Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

March 18, 2013

Frontier Beer

Root Beer:

Simmer 1 oz. sassafras root bark in 2 q water for 25 min.
Remove from heat
Stir in 1¾ cup brown sugar ‘til dissolved (or more, up to about 2½ cups?)
Stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1 pinch cinnamon
Let cool ½ hour.
Awaken ale yeast (gently mix a packet of yeast into warm water with a little sugar for 15 min.)
Bring sassafras brew to 1 gallon volume w/ cold water
Add awakened ale yeast, mix.
Pour through small, fine sieve and funnel into plastic pop bottles
Cap tightly
Let ferment 16-48 hours, squeezing the bottles to feel the pressure.
When the bottles are almost totally firm to the hand, refrigerate or pasteurize to cut off fermentation.

(adapted from BethTN’s recipe, and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book “Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers.”)

This is a frontier beer, distinctive of America. You can make it this way to create a soda pop, or you can ferment it fully like beer (for example, ferment for 10 days in a jug under a fermentation lock, then bottle with priming sugar.)

To remind everyone, alcoholic fermentation is what happens when yeast organisms consume the sugar in a watery mixture and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. So, you can ferment for alcohol only and let all of the carbon dioxide escape (to make a non-sparkling wine), or trap some of the carbon dioxide in the bottle for fizziness (champagne or beer), or you can let the yeast just barely get started in a sealed bottle to make carbonated non-alcoholic beverages (the tiny amount of alcohol created compares to the alcohol in “non-alcoholic” juices and pops you would buy at the store, perhaps about 0.5%.) Some people simply mix carbonated water into the recipe, or you could use a whipped cream whipper to crack open a pressurized carbon dioxide cartridge and carbonate the pop mechanically.

Root beer can also include wintergreen or birch sap, sarsaparilla, molasses, spikenard, or whatever you like. (If I were to make one tweak to this recipe I would add wintergreen, perhaps 1 oz. of the fresh green.)

A beer glass full of dark amber rootbeer with a light head.

Here’s to the wilderness and the wild people!

This creative beverage is part of a tradition of herbal beers for fun or medicine, which was almost stamped out in Europe by prohibition laws, but which flourished among free American settlers. Another famous formula is ginger ale, made of ginger, water, and honey. Besides the fun of herbal pop and beer, beer is pretty useful as medicine. Medical plant essences typically dissolve better in water with at least a touch of alcohol in it, and beer keeps for a long time, so herbal beer is an elegant and low-tech drug delivery system (or “dietary supplement” delivery system if you don’t do drugs.) Some beers carried specific remedies but others supported health in a more general way: dandelion greens were brewed to reinvigorate the body in Spring, spruce branch tips were brewed to ward off scurvy in Winter, and sassafras seems to be one of those rare herbs that just makes people feel better, whether they are healthy or ill. Hops is a sedative, makes you pee and blocks male sexual response, and it is a very weird choice of medicine to be included in every standard beer.

All beer must start from sugar. Apples were an option on the frontier, having enough sugar and flavor in them to make hard cider with no additions, although that’s more of a wine than beer. Perhaps you have heard of making beer from malted barley, but that was no option on the fringe. The pioneers came from Europe’s brewing tradition, where “maltsters” developed sprouting, drying and roasting barley into an intricate art form. Americans were generally intimidated away from the specialty. Malt also requires long soaking in hot water (for an enzyme in the sprouted barley grains to finish its job of converting seed starch into fermentable sugar), a “required” step that intimidates some away from brewing.

Root beer generally starts with brown sugar, and sometimes molasses, as its yeast-feeding sugars. Brown sugar and molasses were fairly cheap commodities across much of frontier America, or a family could make their own from sorghum, a sugary cane that grows in the temperate zone. White sugar is not recommended for brewing beer, but it’s probably fine if you are just brewing pop. Birch or maple sap is acceptable — apparently, wintergreen in modern root beers is sort of a substitute for the flavor of birch sap. Birch sap was convenient to people who were “handy” and lived in the woods, but if you are purchasing ingredients in today’s marketplace, wintergreen is going to be a lot easier to come by. Honey is a good source of sugar, with its own distinctive flavor and medicinal action, too. A certain Roger Beverly described America’s home-cobbled beer scene circa 1700: “The richer sort of Americans generally brew their small beer with malt, which they have from England, though they have as good a barley of their own as any in the world, but for want of convenience of malt-houses the inhabitants take no care to sow it. The poorer sort brew their beer with molasses and bran, with Indian corn malted by drying in a stove, with persimmons dried in cakes and baked, with potatoes, with the green stalks of Indian corn cut small and bruised…”

My pop-style root beer is good, but not as sweet as commercial pop. It is frothy and sweet with candy and clove herbal flavors, but on the other hand, it’s not that sweet, lacks body, and it’s a little bit astringent. It tastes like… it tastes like… it tastes like freedom!

