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Excellent work

  • Sep 30, 2010

First a word on safety. A few of these recipes use toxic ingredients. In general, my studies all suggest however that these ingredients both have long records in brewing and also are reasonably safe in that area. This includes both mandrake and henbane. In fact, henbane was smoked in the Middle Ages, and evidence exists for its use in beer for thousands of years. Mandrake was well known medicinally mixed with wine (Dioscorides mentions it, and mandrake wine seems to have been utilized by Hannibal as a narcotic). However, in all things some caution is required, and there are a few other steps I'd recommend:

1) It's probably a good idea to try small doses of such recipes until you know how your body will respond.
2) It's probably a good idea to do further research before you make up your mind on these matters.

Now for a word on substance. This book is written from a very primitivist perspective. The author is upfront about his views in this area, and tries to share them. I didn't feel like the book was overly proselytizing in this area, though I recognize that some fellow reviewers differ here.

Secondly he advocates what one might call "unscientific brewing." I'm a big fan of unscientific brewing. I've brewed in similar ways for nearly two decades. In this way, sense, artistry, and experience are used to produce a beer, mead, etc rather than rigorous measurement and control. For example, I sterilize all my equipment with heat (I don't use chemicals), I don't even own a hydrometer, and and I brew beer using touch and feel rather than time and temperature. In this way, I sacrifice some repeatability for variation and an ability to improvise at each step. Sometimes my recipes flop but since each one is an experiment, I just take note about what failed and go on. I figure this is the way brewing was done for centuries and I don't need to change. My view on this, as a long-time "unscientific brewer" is subtly different than Bruhner's. I think to some extent his writings make light of the careful ways that traditional cultures may have for controlling wort infection and the like, and tends to gloss over the role of deep, long-term experience in what was traditionally an art form much like poetry. These shortcomings may be acceptable given his audience (those just starting out), but it's worth noting up front. All in all, I think this is an important contribution to the area of brewing in this area. I may not agree with him on every point, but more voices help us all move forward.

Thirdly he provides a large number of recipes. These include molasses-based drinks, white sugar-based drinks, fermented fruit-based beverages, and the like. In general these track various other attempts at various beverages that I have seen, and many of his recipes are taken from old sources. These do not fit in well with standard contemporary brewing approaches which frown on sucrose sources and favor fructose instead, but when one is experienced (see paragraph above), one can still take them as inspiration and adapt them to whatever one wants to make (substituting honey for white sugar, for example). At the same time, I have had commercially produced molasses "beers" (i.e. brewed with molasses instead of malted grain) and they are quite pleasant. Consequently I have to assume that most of the recipes would be just fine how they are. I would however note that it is likely that "sugar" in many of the old recipes was the sort of dried cane syrup one can find at Mexican grocers than the white sugar we use today. This area could be fertile ground for future research.

However, whatever faults this book has, it's still a fascinating journey into another world in terms of brewing. I enjoyed it and I see why it was highly recommended to me. It is a solid contribution to this field and I'd highly recommend it to others.

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October 04, 2010
Whoooa, this sounds really, really interesting! I've been wanting to brew some alcoholic beverages of my own. I'll have to check this out. If people back then could do it, then I surely can, too :) Thanks for sharing!
October 05, 2010
Hi Devora: One thing I'd recommend if you are looking at brewing beverages is to start out with either something really simple (like mead, I use one part honey to four parts water), or get a basic (and high-level) understanding of what is going on. I'm not one for believing that everything has to be carefully controlled but it's nice to know in basic terms what's going on at different times. The other thing is that like everything else worthwhile you will make mistakes. You should have seen the first batch of beer I tried to brew (about 12%abv, more or less like sake with hops added, oops)..... But one learns, and avoids those mistakes in the future :-) In other words, lighten up, have fun, and don't be afraid to make mistakes!
October 05, 2010
Thanks for the great advice, Chris!  Maybe I shouldn't start with this kind of beer.  I'm thinking I'll start with a couple beverages that have less alcoholic potential, like kombucha and ginger beer, and then work my way up.  I'd love to make my own wine, too!  And that beer that you brewed actually sounds kind of good :P
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Chris Travers ()
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   I live in a haunted house Beneath a tall and mighty tree   With my wife Mia and my sons Wilhelm and Conrad   Where I write software and carve runes   It is a … more
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ISBN-10: 0937381667
ISBN-13: 978-0937381663
Author: Stephen Harrod Buhner
Publisher: Siris Books
Date Published: October 25, 1998
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