Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

January 17, 2013

On the Gruit Path

Filed under: gardening, magic, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 3:31 pm

The topic of gruit ale generated more than theoretical interest, so I’ve decided to collate & post some info to empower people to make or find this stuff. The first part of this post is for people making their own; it concerns getting seeds or transplants, growing the herbs, buying the herbs and where to add the herbs in the brewing process. The second part concerns tracking down gruit ale for sale.

Plants and Growing Info:

The best place to buy dried beer herbs appears to be Wild Weeds. You will find the “Holy Trinity” of beer herbs there under the names Sweet Gale, Yarrow, and Labrador Tea.

Myrica gale (sweet gale, bog myrtle) — This is a 2-4′ high shrub that grows along the waterside. It has been a brewing spice in Europe for over 2,000 years. Also native to North America, the Potawatomi Indians used the plant as a smudge to banish evil spirits (a suggestion of antiseptic action). Flavorwise, sweet gale is said to have a spicy aroma and a bitter taste, but also to impart a vanilla-like richness. For the head, sweet gale is narcotic or stupefying, yet it is said to improve the lucidity of dreaming.

Gagelstrauch (1)


North American sweet gale can be purchased for transplant through Fourth Corner Nurseries, a business dedicated to propagating native plants, or New England Wetland Plants.

Sweet gale prefers boggy to wet soil, something you might achieve almost anywhere by applying water almost continuously. However, it also appreciates acidic conditions (pH 4 to 6.5) — presumably the boggy places where it grows naturally are loaded with humic and fulvic acids from the slow decomposition of plants. Any level of sunlight is fine, but some shade will help protect this plant of the North from the summer heat.

Bog myrtle’s chemistry is best expressed with a combination of hot-water extraction and alcohol extraction; therefore half of it should be boiled with the wort, and half thrown in the fermenter (in a permeable bag.) On the other hand, plenty of people just toss it in the boiling wort and strain it out. All of the aerial parts of the plant are used, however, the best time is when “nut cones” are on the stem. Use 1.5 g of herb per gallon of brew. Or, use 1 oz. per gallon, to make sweet gale ale (with no other spices.)

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) — This plant vaguely resembles Queen Anne’s Lace. The leaves have zillions of feathery leaflets. This one has been with Eurasians since Neanderthal times, a very old friend indeed. Yarrow is used to dramatic effect in the binding of wounds, as well as manifold subtler uses (antiseptic, blood-flow promoter, …?). Tossing yarrow stalks is the oldest way to cast the I Ching, and yarrow heals battle wounds in the Iliad, so yarrow was known far and wide for its potent magic. Mentally, yarrow provides enhanced clarity and quells anxiety — except if taken with ale, when it precipitates instant drunkenness.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (2863774620)

Yarrow seedlings can be purchased from Fourth Corner, or seeds from Alchemy Works.

Like many herbs, yarrow prefers mediocre soil with good drainage. For seeds, barely press into moist soil; seeds need light to germinate in 5-10 days at 62-75F/18-25C.

In beer, yarrow is bitter and preservative. Leaves should be boiled in the wort, but delicate aromatics can be taken from the flower heads if they are placed into the cooling wort right after the boil. Use at 1.5 g per gallon in gruit, or 1 oz. per gallon in a single-herb brew, or half that mass of recently dried yarrow.

Rhododendron tomentosum (wild or marsh rosemary) — This low shrub has leaves smooth on top, fuzzy beneath. A second species, Rhododendron groenlandicum, is also acceptable, and this is one of those annoying cases where the scientific name seems to add little clarity to the discussion (you may also read about these plants as Ledum glandulosum, Ledum latifolium, Ledum palustre, or as multiple types of Labrador Tea.) Don’t confuse these with Limonium, a completely different genus known as marsh rosemary, but also as sea lavender or statice: Limoniums are not what you want. In herbalism, Labrador Tea seems to be popular for treating a laundry list of conditions. It is much more widely available than true wild rosemary. Either plant contributes to some sort of narcotic delirium, with higher doses leading to headaches and cramps.

Labrador tea Ledum glandulosum close

Labrador Tea seeds are available at From the Forest.

Wild rosemary likes the same sort of acidic, boggy soil as Bog myrtle (Myrica gale.) However, it is somewhat less tolerant of shade. Seeds are broadcast onto moist soil in Spring when its temperature is 55-65F/13-18C, or in Fall.

