Nectar From the Gods 

People from all walks of life find their way into beer writing. But Stephen Harrod Buhner's path might be the strangest of all. A contemplative who's an expert in sacred plants, Buhner questions most of what we know, not just about brewing but civilization as well.

Buhner's book, Sacred and Healing Beers, describes how the ancient civilizations discovered and, brewed beer. He insists the word "primitive" unfairly describes them; what they lacked in scientific knowledge they made up for with spirituality and survival skills. Knowing life was short, they lived to the fullest--often with the aid of beer.

According to conventional wisdom, beer was discovered several millenniums before Christ, when a woman left barley out in the rain and later discovered the pleasures of drinking the fermented mixture. Buhner won't have any of that: he maintains the story of beer started tens of thousands of years earlier when indigenous people enjoyed a pleasant sensation after drinking fermented honey, which they considered a gift from the gods.

The connection between beer and the supernatural persisted into recorded history. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known work of literature, the gods refused to share immortality with human beings, but they did offer beer as a consolation prize. As late as the Industrial Revolution, beer was considered a divine gift. The role of yeast, not fully understood until the nineteenth century, added to beer's mystery; fermentation was widely thought to be the work of divine beings.

Ancient beer was brewed with whatever was on hand: rice, millet, even cacti and bananas; and it wasn't preserved with the hops we take for granted. Until the Middle Ages, a variety of herbs were used, some to impart flavor to the beer, others to preserve it. Many were believed to have medicinal properties, and were used by the doctors of the era. Some of those herbs stimulated sexual desire, and some were mildly hallucinogenic (the ancient Scots brewed with heather, whose mind-altering properties might explain their ferocity on the battlefield).

For most of history, beer was low in alcohol--weaker than the tap beer served in modern-day bars--and generally consumed in rituals resembling modern-day Sunday services. Drinking was a communal ritual; there were few instances of solitary drinking, drunkenness, or alcohol-related disease. Nevertheless, forces were in place that would eventually divorce beer from the supernatural and, for a while, deprive humans of the beverage altogether.

One force was the Protestant Reformation. An early battle with unlikely religious overtones pitted those who brewed with hops against those who favored gruit, a mixture of consciousness-altering herbs. Hops were a superior preservative, but the Protestants favored them for other reasons: they didn't alter consciousness, and they also depressed the libido (over-exposure to hops can cause the dreaded "Brewer's Droop" in men). Buhner goes so far as to call the Bavarian Beer Purity Law, which mandated hops only, the West's first anti-drug law.

The women's movement also proved an enemy of beer. From the earliest days, brewing was a feminine art; but during the Renaissance, men took over the increasingly lucrative beer trade. Women eventually got even by backing the cause of temperance and, later, Prohibition.

Finally, there's science. Not content with natural drinks whose ingredients enhanced one another, humans discovered the process of distillation, which resulted in more powerful--and destructive--beverages such as gin. In Hogarth's famous etchings, the down-and-outers lived on "Gin Lane," the gentle folk on "Beer Street."

While Sacred and Healing Beers offers Buhner's version of brewing history, it's also a homebrewing manual. The recipes, from all corners of the world, use 200 herbs, many of which you might not have heard of, let alone associated with brewing. There's a world of interesting trivia associated with these herbs: wormwood, the active ingredient in absinthe, was once used as a bittering agent; American colonists brewed spruce beer, which helped prevent scurvy; and original Pilsner was brewed with henbane, an herb that stimulated both thirst and sexual desire.

Buhner's approach to brewing will horrify anyone who learned by the Papazian method, and probably raise eyebrows at the local board of health. He believes insisting on rigid temperature control and the "right" mix of grains scares off would-be brewers, especially women. To him, brewing is "a messy, chaotic, wet, stimulating, and strenuous activity that produces euphoria and health--sort of like sex."

Even if you're not adventurous enough to try Buhner's step-by-step homebrew recipes, reading Sacred and Healing Beers is time well spent. If nothing else, it will make you take a fresh look at the next beer you pour.