Not many people know this, but those hops in your favorite IPA are actually wonderful medicine for insomnia and menopause, thanks to their high phytoestrogen content. These same phytoestrogens, however, might be less desirable for men, as indicated by the common condition known among brewers as Brewer's Droop.
Yes, you read that right: Hops are giving men man boobs.
In the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, herbalist Stephen Herrod Buhner describes the three standard uses of hops in herbal medicine: as a sleep inducer; as a diuretic that successfully promotes urine flow; and finally, as a natural source of phytoestrogen to treat menopause and endometriosis. The herbalist Susan Weed also refers to hops as a nutritive painkiller, a sleep-inducing herb, and as an effective supplement to boost milk production in lactating women.
I don't suffer from insomnia and I'm not lactating, so I personally don't drink beer made with hops; I make my own with wild weeds. Some might call the very concept of hop-less beer heretical, but trust me when I say that medicinal beers are a where it's at—plus, if brewed properly, they can naturally cure you of what ails you.
I live in a cottage in Provo, Utah, with the Cascade Mountains—an often overlooked destination in a segment of the Rocky Mountains—just outside my backdoor. And as the weather warms up after the winter, I get excited. It's finally time for me to start brewing my medicine again.
Yarrow—like hops—tastes pleasantly bitter. But it has an even stronger aromatic, herbal overtone. In ale, yarrow is a plant that helps you navigate between realms of consciousness. (Thus its other moniker, "the artist's herb.") It helps you to see colors more vividly, and its particular traits help the drinker to reach a complete and immediate state of intoxication with only a few sips, as opposed to a six pack.
Every village in Europe had an ale wife back then, and most indigenous villages across the world had women who had similar roles. Wifery, like husbandry, is a term that meant being married to your craft. It was standard for men to husband livestock, and for women to wife-up medicinal plants and then brew drinks that bound the community together. An ale wife was a medicine woman. She was part of the "cunning folk," a group of people who kept the ancestral knowledge of plant healing and passed it down from generation to generation. That practice began its decline around 1512, when the earliest industrialists saw the opportunity to turn this woman's art into an industrial-scale money-making venture.
Before that date, women crafted ales based on the needs of their community and the particular needs of individuals. When the beer purity laws of 1512 were enacted, most of the medicinal uses for beer—like treating infertility and impotence—went out the window, since all brewers were then only allowed to use hops and barley to flavor their ale.
We'll never know exactly how many old recipes were lost, but we do have the remnants of some. For example, one favorite pilsner was made with henbane. If used in the right dosages, the plant can take you on a giddy ride into other realms. But henbane, a member of the deadly nightshade family and a relative of jimson weed, is a trickster and must always be treated with respect. The wrong dosage can induce terror—and in some cases, death.
I first became enamored with the art of medicinal brewing after learning all of this history; I was overjoyed when I realized how easy it is to brew medicinal beer. When I saw the bubbles and white frothy head of my first batch, I thought: Wow! Me and the microbes did this.
When I originally started brewing, it was solely an act of civil disobedience. At the time, it was illegal to brew alcohol at home in Utah. This was a remnant of Prohibition, which was really more about the Rockefellers' financial well-being than it was about the public's health. The Rockefellers funded the Women's Christian Temperance Union and eliminated alcohol stills from farms countrywide, forcing people to buy waste gasoline for their cars and tractors instead of the clean-burning apple alcohol they used until Prohibition came around.
In 2009, a group of beer enthusiasts pushed legislation through to make homebrewing in Utah legal. This newfound legality hasn't stopped the teetotaling constituency of our town to look askance when they hear about alcohol being brewed at home. And our penchant for herbal ales that use neither hops, barley, nor commercial yeast will send your local homebrewing supplier on a fitful rant, muttering about the need for chemical cleansers and the horror of sour-tasting ales.
If your body isn't playing well with gluten, then you'll also sympathize with the our preference for using honey for brewing—like Ethiopian t'ej (honey wine)—instead of grain malt. As a homebrewer, I can attest that these sweeteners also make the homebrewing process easier, as there is no sprouting, malting, and roasting the grains for your mash.
Remember, beer is originally a tea infusion that you cool, sweeten up, and then let ferment with yeasts. So, think of your favorite IPAs and stouts as being effervescent hop teas, sweetened with different barley malts.
Unless you're brewing in commercial amounts, making your own beer doesn't have to be the precise, formal, and rigid art that it is often presented as. There is an aura of fear that just serves as a barrier to entry for people who might otherwise be interested in many types of fermentation, whether it is pickles or cheese. But brewing is a simple and honest affair that has brought many, many people joy. It can be messy, finicky, exhilarating, and intuitive—and sometimes a little frustrating—but it is always fun.
When I first started getting into brewing medicinal beers, I just wanted to decrease the amount of ibuprofen that I was taking for cramps, which could get pretty bad. I brewed a sage ale; besides being a common herb used for beer nowadays, sage is believed to be beneficial for women's issues, like those horrible cramps.
It turned out to be one of the best-tasting home brews I had made—and it proved to be very effective, not just as a painkiller, but also as a much needed pick-me-up.
This article first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.