Wild rosemary has a fresh, spicy aroma and bitter taste. The brewer should take caution when utilizing any unfamiliar source of wild rosemary, as not all of the plants in this group are of equal potency. As with bog myrtle, half of it should be boiled with the wort, and half thrown in the fermenter (in a permeable bag, weighted with a clean or sterile stone.) Use fresh flowering tops in gruit at 1.5 g per gallon, or 4/5 oz. per gallon in a single-herb brew.

Other plants: Gruit was used over a big piece of Europe for seven centuries or so… the recipe varied quite a bit. Sometimes the mix included juniper berries, ginger, caraway seeds, aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Some sources go on to name mugwort, wormwood, heather, and licorice. Or lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, and sweet fern. These lists are by no means exhaustive, however, some people seem to use “gruit” to refer to any mix of beer herbs excluding hops, regardless of how authentically medieval it may or may not be. Literally speaking, “gruit” is Old German for “herb” (and you pronounce it along the lines of “fruit.”)

Finding Gruit Ale:

There seem to be no gruit ales distributed on anything like a national basis (in the United States, at any rate). To buy gruit ale, you need to find a local brewery that has achieved competency in the style.

I searched the ‘net for “Michigan gruit -fruit.” This technique seems to work fine for other states, although I don’t know if you’ll find a gruit brewery far from the chilly, boggy places where marsh rosemary and bog myrtle grow.

In Michigan, Kuhnhenn Brewing Co. of Warren carries an occasional heather ale. Mt. Pleasant Brewing Company carries “Sacred Gruit Ale” as a regular beer, with the authentic triumvirate of major herbs. Mt. Pleasant brews are carried by a number of distributors across the state. You can look at this map and call your local distributor to find out which stores have Sacred Gruit. Mt. Pleasant brews are also served up at Mountain Town Station brewpub in Mt. Pleasant.

Still curious? Take a look at Gruit… I especially like their pilgrimage to the 50th parallel to harvest wild bog plants!

January 13, 2013

They put mind-control drugs in the drinking water.

Filed under: magic, Vinting — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:55 pm

Imagine that your government mandated your drinking water supply be laced with a pharmaceutical agent — a drug that causes sedation, depression in a certain proportion of patients, loss of sex drive and sometimes male impotence. This would seem to be a vile New World Order scheme for cowing a sheep-like populace, preventing revolts and dwindling the population.

Indeed, the drinking water was drugged to control behavior among the masses. I’m not talking about the fluoride in your city water, though — I’m talking about hops in the beer, and the scene is Europe in the late Middle Ages / early Renaissance.

Medieval Europeans didn’t know how to sanitize water to make it safe, but they did know that beer was safe. They drank it all day long (although some of the beers were too weak to go to market today.) In the Dark Ages, there were many beer recipes in circulation… some called for malt and water only, but that was not most people’s favorite beer. Plain beer has no bitter element to balance the sweetness, and doesn’t keep as long as beer infused with bitter herbs. Other beers were brewed with juniper or wormwood, or with specific herbs to treat specific maladies.

The most popular beer was the one backed up by Church authority. In many places, the local monks held a monopoly on making gruit, a brain-bending combination of herbs such as marsh rosemary, yarrow, and sweet gale (Myrica gale.) The village people would pony up cash for the secret-formula gruit, and proceed to brew their own beer with it. Gruit beer is said to be stimulating and highly inebriating. To Protestants, the gruit system was a big problem, because 1) it supported the authority of the Church and 2) it was too much fun, too indulgent, and had to be sinful.

Their solution appeared in the form of hops. Very late in the Middle Ages, brewers were experimenting with hops as an alternative to gruit. Its main advantage was that it could be grown in one’s own beer garden, avoiding the priestly layer of secrecy and control. Hops is bitter and preservative, and it can be bred into varieties producing a decent range of different aromas. The downside of hops is that it causes sleepiness, weakens the male libido (through estrogen-like chemistry), and is contraindicated for depressives. It’s not an evil plant; the other side of the coin is that it’s good for menopausal symptoms and for people who suffer anxiety without depression.

