One of the world’s choice beverages for hot summer afternoons and evenings, beer and its brewing have been part of human culture for more than 10,000 years. Any number of strange plants and herbs have been fermented and imbibed, sometimes with startling effects. Honey is perhaps the oldest fermenting ingredient, but many brews included less appetizing elements. Henbane, a powerful narcotic poison of the deadly nightshade family, was sometimes added to beers of the Middle Ages, and the Egyptians brewed beer with mandrake root. Other potentially poisonous herbs used in European ales included pennyroyal and tansy.
Before Germany’s 1516 Bavarian Purity Law (which restricted brewing ingredients to hops, barley and water), poisonous or psychotropic herbs were often included in ale recipes, but they weren’t the only ones. Sage ale, one of the most popular brews of the Middle Ages, was considered almost as a medicinal tonic, with the side effect of being highly inebriating. Yarrow ale was a popular choice for weddings because of its tendency to increase energy, act as an aphrodisiac and generally “make the guests crazy.” Other traditional European ales were often made with heather (called leann fraoich in Gaelic), meadowsweet, juniper, elder flowers and sweet woodruff.
Today the most common brewing herb is hops, no question, and that fact is largely due to purity laws such as the one mentioned above. Not all of today’s brewers adhere to these guidelines, however, and it may be worthwhile to expand your beer-tasting palate. While a home brewery might be your best chance to try the most creative herbal beers, large brewing companies occasionally use herbs in more mainstream brews. Coriander is often used in Belgian-style white beers and multiple hop varieties flavor IPAs. Other beers contain lavender, cardamom, seaweed, heather, meadowsweet or elder. Check out some of the options in the caption above.
Did you know?
While most beers today are made with hops, traditional European ales counted clary sage, gentian, ginger, comfrey, horehound, milk thistle and rosemary among their ingredients.
Beer brewed with hops produces a soporific effect while other herbs, such as yarrow and juniper, increase energy and act as aphrodisiacs when fermented and imbibed. —Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers (Siris, 1998)
Lauren Holt is an editorial intern at The Herb Companion. Katie Priebe contributed research.