What’s the first word that comes to mind if someone were to ask you what beer is made of? Many would say hops, and others might think of grains. While those are the two primary components of the vast majority of modern commercial beers, neither is absolutely necessary for brewing your own beer.
Beer’s two core components are the ingredients most people take for granted: water and yeast. You can’t make beer without them. For yeast to create alcohol, it needs sugar to feed on. This is why malted grain is a core component of most beers.
To malt grain, the kernels of harvested and dried grain are moistened at a warm temperature until the embryos sprout. This process helps make simple sugars and starches available to the brewer. The grains are then dried so that the germination process stops and the sugars and starches are locked in. Then, the grains are coarsely ground and heated with water to create a mash. The hot water is drained from the mash, and the resulting liquid is a sugary wort that can then be boiled, have flavoring and preservative ingredients—such as hops—added to it, cooled and fermented with yeast.
The reason hops and grain are what most people think of as the core components of beer stems from a long, convoluted series of cultural, societal, economic and religious shifts that go back to the beginning of humanity. The culmination of this thorny series of historical circumstances was the Reinheitsgebot, an edict issued in the Bavarian region of Germany in 1516 primarily for economic and trade purposes that required beer be made only from malted grains, hops and water. (Yeast was added later.) This law was subsequently extended to all German brewers and eventually took over the brewing world.
Practice Witchcraft: Make Beer
A well-balanced, grain-based, hopped beer can be difficult to put down, but what about those of us who avoid gluten or just don’t like the flavor of hops?
Throughout much of history, alcoholic beverages were made with all manner of botanicals and sugar sources. While a strict, modern definition of beer wouldn’t include drinks made from sugar sources other than grain, perusing cookbooks and brewing recipes published as recently as the early 20th century shows that the definition wasn’t always this strict.
For hops, there are many alternatives. The use of hops took precedence over herbal ales and beers partly because hops have strong preservative and antibacterial properties. Other herbs can accomplish this as well, but hops are the workhorse.
When hops began to be used heavily in commercial brewing, brewers could use less grain and thus produce lower–alcohol beers for much cheaper than most herbal ales. Until around the 15th century, most beer and ale was produced at home and the excess was sold.
The brewers were often female and were known as brewsters, or alewives. They combined their knowledge of herbalism and brewing to keep their communities happy and healthy.
Sadly, the authorities didn’t like the idea of women holding a respected role in the community and perpetuated myths about brewsters—with their cauldrons, long stir-sticks and tall hats, which made them more visible in the marketplace—as practitioners of witchcraft.
Medicinal Herbal Brews
While the options of herbs to brew with are many, there are some core plants to use for their healing qualities, all of which can be grown easily at home or even harvested wild. Research any herb—checking several sources—before imbibing large amounts or using medicinally, and check with your physician for contraindications with pharmaceuticals or other herbs.
- Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris): Mugwort has bittering qualities but is tamer than its cousin wormwood (artemesia absinthum). It’s a great substitute for hops’ bittering and preservative powers. Among its many medicinal uses, it has traditionally been used as an antidepressant, an expectorant, a diaphoretic (perspiration inducer) and for digestion (due to its carminative properties). Pregnant women should consult with a physician before imbibing it or any other herb.
- Alehoof (Glechoma hederacea): Alehoof has many other names, including creeping Charlie and ground ivy. Its name is directly related to its traditional use in brewing. Considered by many to be a weed, it pops up in most yards throughout North America in early spring. Although it has bittering qualities, the effect is milder than mugwort. Its medicinal qualities include anti-inflammatory, digestive, menstrual induction (avoid if pregnant), antidiarrhetic and antirheumatic.
- Meadowsweet (Spiraea ulmaria): A very common herb in traditional brewing, the flower and leaves of meadowsweet were both used. The flowers are much more aromatic, but the leaves take on some of these aromatic qualities as well. It can be used as a fever reducer, an antidiarrhetic and a diuretic and for indigestion. Its aromatic qualities make it a great candidate for adding at the end of the boil when brewing beer.
- St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum): This herb’s name comes from its traditional use in brewing, as “wort” is the term for unfermented beer. St. John’s Wort has been extensively used in brewing and medicine, including use as an antidepressant, a digestive, a diuretic and a sedative—and to keep away evil spirits. It was also used as an abortive and contraceptive, so it should be avoided by pregnant women.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Another mild bittering herb, yarrow is common in many early brewing recipes. It can be used to induce perspiration (diaphoretic) and has antidiarrhoeal, anti-inflammatory and carminative qualities. It was also used in divination and was associated with “The Evil One,” going by names such as Devil’s Nettle and Devil’s Plaything.
