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.


Traditional Rice “Beer”

For Christmas, my brother gifted me with Sandor Katz’s excellent The Art Of Fermentation (affiliate link), and as I’ve been greedily tearing through it, I haven’t been able to help myself from trying some of the more exotic fermentation processes in it.

One that immediately captured my imagination is what he calls “rice beer.” Though, to be fair, the first thing you should do when you hear that term is drop any notion you may have of what comprises a beer. For the purposes of this discussion, a beer is a fermented grain beverage, and Katz presents a simple process, most likely in use in Asian households for centuries or longer, for using rice as the grain.

Basically – Cook rice and let it cool, add an Asian “Yeast Ball” (I acquired them at a local Asian grocery), put it in a crock and allow to ferment. But if it were that easy to turn universally available, extremely inexpensive rice into alcohol, wouldn’t everyone be drinking it?

Photos and my own cut-rate science below…

Let’s start with quantities. Katz says that two pounds of rice will yield about 3 liters of brew, so I felt like that was a manageable quantity, about 4.5 cups, which I cooked in 10 cups of water. The dry rice nicely filled a one quart container.


These are the magical Asian yeast balls (the link explains more about them), but unlike the packets of bread yeast or brewer’s yeast that you buy, these aren’t a monocultured strain of one organism. This is a community of yeasts, molds, and bacteria, because rice, unlike brewing grains like barley, lacks the enzymes necessary to convert starch to sugar. So while a home brewer can steep whole barley and wheat in hot water and drain off sugary wort an hour later, steeping rice that way will produce rice and warm starch water.


In my house, these went into a jar I labeled “Rice Yeast.” That should reduce giggling around the whole “yeast ball” thing.

So when you crush up a yeast ball and work it into cooled, cooked rice, you’re inoculating the rice with organisms sufficient to create a two-, or most likely, three-stage fermentation. First, the molds – Aspergillus oryzae and Rhizopus oligonsporus, and likely others – come to life and begin their metabolic processes. Aspergillus in particular produces amylase and glucanase enzymes, which brewers will recognize as primary starch converters.

As the mold life cycles liberate sugars from the starches, the second wave of fermentation ramps up and the yeasts bloom, devouring sugars and producing alcohol and CO2. The final product was quite sour, so there’s a third overlapping fermentation from lactic acid bacteria overlaid throughout this.


Crushing the yeast ball in a mortar and pestle. The powder has a sweet, floral aroma to it.

So the basic procedure is this: Cook rice, let it cool, crush up an Asian yeast ball, work it into your rice, then put it into your preferred fermentation vessel. Here’s mine, a one-gallon glass pickling jar with an airlock. I put it into my bathroom alongside a beer I was finishing at about 80 degrees.


Mmm…. fermenting food in a hot bathroom…

From my notes: “24 Hours – No significant change @ 80 degrees. Took to kitchen and removed lid. Aroma is rich, sweet, earthy, similar to oyster mushroom growing media.”


At the outset, there was a discernible structure to the rice mash. This didn’t last.

From my notes: “48 hours, noticed some yellowing [Aspergillus causes yellowing] and one spot of mold visible [which looked very much like this shot of Rhizopus]. Opened vessel and mixed a second yeast ball in. Stirred thoroughly. Strong airlock activity at this time. Aromatics are sweet, strong, boozy.”


There are two things to do at this point. One is pour this frothing rice thing into the compost. The other is to decide to eat it. Yeah, I’m that person.

From my notes: “72 hours – looks like sourdough starter. The ‘well’ shaped into the center has fully collapsed as liquifaction takes over.”


“85 hours – looks like porridge.”


The shot below is actually of bubbles forming and rushing to the top. By now the mixture has a goopy texture, and the bubbles rarely moved straight up the way they would in a more liquid medium. Instead, they’d form, then shoot away through all the liquid places in the mixture, so you’d see little ghost impressions of bubbles here and there then an eruption at the top.


Okay, so the next Friday, after fermenting for a week, it was time to test this out. Below, my lovely assistant squeezes the rice mash through a grain steeping bag.