Apparently, the side effects of hops were of no concern to the Protestants. I don’t think that they consciously set out to sedate people — it’s just that sedating people didn’t rate as a disadvantage. Hops was considered an anti-drug, the tame alternative to everything from heather to henbane. Hops was mandated into Bavarian beer in 1516, with the Reinheitsgebot or German Purity Law — the only ingredients allowed in beer henceforth would be barley, water and hops. The Purity Law would spread to many European nations and locales. To the modern Westerner, the Purity Law is an assurance that there is no cheapass rice or maize in the brew. To someone living almost 500 years ago, it meant something different… it meant that to drink something that was safe and dysentery-free, you had to dull yourself down with hops: that is a mass drugging of the population through the drinking water supply, no doubt.

This could be a sad tale of the subjugation of my ancestors. However, this story points to a wide-open new frontier in brewing… everything from pine branches to saffron has been used in beer. Yet we today rely almost exclusively on hops, even reflexively hopping beers with other spices added. There is no need to do so, especially with bitter herbs!

A homebrewer can easily buy some unhopped malt extract and brew it with the addition of any plant product they choose. The starting place for reclaiming our centuries-dormant brewing traditions has got to be “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers” by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I will double-check his information for assurance of safety, as I am just too self-conscious to converse with plants as Buhner does, and therefore I need empirical data regarding safe dosage! This also raises the question of what I can brew into a beer, and just hand it to someone as a beer, as against when a beer becomes a “drug.” I suppose I shall have to embark upon a serious, long-term effort to bioassay these strange brews, using the researcher as test subject.

Meanwhile, the struggle between “puritans” and the free-minded goes on. The high priests of public health are considering what level of lithium to put in city water in order to reduce violent behavior. Wild people of the world, take some joy in the fight! It won’t end in our lifetime!

January 7, 2013

Anarchist, be kind to the new lamb.

Filed under: Soapbox — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 4:31 am

After 10+ years of calling myself an anarchist, I am sure that that is what I am and what I will die being. I promise that this has relevance to all people with strong beliefs…

I believe in human freedom and self-determination, noncoercion, and voluntary association. Now, most people only come halfway to this philosophy: they figure that it sounds nice, but in fact we need forceful government (aka “the State”) to a) take money from the wealthy for the feeding of poor folks, b) keep guns away from our mentally ill halfwit neighbors, c) protect us from the Russians and Chinese, or d), e), f) or g).

When I started down the anarchy path, I still supported FDA. Sure, FDA had neglected herbal medicine, practically causing it to fade from the nation, and they approved dangerous and/or useless Big Pharma drugs and suspicious food additives… but, we need FDA to keep Big Pharma from blatantly poisoning us! Look at all the shady pills Big Pharma is pushing! (The Zoloft and Ritalin I feared back then sound nice and mellow compared to the statin drugs and atypical antipsychotics of today.)

Today I hold Big Pharma and FDA in equal contempt: they are one and the same. Big Pharma is Big Pharma because FDA leases them a concession to fulfill that role. The mist has fallen from my eyes, and I have more consistent anarchist views.

In conversation with anarchists online, someone might raise the point, for instance, that taxation is equivalent to theft. A less faithful anarchist replies, “but taxes support food stamps and winter heating programs. Do you want to freeze and starve people?” Now, ideally, according to our group beliefs, we would look for ways to muster the power to feed and warm everybody through voluntary means. We could have all kinds of conversations about how to accomplish that.

Instead, the anarchist masses turn on the pro-tax anarchist with the charge: “You aren’t a real anarchist! You don’t know anything about anarchy!” They are trying to turn away the young me, to make sure he develops into a Democrat or something equally drab. Because, if you still believe in taxes or FDA, you can’t be an anarchist. According to other people, if you aren’t a vegan, or if you wear suits, you can’t be an anarchist. Coming from a group of people known for questioning the rules, such behavior is particularly lame.

I imagine that this is a universal group behavior: “She can’t be a Christian, she smokes meth / has premarital sex / does something fun” or “He’s not a real patriot, he only owns one gun” or “She’s no Marxist, look at the size of her house.”

Well, guess what. If you know some people who are even close to being on the same page as you, you are pretty lucky. Appreciate them. Welcome them in. Speak to them as if you think they know what they are talking about.

If your ways are just and right and worthy of spreading like Good News over the face of the Earth… you are going to have to bring people into the fold from where they really are, right now. Calling someone a hypocrite for only coming halfway over is the best way to exclude people from a shrinking circle.

If it’s not a matter of life and death, you’re better off sharing beers with someone than driving them from the temple. Relax, tilt your glass again…

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