hist-brewing: Brewing herbs

Randy Mosher randymosher at rcn.com
Thu Apr 12 13:16:00 PDT 2007

I'd be very careful with some of those herbs.

As far as I can tell, Myrica gale is wholesome enough (in addition to  
being nicely flavored), but Ledum palustre contains a substance  
called andromedotoxin, that seems to be related to modern blood- 
thinning drugs. There is some historical tradition of a psychoactive  
effect from this herb, but I have been unable to find any genuine  
pharmacology to that effect.  The other thing is, Ledum tastes pretty  
bad. Martyn Cornell (Beer: the Story of the Pint) makes a pretty good  
case that it was used only when Myrica was unavailable. In any case  
our modern-day understanding of the "holy three" herbs that make up  
gruit are likely to be another example of how an idea just gets  
passed along uncritically from one source to another. Yarrow is  
pretty disgusting in flavor also, IMO. Although I have heard of  
people brewing decent -tasting Gruitbiers, I'm not sure how they're  
doing it.

I've been having a botanist send me a little Myrica from Alaska now  
and then. There is no comparison to the dreadful stuff sold by  
Brewer's Garden in homebrew shops. The little resiny seedy bits are  
by far the best part of the plant for brewing.  If anybody locates a  
decent commercial source for the fresh herb, be sure to let the rest  
of us know.

Whatever caution I had about Ledum should be magnified about a  
hundred for "cocculus indicus" (actually Anamirta cocculus,  
botannically). It contains a powerful stimulant called picrotoxin  
that was once used as an antidote to barbituate overdoses. This was  
once a scourge in the British brewing industry. If you're going to be  
messing with this powerful herb, be sure you (and those who will be  
drinking your beer) know what you're getting into.

Conversely, wormwood is actually on the FDA GRAS list, and in any  
conceivable quantity derived from the use of the herb, seems to have  
no real harmful effects. In fact, Absinthe's demonization can be  
traced to a single crusading person in France, and again, like so  
many stories that pass for the truth, have been repeated uncritically  
ever since. For more, see: http://www.thujone.info/

Happy brewing!


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