We got two quarts of thick, milky liquid. Flavorwise, the closest comparison I can think of is to milk kefir. The flavor after a week at 80 degrees was both alcoholic and strongly soured. My assistant and I took these to a party where a number of people tried the Peasant Rice Brew. I wouldn’t call it a hit, but it was fun to discuss the microbial processes that led to that distinctive soured flavor and share a taste of what one might find traveling in rural Asia.


This isn’t an easy sipping kind of beverage. It’s more of a sour tonic beverage than an alcoholic beer, but it has several advantages – it’s gluten free and it’s dairy free. One food-sensitive friend commented the day after that she could really tell that she’d had some living food and was experiencing less intestinal trouble than she normally would, and I don’t doubt the probiotic nature of this stuff.

The mash left over from the straining was turned into batter the next morning and baked in muffin tins for a really lovely and unique breakfast. Soured rice mash with tart cherry preserves and cocoa nibs – that would have been a hit at the party.

I’m fermenting a five gallon batch of brown rice with a lot more water in it, at ambient temperatures. All in all, this has nearly everything I like – weird food, weird booze, and tons of microbes.

Cold Crashing in the South

For several weeks, I’ve had a carboy of pear wine sitting out on my back porch, theoretically to cold crash.

Cold crashing is when a brew is exposed to temperatures in the ~30s for a few days or weeks. The cold temperatures force solids in suspension to precipitate out, resulting in a clearer drink.

The problem with living in Atlanta and attempting to cold crash is that our daytime temps are consistently sitting around 70 here in December. I have a separate fridge, but at the moment it’s full of beekeeping gear. I guess it’s time to rethink a few things.

Lynchpin Pale, a Sessionable Ale

When I started brewing, I loved malty beers. I did not yet know that the world of hops was varied and beautiful, or what an art form it is to modulate your sugar content to produce a relatively low-alcohol, session-drinking beer.

I’ve been expanding my repertoire quite a bit – all grain, better control over color, and of course, exploring hops like a madperson. But I want a simple, go-to recipe that’s quick to brew, finishes fast, and won’t get me hammered when I drink one. Enter: Lynchpin Pale Ale, v1.0, a partial mash approach to a solid craft beer.

Mash Recipe:

  • .5# Flaked Barley
  • .5# Carastan
  • 1# Biscuit


Steep the grains (mash) in a grain bag at approximately 155 degrees for at least 25 minutes. I mashed for 60. I’m experimenting here. After the mash, remove grains and sparge to bring kettle volume up. Bring kettle to boil.

Extract Recipe:

  • 3# Golden Light DME
  • 3# Bavarian Wheat DME

I believe most any light or golden dry extracts will work fine.


To control SRM (color), I’ve been playing with the “add the sugars late” approach. So for the extract, I added half of one bag at boil, then commenced with the hopping schedule. At flameout, I added the remainder of the sugars and stirred it into the hot wort. This helps keep the sugars from caramelizing during the boil (most of my homebrew has been brown), allowing a wider spectrum of colors.

Note: Some sugars *must* be added at the start of the boil or the hops don’t process properly, from what I’ve read.

Hops Pack:

  • 1 oz Cascade – 60 min
  • 1 oz Styrian Golding – 40 min
  • 1 oz Whitbread Golding – 20 min
  • 1 oz Crystal – Flameout

Hops should be adjusted to your taste. If you prefer pine flavors, go in that direction. If you just like facefulls of bitter, there are hops for that.


I’ve been experimenting with big quantities of yeast and multiple strains. For this, I used one sachet each of Safale-04 and Safale-05. No particular reason, except that I want a nice dry, hoppy, slightly fruity end result. And because I’m curious. Do competing yeasts muddy the flavor, or clarify it? No idea. Maybe neither one. Maybe the result is neutral.

You can see in the picture at the top that it has a nice robust color, not as light as I’d hoped for but not as dark as most of my brews. I’ve had it sitting in primary for three weeks or so. I could put it into secondary or bottle it straight away. I’m leaning toward bottling. I really want a no-fuss, easy drinking beer that I can throw together simply and inexpensively. In other words, my Lynchpin recipe that I can go back to again and again.

Brew Log: “Hops End Belgian IPA”

Our two-kettle system, which we may one day get right.