Brewing Beyond the Reinheitsgebot
If you want to resurrect the practice of brewing at home for economic, enjoyment and health purposes, you can do so with variations of these simple ingredients:
- water (quality spring water preferably)
- sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, molasses, even honey)
- yeast (wild, baker’s or brewer’s)
- herbs, spices and other edible botanicals
Filtered tap water can be used as a substitute for spring water provided any chlorine is boiled off. (Some municipalities use chloramine, which doesn’t break down by boiling or filtering.) You can also use well water, though high mineral levels can cause problems.
Various types of cane sugar and molasses (boiled down cane sugar) can be blended for flavor variations. You can also substitute dry malt extract, or DME, from a homebrew-supply store for a more “beerlike” beer; this is simply malted grain that has been made into beer wort and dehydrated. A simple rule to follow is that 1 pound of sugar or DME in about 1 gallon of water produces beer with an alcohol level of 5 to 51⁄2 percent.
Wild yeast can be procured by adding fresh or dried organic fruits or herbs after the boil. The herbs and spices you can use for flavoring, presentation and wild yeast are many. Common ones include ginger and other roots, alehoof/ground ivy, meadowsweet, yarrow, dandelion,
St. John’s wort and mugwort. Hops can also be used but, again, aren’t necessary.
For equipment, you won’t need much more than what you already have in your kitchen:
- (1) 2- to 3-gallon cooking pot
- (1) 2- to 3-gallon open-mouthed container (either glass, ceramic or food-grade plastic) with a towel or cheesecloth that fits over it
- (1) 1-gallon glass or plastic jug with airlock or balloon
- a vessel with a spigot for bottling (or substitute with a funnel and careful pouring)
- stirring spoon
- bottles (swing-top are ideal)
Some other pieces of equipment are nice to have but not necessary, including food-grade vinyl tubing for siphoning, a bottle capper and caps, and a hydrometer, which is a specialized tool for measuring alcohol level. I recommend starting simple and building from there.
Brewing can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. When brewing with simple sugars, you needn’t do much more than make a quick trip to your pantry or the grocery store. The flavor of non-grain-based beers is more akin to hard sodas, but I like to call them simple ales. Some have ciderlike qualities, and others can taste similar to a grain-based beer.
Following is a recipe that provides the guidelines and a basic blueprint for brewing your own herbal concoctions:
- Bring 1 gallon of water to a rolling boil in a stockpot.
- Stir in one pound of cane sugar, dark or light brown sugar, molasses, DME or any combination of these.
- Squeeze in juice of half a lemon.
- Add 2 teaspoons dried or four to five sprigs fresh mugwort, yarrow or alehoof (or experiment with other herbs and spices).
- Boil for half an hour, and cool the wort quickly (to avert bacterial spoilage) by placing the hot pot in an ice-water bath.
- When the wort reaches 60 to 80 degrees F or feels warm to the touch, pour it into a 2- to 3-gallon container.
- Add 1 teaspoon of bread yeast or brewer’s yeast and wait 12 to 24 hours for it to begin fermenting.
- Alternative wild-fermentation method: Add one-half cup of fresh or dried organic fruit, cover and stir several times daily until the solution fizzes in three to five days.
- Strain solution through a sieve or cheesecloth into a 1-gallon jug, topping off with fresh water to about 1 inch below the opening.
- Insert an airlock (pictured left), which can be purchased from a homebrew store, half-filled with water or stretch a balloon over the opening; either of these act as a barrier against outside air that will turn your solution to vinegar and allow for carbon dioxide gases to escape.
- Allow to ferment for two weeks or until carbon dioxide activity stops.
- Prime (for carbonation) by adding 1 ounce/28 grams of cane sugar or brown sugar to the beer. Then bottle and place in a cool, dark corner.
- Wait two to three weeks and open carefully. Results can range from slight fizz to gushing bottles.
This might seem like several steps at first, but it’s a very simple process once you’ve done it a couple of times. Results can vary wildly depending on sugar sources used and ingredients added. Keep in mind that most herbs and spices can easily become overpowering if too much is added, so start small or follow a recipe and experiment from there.
Bittering herbs such as mugwort and yarrow should be added early in the boil for maximum effect, while herbs and spices with aromatic flavors such as cinnamon and cloves should be added at the last five minutes or just when cutting off the boil to keep from losing their volatile oils and aroma to evaporation.
This is just the beginning. Try as many variations as you dare!