Almost all beers today, from the snob's favorite quadruple IPA to the cheap beer in your morning-after michelada, have one little green herb in common: hops. The pinecone-like bud of the climbing humulus lupulus plant flavors every beer on Earth. (It's also a cousin to cannabis.) Brew without it, and it's not technically considered beer, but a food product regulated by the FDA. It's hard to even think about consuming craft beers without it, but ancient brewers used to flavor their wares with whatever they could find.
There were heather flowers in Scotland, juniper berries in Norway, chamomile in Egypt, pine needles in Vermont. If hops didn't grow, you didn't use them. Besides, until fairly recently, most people thought hops were poisonous. Medieval abbess, mystic, and early Christian botanist Hildegard of Bingen wrote that hops "were not very useful." They "make the soul of man sad, and weigh down his inner organs." Before their Extra Special Bitters and IPAs embraced the plant, Britain hated hops — hopped beer, one writer sneered, "doth make a man fatte, and doth inflate the bely, as it doth appere by the doche [Dutch] mennes faces and belyes." (Ironically, once hops finally started working their way into British beer, the Dutch became one of its biggest importers.)
But why use them? The long story: Martin Luther, Catholic dance parties, international trade, greedy governments. The short story: stale beer. Hops' bitter oils contain lots of preservative chemicals that keep beer fresh and safe from contaminating bacteria. Once beer became more than home-brewed refreshment and turned to an international commodity, unspoiled beer was a financial imperative, and less preservative herbs like mugwort and juniper slowly vanished.
There's another piece to the puzzle, though. Foraged herbs and spices weren't just convenient; some had magic power, and brewers used them to make their beers not products, but medicines and gateways into the spirit world. Hops are a sedative. (Try a mug of hop tea before bed, or sleep with a sachet of hops under your pillow.) Other brewing herbs, such as mandrake, mugwort, and labrador tea, can be used as painkillers, dream enhancers, and can even produce hallucinogenic effects.
Egyptians (and later, medieval doctors) used the smoke from burning henbane seeds to cure toothaches. Some Nordic shamans used henbane (and a sacrificial virgin—"they have her dig up the plant with the little finger of her right hand," one anthropologist reported) to conjure storms. The gods likely preferred the virgin; henbane was for the shaman. "Its ingestion produces auditory hallucinations that are akin to the sound of rain."
Taken in beer, henbane isn't necessarily lethal, but it's close. Henbane contains the same tropane alkaloids as deadly nightshade and mandrake, in slightly lesser concentrations. It "disturbs the nervous system profoundly," says William Boericke's turn-of-the-century Materia Medica. Drunk on henbane beer, one of his subjects became "a perfect picture of mania. […] Unseemly and immodest in acts, gestures, and expressions. Very talkative and persists in stripping herself, or uncovering genitals." (Still, brewing with henbane was common enough that Pilsen, one of Europe's first beer capitals, took its name from the German word for the plant.)
At an early brewery site in Skara Brae, Scotland, archaeologists found residue of a beer made with henbane, hemlock, meadowsweet, and nightshade. Henbane could also produce a feeling of flight, and was a common component in witches' flying potions. Nightshade, or Belladonna, causes delirious hallucinations. It was also used during the Inquisition to torture some of those same potion-wielding witches into confessing.
Beer could be even more potent than that. Ergot, for example, is powerful stuff. Some Nordic brewers were fond of a parasitic fungus called Claviceps purpurea, or ergot, that grew on rotted barley and rye. Archaeologists have found its tell-tale bloated purplish grains in the guts of buried bog bodies. The fungus shares some of the same chemical compounds as LSD, which can yield wild hallucinations and ecstatic dancing. Doctors call it "convulsive ergotism." The bad side—known as "gangrenous ergotism"—causes abdominal pain, convulsions, a sensation of burning limbs called St. Anthony's Fire, and, ultimately, death.
In charge of this potent apothecary, the brewer was a shaman. Not simply a healer or a priest, but a medium, a translator between the physical and the spiritual world. "The shaman is both healer and sorcerer, human and divine, human and animal, male and female," ethnographer Piers Vitebsky explained in his guide to shamanic belief systems around the world. The shaman was a gatekeeper, and beers were his keys into another world. These shamanic beers were rooted in their place—made with what grew, what was in season—but were also pathways to another world, what ethnographers would call an entheogen. From the Greek for "creating god within," an entheogen is a drug used in a religious context, a tool or a pathway to mystical understanding of the sacred or spiritual dimension. Beers like these bond us with our fellow drinkers but also with the plants, the place, the seasons, and the unconscious.
I wondered if this kind of brew still held up in our modern age, so I decided to test it out for myself. Henbane felt too daring a first step; there was no way in hell I was going to use ergot. I decided to try mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which is related to sage, but stronger, and wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but milder. Reports say it's a potent dream stimulant. Native California Indian tribes burned it as a healing incense. A dose of mugwort beer wouldn't make me fly—or torture me into admitting as much—but it might provide a nice, lucid slumber. Best of all, even in high doses it didn't appear to be lethal. As one anachronistic homebrewer advised me, "Keep it clean, kick up the alcohol, and don't stint on the mugwort!"
So I hit the hippie grocery store and loaded a satchel. When I got home, I brewed a basic pale ale and simmered it with a few ounces of the fuzzy, olive green leaves and stems. It smelled terrible — like the cloying desert piñon incense in aisle 12 — so I tempered it with a handful of lavender I had plucked on my walk home. I left it for a week to bubble in a repurposed cider jug, a week to carbonate in bottles, and then, the time to taste test was upon me.
I poured one—a little sweet (nix the lavender next time, I thought) but not bad. Poured another. I wasn't flying; I was sinking, deeper and deeper into my couch until ... I woke up from a refreshing, hangover-free, if disappointingly dreamless sleep. That, then, might be the shaman's secret after all. The mugwort didn't matter. It's not the medicine, but its medium. The carrier probably did more work than its contents; the spoonful of sugar more effective than the castor oil it chased. The magic potion was booze.