Once, America banned all brewing, and the result was a terrible degradation of our brewing culture. Hucksters sold inferior homebrew malt that resulted in a mud-like product, the OTC “bath salts” of beer. Underground brewers stretched their product to the thinnest and cheapest possible, counting on steady black market profits, thus creating America’s anomalously thin style of commercial beer. Many herbal beers were forgotten or survived only as pop. Due to “clerical error,” homebrewing remained illegal from the beginning of Prohibition all the way up until 1978. Since then — since people were once again allowed to develop their brewing skills independently and cheaply at home — our brewing culture has much recovered, and even Coors and Budweiser are selling richer beers these days.

Still, sassafras is illegal to sell as food or drink in its natural form. In 1960, FDA found that the sassafras oil content in root beer is carcinogenic — almost as carcinogenic as the alcohol content in any beer. Genuine root beer is a sort of gray-market thing, something you can pass around at family gatherings but never sell at the farmer’s market. Your average corporate root beer would be artificially flavored for cheapness anyways, so the regulators have no concern about the liberty lost by restricting sassafras. They can’t hear any money complaining at all.

It’s sad that the root beer at the store is sassafras-free or chemically stripped of its best molecule (safrole), but the silver lining is that this restrictive FDA policy inspires some productive explorations by those skirting the law. Reed’s, a California company, makes “Virgil’s Rootbeer” organically, approximating the flavor of sassafras root beer with a combination of many herbs including sarsaparilla and wintergreen. Another response to FDA is seen in the conscientiously patriotic American exploring herbs, pop and beer at home. One can legally homebrew beer containing wormwood, the infamous absinthe ingredient, or medical marijuana (if you are duly licensed), and fall outside of the jurisdiction of the FDA and its various superstitious anti-witchcraft regulations. You don’t even need to know how to make proper beer, if you are willing to experiment with pioneer-style sugar-and-syrup-based hooch. Hazards of crafting your own pioneer beer may include a hypomanic state characterized by euphoria, brief moments of ego inflation and a sudden undue interest in aspects of science, culture and history one had been ignoring until now…

February 24, 2013

The Great Nutmeg Question

Nutmeg is the seed or kernel of Myristica fragrans tree fruits, grated down into a musky-smelling spice. Lately, it seems as if few people are cooking with nutmeg except to sprinkle it on Christmas cookies or other holiday dishes. It was once greatly popular and expensive in Europe, as people liked it for medicine and flavor, but they had no idea where it came from. The fact that people had to buy the spice from Sindbad-like Arab traders who would not reveal the spice’s faraway source lent it a certain mystique.

It turns out that nutmeg is more than it seems, a potent mind-bending drug, which can induce long journeys away from the everyday perception of reality. The fact that a totally innocuous kitchen spice can do this raises certain questions about people’s relationships with the plant, and the relationship of the essential oils in spices to psychoactive drugs.

Firstly, the human-plant relations side of it: as nutmeg is a powerful plant drug, I would assume that there are indigenous people somewhere in the world who are familiar with its use in ritual. I would assume wrong. By the time Europeans and history discovered the Banda Islands, the secret source of nutmeg, the natives were already exporting the whole lot to meet world demand for nutmeg as a flavoring and make money. Nutmeg does have traditional uses as a sedative, sleep aid and analgesic. Writers occasionally note it as a mood elevator or health tonic. As the kernels traveled the world, people occasionally used them in smoking mixtures, snuff or chew, to nobody’s concern. And then, around the turn of the twentieth century, things took a strange turn.

A rumor went around the United States that nutmeg was an abortifacient. Perhaps this is true at a dosage that drives one to death’s door… in any case, young women would sometimes take down spoonfuls of nutmeg hoping to cause an abortion, and then, to their surprise, become highly inebriated with untrustworthy senses and delusions about the nature of the world. Nutmeg’s effects can last for over twenty-four hours after taking it. Some women thought that they were going mad or did mad things and ended up in newspaper stories. In 1902, a Dr. E.E. Hinman reported on treating nutmeg poisonings to the Northwestern Lancet: “In all cases of nutmeg poisoning there was prostration with partial or complete coma. Most of them had vertigo, delirium, chiefly hallucinations of sight, rapid, feeble pulse, and free urination. In five instances the nutmegs were taken to produce abortion, and in every case without accomplishing the desired result.”

