsweet contains some of the same anti-inflammatory chemicals as aspirin.
These shamanic beers were rooted in their place — made with what grew, what was in season — but were also doorways to another world, what ethnographers call an entheogen. From the Greek for “creating god within,” an entheogen is a drug used in a religious context, a tool or a pathway to mystical understanding of the sacred or spiritual dimension. Beers like these bond us with our fellow drinkers but also with the plants, the place, the seasons, and the unconscious.
You can rekindle that magic. Using herbs other than government-mandated hops is a way to stick it to the man, sure. A Colonial American–era poem about replacing imported (and taxed) Chinese teas with homegrown, and mildly narcotic, Rhododendron tomentosum or labrador tea, ran:
Throw aside your Bohea and your green Hyson tea,
And all things with a new fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labrador
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye.
But it’s also a way to give your beers power — not just alcoholic potency, but the magic of place, of creation, and of connecting, if not with another dimension, than with our ancient past.
Learn the ancient ways this Thursday in the first of our summer-long home brewing series, Beer Shamanism 101.
William Bostwick is a brewer, beekeeper, herbalist, and the beer critic for GQ and the Wall Street Journal. He’s been making mead and other fermentables for years, and is writing a book about the great lost beers of history. His book, The Brewers Tale about the history of the world according to beer, will be published by W.W. Norton in October. You can follow him in various places @brewerstale on Twitter and @lonepineco on Instagram