By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Sometimes the world of brewing herbs seems a small one. You know, hops. But the world of brewing herbs goes far beyond Humulus lupulus.
As long as humans have been brewing and plants have been growing, we have brewed with a variety of herbs not only for brewing qualities, but for health benefits as well. Centuries ago in some European countries, only unhopped beers could be called ales. Gruits, or beers brewed with combinations of herbs and spices, were the most common brews.
From ginger to yarrow, many common garden plants and weeds have hidden brewing powers and associations with health benefits. If you are looking to put some zing in your 2016 beers — and maybe raise a pint to your “I’m going to be healthier” New Year’s resolutions — here’s some advice from Old Growth Ales, a Springfield-based startup brewery.
“There is a long history of brewing with herbs, all across the earth, each specific to their geography — physical and cultural,” says Amanda Helser, herbalist and Old Growth Ales co-founder. “The northern British Isles brewed with heather. Norwegians brewed a sahti using juniper boughs for lautering. St. John’s wort was used across Europe, and sarsaparilla has been used for centuries worldwide as a tonic. We want go back to this type of brewing. Hops and barley are great. I love them. And there is so much more.”
Helser and Steve Braun (fellow co-founder and head brewer) focus on brewing ales and wines with a range of beneficial botanicals. In March 2015, Old Growth Ales successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to fund an expansion of their operation. Helser is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner and a trained Western herbalist who has practiced for more than five years, including experience with with Cascadia Folk Medicine and Seed & Thistle Apothecary. Her background includes Portland’s School of Forest Medicine and the School of Traditional Western Herbalism, and a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College with a focus on fermentation and human culture. Braun has a doctorate in environmental science and 15 years brewing experience, including more than 10 years of brewing with herbs, alternative bittering agents to hops and alternative sugar sources to barley.
Before we move on, some caveats. No one is giving medical advice; that’s what your preferred practitioner is for. And while many botanical health properties have not necessarily been scientifically tested, the beneficial properties of plants represent cultural bodies of knowledge that go back thousands of years and span cultures around the world. Brewing books such as Joe Fisher and Dennis Fisher’s “The Homebrewer’s Garden” and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation” are also useful resources.
“Brewing is traditional herbalism,” says Helser. “Many botanicals were originally fermented with sugars to take as medicine. The fermentation process adds its own energetics.”
Different herbs also require different methods to bring out their benefits. Like teas and tinctures, ales and wines can become other ways for people to consume herbs: salves, essences, poultices along with eating them in powdered and raw forms. The beneficial properties of a plant can also change depending on how it is used, explains Helser. Dandelion root, nettles and elderberries need to be boiled. Some herbs need to be steeped for a very long time, similar to dry hopping. Some herbs are alcohol-soluble and have different effects when introduced during secondary fermentation as opposed to prior to fermentation.
Here are various herbs common to brewing (common and botanical names), along with some of their health properties, according to Helser and Braun. When seeking out brewing herbs, common names can vary, so always reference the botanical name.
— Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): digestion, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, congestion. “It’s the thousand-leaf plant of Achilles. It is a heal-all. Next time you are cut, chew it up and put it on the cut, you'll see. It is a plant ally of sorts.”
— Elder (Sambucus caerulea): flu and fever, overall health tonic. “A prized plant: the berries and flowers. Be careful though. There are many varieties of elder. Sambucus caerulea (blue elder) is our safe, locally occurring common variety.”
— Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): vitamin C, antioxidants. “A little astringent, tart and gives beautiful color. Good for hypertension and cancer prevention. A diuretic.”
— Nettle (Urtica dioica): liver tonic, minerals, blood purifying. “One of the first greens to appear in the spring. Helps detox after the winter. Bright and full of umami flavor. When I am feeling run down or stretched thin, I crave any and everything with nettles.”
— Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale): liver support, detoxification. “When roasted, dandelion root gives a great earthy flavor.”
— Ginger (Zingiber officinale): stimulates circulation and digestion. “It quickens the blood. Good for cold and flu, sexual function, viral infections, coughs, kidneys, the list goes on. Ginger is amazing.”
Other common and popular brewing herbs, along with some beneficial properties, include:
— Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus): adrenal support
— Chicory root (Cichorium intybus): liver support
— St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum): emotional health, digestion
— Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium): antimicrobial
— Hawthorn (Crataegus): circulation, heart health
— Rose hips (Rosa rugosa): vitamin C, antioxidants
And by the way, enjoying an herbal brew isn’t something you’ll need to hold
your nose and close your eyes for either. “We’ve crafted an ebulon, which is an ale with elderberries, black cherries and rose hips,” says Braun, as well as a hibiscus wine that comes in two strengths: a 6% sessionable version, and a 12% imperial.
“Craft beverages are gateways into further experiences with herbs,” says Braun. “Suppose we had a bag of dried elderflowers, mugwort, St. John’s wort, yarrow, and goldenrod. Someone may look at us and ask, ‘What do I do with those?’ and move on, buying their packaged tea or typical craft beer. However, if we ferment these herbs into a crisp gruit and pour them a pint, they will at least try it, and in our experience, enjoy it and strike up a conversation. The path to wellness is facilitated by incidental educational experiences like these conversations.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.