hist-brewing: poisonous brewing practices

Hiram Berry burningb at burningbridges.com
Tue Dec 14 21:51:49 PST 1999

bjm10 at cornell.edu wrote:
> On Mon, 13 Dec 1999, Patrick Bureau wrote:
> > Wormwood contains Thujone which can can cause brain damage; it is
> > with habitual use also causing vomiting, tremors,
> > violent behavior, and convulsions.

How amazing then, that I've been brewing (and consuming) purls for several
years now, never having suffered any of those symptoms!  Personally, I find
the flavor and aroma of fresh wormwood leaf much more pleasant than that of
any variety of dried hops.  Around 8 - 9 oz. of the undried leaf seems about
right for a 6 gallon brew.
> It should be noted (according to some absinthe afficionados) that at
> least some of these symptoms can also be found among hardcore alcohol
> addicts or those undergoing alcohol withdrawal symptoms.  There has been
> no specific study of the effects of use without concurrent heavy alcohol

It should also be noted that wormwood inclusion in beverages was banned in
many countries around the same time they also banned things like cocaine and
morphine as patent medicine ingredients. Artemisias, in spite of a long
history as gruits, were caught up in and wrongly castigated as poisons due
to the hysteria of turn-of-the-century prohibitionism.  Essential oil of
wormwood is certainly toxic if taken in huge quantities-- but that is also
true of almost any herbal essential oil, including otherwise innocuous
sounding ones like the oils of thyme or basil; this is because terpenes of
any sort taken in large amounts are toxic.

> The actual danger of wormwood's active ingredient is simply unknown.

I think you can say that, taken in the quantities associated with gruit
usage it is almost nil. The reason I say this is that millions of people
regularly consume these quantities of thujone without an associated

> That, in and of itself, should be sufficient caution for most of us (it
> is for me).  The prevalence (or possibility) of thujone allergy or toxic
> sensitivity is also unknown.

I'd say it's around the same prevalence as allergic response to sage sausage
or some recipes for turkey stuffing.  Take a look at the thujone levels in
Salvia officinalis dried herb (common sage, used in fairly large quantities
in some fairly common dishes).  Here's a link:


That's right, 2500 to 13000 parts per million in common sage!  Now compare
those levels with thujone in A. absinthum, found at the government site,


Yes, only 3500 ppm combined alpha- and beta- thujone in the supposedly
poisonous common wormwood, about one third the levels at the upper end of
the sage range.  Don't get me wrong-- I think both Artemisias and Salvias
are worthy gruits, both with historically commonplace (and safe) usage.  But
if thujone were as diabolical as intimated, we should all be suffering
convulsions from our breakfast sausage!

One of the other Artemisias, "mugwort", Artemisia vulgaris, also contains
thujone.  It's name alone tells you something of its usage, although as I
understand it it was not used directly as a gruit, but was mulled in the ale
directly before drinking.

In addition to sage, thujone also occurs in camomile, caraway, sassafras
root, summer savory, tarragon, yarrow, and licorice, though at lower levels.
If there were a widespread allergic reaction to it prevalent in the general
population, I think we would know about it.

Hiram Berry

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