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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Booze reviews

Stephen Harrod Buhner's book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers has been something of a classic in brewing circles for years, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would end up in my hot little hands. It is a fascinating book, with satisfying detail about medieval gruit brewing, traditional methods of mashing and sparging beer in Scandinavia, hints at traditional brewing technique in surviving fragments of folk poetry, etc.

But can I make a complaint? The book is full of inaccuracies, and they detract from the authority of the work overall. The Picts were not Scandinavian, nor had the Elder and Younger Eddas were not set in Britain. Lactobacilli is not yeast. Honey takes longer than four weeks to ferment!

The dwarves referred to in the Eddas are almost certainly the Picts...one of the original tribes of Britain.

There is as far as I'm aware no such evidence that the Picts in Britain were the same indigenous people of Scandinavia displaced by the Germanic migrations.

Some commercial brewers in Belgium still use only wild yeasts in their fermentation of lambic... Indigenous beers contain scores more. Numerous species of Pseudomonas, Lactobacillus.... 

The first mistake I put up to lazy writing; this mistake probably is due to the same, but Buhner is a naturopath - this is really the sort of thing he should have picked up on.

Perhaps it's because of little mistakes like this that the recipes can sometimes seem a little questionable too. He tells us to ferment some meads "for 8 to 20 days", which just isn't enough for a mead as he actually explains in very helpful detail elsewhere - although part of the sugar in honey will ferment quite rapidly, the other part will take months to fully ferment. In another special mead recipe - a cyser, a honey and apple mead - he endorses bottle priming bottles (adding sugar when you bottle the mead to encourage a secondary fermentation) which combined with a cavalier approach to fermenting honey could be a recipe for disaster (and by disaster, I mean explosions (which can admittedly be quite fun, and provide anecdotes for the whole family)).

It's worth seeing this all in proportion though. There's lengthy notes on the making of South American corn and millet beers, a sample from the Kalevala providing a sort of origin story about the brewing of the first beer, and recipes for such delicacies as "Nettle Beer", "Wild Lettuce Ale", "Spruce Beer", "Finnish Sahti", "Pine Needle Beer", and many others; he hasn't tried them all but many he has, either in his naturopath practice or just as an enthusiast. And I like his gung-ho approach to brewing and his suspicion of the use of hops (they're a great ingredient but there are plenty of other herbs out there). So it's all in all a pretty awesome book, although perhaps much better for throwing up new ideas about brewing and challenging accepted practices than being a definitive guide. And if there are any other brewers out there reading this who've read and used Buhner, I'd be interested to know what they think.

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