Hysterical woman falling out of chair.

Prostrated by nutmeg.

Soon, prisoners caught on to the story about nutmeg causing delirium and hallucinations, and they were smuggling it out of the kitchen to experience the terror and insanity for themselves, such is the human drive to experience altered states. Actually, the experience may not run so terribly for everybody (prisoner Malcolm X measured doses out in a matchbox, and described the effects as being like four or five joints). Still, the seed is surprisingly strong stuff. Fortunately, most people don’t like it as a drug — the heavy effects of higher doses come with heavy side effects — so it is little abused, and the US government hasn’t snatched it out of our spice racks yet. Periodically, the news media notices that teenagers or ultra-poor people are getting high on nutmeg, and there is almost a big deal made of it. Occasionally, someone takes enough to do themselves in.

So, that is the anthropology of nutmeg in brief. There is still the question of how nutmeg does its thing. Since we don’t really understand how the human brain correlates with consciousness all that well, we can’t really truly describe the mechanism of action of any psychoactive drug whatsoever. We can, however, take a stab at relating the chemical constituents of the seed to better-understood drugs and their pharmacology.

One of the first strong efforts at dissecting the action of nutmeg took place in the mid-1960’s, to be published in 1967. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a prolific American inventor of synthetic psychedelics, and two Chilean colleagues, Thornton Sargent and Claudia Naranjo, submitted an article to Psychopharmacology Bulletin: “The Chemistry and Psychopharmacology of Nutmeg and Several Related Phenylisopropylamines.” The team assumed that nutmeg’s power lay in the volatile or “essential” oil fraction of the spice, not in its fatty butter or pulpy cellulose structure. So, they pressed the kernels to express the butter, and steam distilled the essential oil from the crushed remainders. They fractionally distilled the oil, meaning that it was distilled and redistilled until each individual compound was almost completely separated from every other compound. By analyzing each fraction, the team could determine exactly which compounds were in nutmeg oil and how much of each.

Many of the chemicals in nutmeg oil are common throughout nature or well-understood, and thus were seen as poor candidates for explaining its psychoactivity (for example, pinene and sabinene are present in high concentrations across many plant species. However, the most interesting thing known about their pharmacology was that they are irritants.) Other chemicals are present in such tiny amounts that they are probably not the main contributors to nutmeg’s action (unless they are extremely potent).

Eventually, the researchers focused their attention on three “phenylisopropylamine” compounds: safrole, myristicin, and elemicin. These components of Oil of Nutmeg bear a striking resemblance to a series of synthetic psychedelics Sasha Shulgin was working on, modifications of the mescaline molecule. — — The researchers hypothesized that the human liver adds nitrogen to the three phenylisopropylamines as they pass through, so converting them into their psychedelic amphetamine counterparts — safrole to MDA, myristicin to MMDA, and elemicin to TMA. The liver is known to “transaminate” many kinds of compounds, lending the hypothesis some plausibility.

Nutmeg oil components and their hypothetical products

Phenylisopropylamine Psychedelic Amphetamine













If the researchers’ hypothesis is true, the effects of nutmeg should roughly correspond to the effects of MDA, MMDA, and TMA in the same proportions as nutmeg oil contains safrole, myristicin, and elemicin. All three psychedelic amphetamines have been explored somewhat as single compounds. MDA catalyzes an opening of empathy and creates sparkling visual changes. MMDA is a psychedelic generally reported as being relaxing, while exhibiting the wrinkle that impressive visual effects are only achieved with the eyes closed. TMA is definitely psychedelic and nausea-causing, but I cannot find enough reports on it to comment as to the particular character of its activity. In general, psychedelics activate certain serotonin receptors which cause “sensory gating channels” in the brain and mind to open up, increasing awareness and the sense of novelty, as well as sometimes creating special effects such as synesthesia. Psychedelics do not necessarily act as stimulants, even though many are chemically described as “amphetamines.”

