Brewing Up Medicine: Gruits and Tinctures

A few weeks ago we had a group brew day with a bunch of people out at Spyke’s and two batches of all grain done up in turkey fryers. I’d never brewed on one before, so that was cool.20130509-175506.jpg

Since I compost, I was sent home with twenty some odd pounds (dry) of soaked grains (very heavy), and the next morning decided to do another running for a few-gallon batch of something.

Heated up some water, poured it in, and let it mash/sparge/whatever for a little while. Took a sample and, temperature adjusted, it clocked around 1.030. I started pulling a gallon or so out, bringing it to a boil, then pouring it back in. Added some molasses. Things lying around. It was a gray Sunday and small beer, so whatever.

I went out to the garden and pulled some yarrow leaves. Yarrow is one of the many bittering herbs in use before hops took over, and I’ve been growing several varieties of it in my front garden for three or four years, some from seed and some from store-bought bunches. I’ve always intended to use it in brewing, but it also has cool medicinal properties for wound healing, earning its botanical name of Achillea millefolium, the many-leaved herb of Achilles, hero of the Trojan Wars in Greek mythology.

Anyway, I grabbed some yarrow, and a touch of parsley, then from the spice cabinet pulled out black pepper, a few coriander seeds, bay leaves, and some other stuff. Just a pinch of this and that, mostly whole leaves or whole seeds. I was out of ale yeast when I put it in the carboy, so I threw in some Lalvin D47, which I like for meads, and let it go for a week or so.

Herbs and spices instead of hops, and a yeast strain better suited for another primitive drink. Yup, that’s what’s called a Gruit – an old school approach to brewing that predates the universal use of hops.

And it’s an interesting approach, because like yarrow, many of the plants that would have appeared in gruit ales have medicinal or psychoactive properties.

In my own garden, I grow a variety of mints (a remedy for gastric complaints), comfrey (excellent for healing soft tissue injuries and even bone breaks), calendula (great antiseptic externally, good for inflammation internally), and a few dozen other things that I cultivate or that volunteer seasonally. I’m amazed by the pharmacopeia that surrounds me just in the form of weeds – add in the stuff I do or am trying to grow, and suddenly anything seems possible.

20130509-175606.jpgHere are herbal tinctures – plants steeping in vodka for several weeks as a way of extracting some useful component. The bright orange one is calendula, tinctured because my asshole cat has a way of inflicting extreme injury on me, but I was thrilled to have it on hand recently when a piece of popcorn kernel jammed itself into my gum, apparently causing a little infection. I woke up the next day with a toothache and started a 3x a day rinse with the ointment. All gone.

Beside it is various things – anise hyssop, mint, maybe some brewing spices, mostly mixed up for flavor. These freeform “bitters” (originally utilized as a medicinal digestive aid) will be splashed into or onto things over time.

Barely in the frame, but probably my favorite, is a tincture of ashwagandha, an Indian herb classified as an adaptogen. Basically, if you’re tired, ashwagandha gives you a boost. If you’re stressed, it helps calm you down. It’s a great herb, and has been part of my mental health medicine cabinet for a few years now. I’ve always brewed it into a tea, which is time consuming (it’s the dried, woody root of the plant, so a certain quantity has to be boiled for a certain length of time….). As a tincture, I can take a half-teaspoon before bed and curl up in full relaxation mode a short time later.

Procedure for making a tincture:

People actually have written tomes on herbs, proportions, dried v. fresh and all that. I – of course – eyeball it. Guess. Use my intuition. Whatever. You should absolutely Google your favorite plant and “tincture” to see how people who know more than I do generally do it.

But basically, put plant matter of your choosing into a small jar. Be generous. Top with vodka or pure grain alcohol. Close it and leave it closed for at least two weeks. Shake it daily, or twice a day. Or all day long. But agitate it a bit so everything can blend.

After a few weeks, strain it out, squeeze as much liquid out of the plant matter as you can, and viola – you have a tincture. A clothesline of herbs in your living room is entirely your choice. 20130509-175530.jpg

Oh, and here are some hops.


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