Yesterday we gathered to put together the red IPA recipe I’ve been planning. As usual, we spent some time snorting (that’s not a typo) hops that we’ve collected (the real winner was Spyke’s Pacific Jade, which had incredible floral and spice notes. We’re going to figure out something really special with that.)

We talked about yeast for a long time too. Our last batch, All Thumbs, was pretty dry when we sampled it on transfer day, so I wanted to steer clear of the American Ale yeast we pitched for that. I love Belgian yeasts and the hints of clove and banana they can produce.

What’s a hundred IBUs between friends?

Given the aromatics of the hops in play – citrus in the Magic Hop Dust and Cascade, the fruitiness of Calypso, and the bright grape sentiment of Nelson, we agreed that a little spice in the yeast would probably merge nicely, so we went on a mission to find Belgian Ale Yeast.

Here was the grain bill for Hop’s End Belgian IPA:

  • 8# 2 Row
  • 2# Munich
  • 1# Red Wheat
  • .5# Carastan
  • .5# Flaked Barley


We hit a strike temp of 151° and closed up the tun. Between dinner and bottling All Thumbs, the mash actually ran about 90 minutes. I was working out some weird idea in my head about boil time, color, and volume loss, so we ended up sparging with only one gallon of water. This was way too little and we obviously left a lot of sugars in the tun. Ah well.


We use a two-kettle approach (with two others on standby, actually. You just never know) and stagger the boil so that one can be chilled and transferred as the other is finishing. Theoretically, a quick cool-down helps color and clarity in the finished beer.

Anyway, the boil was uneventful and the timer started when the first kettle got roiling and hops were added. The second kettle was 12 minutes behind the first.

Irish Moss was added to each kettle to encourage strong flocculation.


  • 1 oz Austin Homebrew Supply Magic Hop Dust, 60 minutes
  • 1 oz Cascade, 30 minutes
  • 2 oz Calypso, 15 minutes
  • 2 oz Nelson Sauvin, 5 minutes
  • (1 oz Calypso, dry hop – future state)

Initial gravity was 1.064, but our volume was short (thanks to my stingy sparging), so we topped off with half a gallon of water to get to something like 1.058.

Pitched two vials of White Labs 550 Belgian Ale Yeast. Took the carboy for a drive to help aerate it, and fermentation was underway in less than 12 hours at 72 degrees.


Aside from the raw volume problem, there is the difficulty of three to four inches of the bottom of the carboy being covered in trub from the six ounces of hops delivered. This volume loss may reduce as fermentation proceeds, but it will still be a lot of unavailable liquor in the mix.

In the future, we should take advantage of the recirculating wort chiller’s fast and dramatic precipitating abilities and siphon the cooled wort into the carboy, leaving a lot of solids behind. This will help with aeration as well.

Secondary Solutions

My plan at this point is to let fermentation roll for the week, but before it’s fully done, boil up three pounds of extra light extract in two gallons of water (SG: ~1.060), then perform a true secondary fermentation with a batch size of approximately 5.5 gallons. Ordinarily I try to avoid a lot of manipulation along these lines, but I’m curious to see if this approach produces a nice golden color without sacrificing any of the other sensory components.

What I’m most excited about though is the opportunity to age this beer for months. I love a good, strong, old Belgian ale, and I think Hop’s End might just be the flavor of my summer next year.

Honorable Mentions

Thanks to John Cole at Balloon Juice for dropping us a mention yesterday. I’ve been reading his site for many years, and when I was first starting to brew, found the Beer Blogging (occasional) feature over there really helpful. Largely because Tim F., one of Cole’s co-bloggers and the homebrewer in the bunch, had such a smart and relaxed attitude about the process. So many of the websites and books aimed at the novice brewer make brewing sound incredibly daunting and almost certainly doomed to fail. Tim F. made it seem fun, challenging, and creative.

There’s much more available from Tim F. under the Beer Blogging category at Balloon Juice, but I think his “A Homebrewing Guide For The Perplexed” is one of the more practical documents available on the web for the newbie or would-be homebrewer.

Use the Fruits!