Sasha Shulgin devised a way to challenge the transamination theory. He prepared a cocktail of psychedelic amphetamines to imitate the effects of 5 grams of average nutmeg, assuming that the phenylisopropylamines would be metabolized with 100% efficiency. It consisted of 100 mg of white powder, divided into 1 part (by mass?) MDA, 2 parts TMA, and 5 parts MMDA. He reports that the cocktail “produced quite a sparkle and considerable eye-dilation. But then, I have never taken 5 grams of nutmeg, so I cannot make any comparisons.” Nice experimental design, Dr. Shulgin! Couldn’t you have taken 2 or 3 days out of your busy life to get high on nutmeg (as an experimental control)? Writing in the Entheogen Review, Ibo Nagano describes 5 grams of nutmeg as a threshold dose “marked by euphoria, relaxation, mood elevation, hilarity and enhancement of the senses,” which I suppose could mean the same as “quite a sparkle.” Please note that nutmegs vary considerably in their potency and exact composition, and you cannot presume to get certain effects at certain dosages unless you know already know your source pretty well — and in that case, put down the shaker bottle, you addict!

Shulgin’s imitation nutmeg amphetamine cocktail superficially supported the transamination hypothesis. However, on another occasion, human volunteers consumed myristicin in the amount present in almost 40 g nutmeg — a dosage seen in typical emergency room visits — yet the volunteers experienced only subtle effects. As myristicin is by far the most abundant aromatic in Oil of Nutmeg, and it makes such a lame psychedelic, we can rule out the idea of it being converted efficiently by the liver. If 100% of the material was converted, each volunteer would have synthesized about 400 mg of MMDA in their own body, and likely been knocked on their butt. Additionally, while the transamination reactions were made to work in laboratory liver cultures, several investigators have not been able to demonstrate such a reaction in living animals.

There is still a possibility for partial transamination of the phenylisoproylamines in the human body. Perhaps small amounts of nutmeg oil are transformed into psychedelic amphetamines, which act synergistically to create a stronger effect than any one would produce alone. On the other hand, the phenylisoproylamines might be active at some of the same receptors as psychedelics, but at a weaker level. In the end, the 1967 research suggested a lot of things and proved almost nothing.

No one seemed interested in the problem again until 2000, when Bernard C Sangalli and William Chiang submitted a paper to Clinical Toxicology. A young woman swallowed roughly 20 g of nutmeg on a friend’s advice without really knowing what it was. When she woke up the next morning still feeling drunk and high after dreaming of being covered in centipedes, she asked her mother to take her to the hospital — thus, becoming the case study that spurred Sangalli and Chiang to investigate nutmeg. (She recovered after a few days’ rest.)

The duo list many components of nutmeg oil with notes about any known actions of those compounds. Some are stimulants, others depressants, others anesthetics, and so on. Where information is lacking, the authors suggest a strategy of comparing nutmeg to other plant materials containing some of the same or similar chemicals. For example, methysticin and kavain are two compounds from kava kava, which contain within them structures strongly resembling myristicin. The kava compounds are known local anesthetics, which work by inhibiting voltage-operated sodium channels (making nerves less conductive). Thus, the anesthetic medicinal/side effect of nutmeg may be tentatively pinned on myristicin and its interaction with the voltage-gated sodium channels. To hypothesize about each nutmeg effect and compound in this way, and then to test each hypothesis, sounds like a fun project to amuse a few research teams for the next several decades. Nutmeg is not amenable to a simplistic, reductionist approach — there are clearly multiple compounds working together to create the nutmeg syndrome, and quite possibly none of these compounds will create impressive effects working alone. I must say that this is less satisfying than Shulgin’s transamination hypothesis, but it does seem to be the truth: this is one tough nut to crack. At least it is providing us with good questions to ask.

One final note. Sangalli and Chiang lament that nutmeg’s “use is perpetuated in easy access resources such as the Internet.” Nutmeg use was perpetuated throughout the twentieth century, mostly in the absence of the Internet. I believe that having a lack of information perpetuates nutmeg use. People with adequate information would probably turn nutmeg down, or at least keep the dose limited to levels that others report enjoying. People who end up in the E.R. were usually working from ignorance or faulty information, so the researchers’ attitude of “let’s keep this information locked up in libraries where no one will look at it” is completely counterproductive. I kind of have to celebrate the honest people who share their awkward nutmeg experiences via Youtube and Erowid and the like. This young woman didn’t regret her experience but I hardly think she’s going to inspire a thousand imitators (I believe that she is a smaller person who took about 20 g, based on her previous “Nutmeg High” video):

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!

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