Primitive, Sacred Brews Were Drunk Not for Their Flavor, but for Their Psychotropic Effects
This excerpt is from Pascal Baudar’s book The Wildcrafting Brewer: Creating Unique Drinks and Boozy Concoctions from Nature’s Ingredients (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
As I was planning this book, I thought I’d include a section listing pretty much all the herbs, plants, barks, berries, and other natural ingredients that people have used in the past (and present, too) to make sodas and brew beers, meads, spiced wines, or other alcoholic beverages. I was particularly interested in plants used instead of hops or as additional bittering agents in ancient beers.
But something interesting happened along the way: the more research and experimentation I did, the more I came to the conclusion that trying to list everything is pretty much an insane and impossible task. Why? Because there don’t seem to be any rigid rules as to what you can or cannot use, and the more I studied, the more I realized that since the dawn of humanity (and in fact until very recently) people have used whatever they had in their environment to create their alcoholic drinks, from plants to flowers, barks, fruits, berries, leaves, and more.
Let’s take a look just at plants. Granted, not all of them are edible or healthy to consume, but scientists estimate there are over 400,000 plants on earth—that’s a lot of flavors to play with. Here in Southern California, I always tell my students that I can use around 80 percent of what’s in my environment for culinary applications, so even if just 20 percent of all the plants on earth could be used in some way for cooking or brewing, that’s more than 80,000 potential ingredients. Of course, some of them will have similar flavor profiles—say, grasses, with over 10,000 species—but overall there is still an incredible number of possibilities. Then we have berries (estimated at over 7,000 species) and fruits (estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 species). In addition, some fruits come in many varieties; for example, you’ll find over 7,000 varieties of apples grown in the world.
If you add other natural, organic ingredients that are not considered plants but have been used in brewing, such as lichens, mushrooms, and algae, you’ve added around 20,000 more possible species. Again, most of them may not be edible or healthy for you to consume, but even if only 5 percent could be used, that’s another 1,000 potential flavors! Locally I use turkey tail and candy cap mushrooms, but quite a few beers and fermented beverages have included mushrooms such as chaga, reishi, black trumpets, maitake, shiitake, and many others for their medicinal qualities, their earthy flavors, or as bittering agents.
Just to give you an idea, the website Untappd.com, which lists beers from all over the world, gives more than 100 beer results if you search for “mushroom,” 965 beer results for “spruce,” 13,538 beer results for “pumpkin,” 55 beer results for “kelp” . . . the list goes on.
We’re not even touching upon insects (close to 1,000,000 species worldwide)—which, yes, have sometimes been used in brewing as flavoring or coloring agents. In South America a beer is made using lemony-tasting ants, and bitter-tasting cochineal bugs have been used as a coloring agent in Campari and various beers. I have experimented locally with using my own lemony-tasting ants, with great success. Insect excretions such as honey or honeydew have a place in the brewing process as well. I use my local lerps sugar (insect honeydew) in quite a few primitive beer recipes. Even the beer you purchase at the store contains some bug parts, too, as it would be impossible for a large brewing company to completely eliminate all bugs such as beetles and weevils from the grains they use.
I could go on and on detailing all the potential ingredients, but my point is really that we’re dealing with an almost infinite number of possibilities.
Even flavors haven’t always been the main goal through history. These days we seem a bit obsessed with creating the perfect wine, or brewing an awesome-tasting beer or soda. But we have also taken the medicinal, sacred, and religious context out of the process. If you start experimenting with truly primitive or sacred brews, you’ll soon realize that some of them were drunk not for their flavors but for the psychotropic effects of the alcohol or the ingredients themselves.
Presently we know and understand what yeast is and how fermentation occurs, but for many older cultures fermentation was seen not as a natural process but as a divine or spiritual intervention. Making a sacred drink could include elaborate ceremonies, noise, and songs to attract the yeast spirits; other cultures felt serenity and calm were required so as not to frighten them away. Fermentation was a spiritual act in and of itself.
From my perspective, it truly is a sacred process. Think about it: Billions of tiny life-forms are elevating a somewhat ordinary drink into an intoxicating libation that can free your spirit, alter your senses, ease pain, and make you happy for a while. Pretty amazing stuff!
If you’re an herbalist or inclined to brew for health reasons, flavors would not be your main goal. Back in the Middle Ages, drinking water was an iffy proposition—especially in cities—due to organic pollution and the potential of poisoning from E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and other bacteria. Drinking low-alcohol beer, ale, or wine was a much healthier alternative thanks to the pasteurization that often occurred in the heating process prior to fermentation. A few months ago I re-created an ale from the Middle Ages based on a recipe in the book Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England by Judith M. Bennett, and it was a fascinating experience! You could not compare that ale to what you can presently buy at the store; it reminded me more of a sort of highly nutritious liquid porridge with barely any noticeable alcohol in it. From the perspective of my modern palate, I had a hard time comparing it to modern ales.
Aside from nutritious liquid for your body, specifically chosen herbs or barks could be added for their medicinal qualities. For example, willow bark acts a lot like aspirin and can reduce pain and fever.
Not just beers or ales, but all kinds of fermented drinks were created for the purpose of addressing specific health issues. Nettle beer is a good remedy for scurvy, and dandelion wine was used as a digestive.
But getting back to the subject: Are there any rules when it comes to flavors?
Sort of. Bitter flavors are for beers, sweet and fruity for sodas. Wine flavors are more difficult to put into words, but you’re looking for specific qualities such as “full-bodied, fruity, spicy, expressive of terroir.” And of course there are exceptions for every single type of beverage. You’ll find bitter or unusual sodas such as San Pellegrino Sanbitter, or mauby soda made with bitter bark. Belgium has many sugary and fruity beers, like Rodenbach and Framboise Lambic. And many homemade wines with local fruits or wild grapes don’t even remotely compare to what you can purchase at the store.
Then you can go even further and try your hand at making fermented drinks that defy the easy labels of beer, soda, cider, and wine. Some examples are smreka (fermented juniper berries), kvass (a fermented beverage usually made from black or regular rye bread), or my own alcoholic beverage made with insect honeydew (lerps sugar). In fact, many of my drinks made with foraged ingredients fall into a murky classification zone.
After years of studying nature and experimenting with her gifts, while I fully recognize that very specific plants have been used extensively in the past, I also came to the conclusion that many people simply experimented with what their local terroir had to offer when they created their own unique libations. What it means for us today is that we have tremendous room and freedom for creativity.