I’m a fan of infusing fruit and berries into meads, and making country wines (i.e., wines that don’t rely on grapes for their base sugars) with whatever fruits or berries – or a mixture thereof – are on hand. To me, it’s a way of capturing a season, using a quantity of standard white sugar and a quantity of fruit juices or, even better, whole, in-season  fruit.

But how best to get the terrific flavor of, say, a peach or a pear, into the neck of a one gallon demijohn?

I have tried a number of methods by now, and by far the best approach is to keep the fruits or berries as whole as possible. If you put fruit through a juicer (which I have repeatedly done), the resulting juice will have a tremendous amount of pulp in it. It’s not something that you might necessarily notice if you just drank the glass of juice, but when you’re going through the process of clearing a wine, using juiced fruits tends to require more racking, and the sediments are wispier, lighter, and more easily agitated into suspension – meaning more racking down the road.

One of my favorite fruit adjuncts is blueberries. They’re small enough to fit into any vessel’s neck without damage, and they add a wonderful depth and richness to the flavor. Because they’re so easy to use intact, they result in a pretty no-fuss ferment/rack/clear process.

I find that a long simmer, as though you’re making a fruit stock, can give you a lot of good to work with if you have larger fruit. Twelve or twenty-four hours in a stock pot or crock pot, just covered by water (replenish as needed), usually results in a rich liquor (in the old school sense, not in the booze sense) to be mixed in with your other sugars.

I don’t have a lot of experience with fruit infusions in beers, but maybe this winter I’ll get something light started that can secondary on something weird, like a wheat beer infused with dates and a jalapeno.

Hey, it’s homebrew. Dream weird.

Brewing is an art. And brewing is a science.

Fundamentally, I guess brewing can be defined as the action of alcohol-producing yeasts on sugar. What you’re brewing is defined by your source of sugar – grains that are slightly germinated and then kilned produce the liquid wort that becomes beer, grapes are pressed to produce the juicy must that becomes wine, and honey, moistened excessively, is the feedstock for mead.

Brewing terminology can be as technical as you want it to be, explained in a language that pulls from chemistry and biology, but my preference has always been to treat it as an art. I brew like I cook, by building recipes that sound like they should be good and ballparking measurements and throwing in whatever I think works.

Sometimes the results are brilliant. I used an extract kit to produce what I called Nutmeg Wit (pretty much how it sounds) that wowed everyone who tasted it. I think that’s my father’s platonic ideal of my home brew.

Sometimes the results are surprising (and informative) – not necessarily in a good way. A few years ago I wanted to get a chai sort of profile into an extract beer. I forget the base kit, but I remember tossing cardamom pods into the kettle with some enthusiasm during the first hopping and leaving them to boil for 60 minutes.

Fun fact: Cardamom develops a bright, piney flavor when you boil it for an hour.

That beer smelled like South Asian candy, and tasted like something from the north woods. Lesson: Secondary for chai spices. Some things aren’t meant to be boiled.

Not that it was bad, just a strongly flavored beer that wasn’t what I was aiming for. Bottled in August, I aged it for months and gave most of it away in December, calling it “Jingle Bell Rock.” It worked.

So that’s been my approach. A few months back, when Spyke and I had our first brew day, we made country wines and meads. A lot of them. Spyke’s background is in chemistry, and her processes and even her interests are really different from mine. She has a little laser gun thermometer while I use twine to suspend a regular thermometer in my kettle. I own a hydrometer, but I’d never really bothered to use it until we started brewing together. Spyke pulls gravities and estimates potential alcohols all along the way, and loves to find new toys to provide other areas of measure and, ultimately, refinement. I find all that stuff interesting, but never felt it was strictly necessary.

But here’s the thing: We both brew really good stuff. And we both brew really interesting stuff, because we’re not afraid to experiment – and we’re not afraid of ending up with a batch of not-so-good beer or wine here and there.

There’s no “right way” to brew. There is no website that takes into account the mechanics of your kitchen (mine is too small for all grain, so I proudly brew extract and partial mash at home) or your time constraints or how much room you have to store a bubbling carboy.

This site is about down and dirty brewing, lazy brewing, simple brewing, or massively complicated recipes. It’s about creativity and experimentation and making great things (with the occasional not-so-much). This site is about brewing the way you do it, because that’s always going to be the right way to brew.