Devil’s plaything

Yesterday I did some brewing for the first time in six months, and this morning my house is filled with the delectable odors of malt, brewing herbs and spices, and happy ale yeast. The yeast I use is nothing special – Cooper’s brand of generic, freeze-dried ale yeast – but I always make a big starter to get things going with a bang. The idea is to preempt any competition from the wild, rogue yeasts that would like nothing better than to launch an air attack on a bucket of sweet wort (unfermented beer). A fast, hot fermentation of a high-gravity wort – permissible with traditional, farmstead-style brews – guarantees rapid conversion of the sugar-water to a highly alcoholic environment hostile to the proliferation of illicit microorganisms.

But for me, it’s all about the smells. That’s one of the main reasons I stopped making modern, hopped beers: hops just aren’t too thrilling an herb. Yesterday’s brew used an herb blend that included roots of wild ginger (Asarum canadense), dandelion, sweet flag (Acorus calamus) and spikenard (Aralia racemosa); lemonbalm (Melissa officinalis) leaves; and twigs of sassafras and spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Each one of these has a distinct fragrance; I’m especially fond of the wild ginger and the sassafras.

They were all, however, background singers, for this was to be a yarrow beer. At the end of the boil, I let the other herbs steep in the hot wort for 50 minutes, then strained them out and poured the wort into the fermentation bucket on top of two gallons of cold yarrow tea. I had prepared this orange-colored tea hours earlier, being careful to remove it from the heat just as it reached boiling temperature so as to preserve as much aroma as possible. I used a full four ounces of dried yarrow heads, which amounted to a large coffee can packed full. It was almost a year old, but had been kept tightly sealed and should still have quite a bit of potency. It sure smelled strong enough!

Yarrow is one of the few bittering agents, aside from hops, which never completely disappeared from homebrewing practice, at least in the remoter corners of northwest Europe. For the benefit of non-brewers, I should explain that bitters are needed for two reasons: to act as a preservative, and to balance the sweetness of the malt, which would otherwise make too cloying a drink.

Maude Grieve, in her Modern Herbal (Dover, 1971[1931]), says about yarrow that

In Sweden it is called ‘Field Hop’ and has been used in the manufacture of beer. Linnaeus considered beer thus brewed more intoxicating than when hops were used.

It is said to have a similar use in Africa.

As for the medicinal properties,

Yarrow Tea is a good remedy for severe colds, being most useful in the commencement of fevers, and in cases of obstructed perspiration. The infusion is made with 1 OZ. of dried herb to 1 pint of boiling water, drunk warm, in wineglassful doses. It may be sweetened with sugar, honey or treacle, adding a little Cayenne Pepper, and to each dose a teaspoonful of Composition Essence. It opens the pores freely and purifies the blood, and is recommended in the early stages of children’s colds, and in measles and other eruptive diseases.

A decoction of the whole plant is employed for bleeding piles, and is good for kidney disorders. It has the reputation also of being a preventative of baldness, if the head be washed with it. . . .

An ointment made by the Highlanders of Scotland of the fresh herb is good for piles, and is also considered good against the scab in sheep.

An essential oil has been extracted from the flowers, but is not now used.

Linnaeus recommended the bruised herb, fresh, as an excellent vulnerary and styptic. It is employed in Norway for the cure of rheumatism, and the fresh leaves chewed are said to cure toothache.

Well, I’ve tried it for toothache, and it does work after a fashion: it’s so incredibly astringent, that you forget entirely about the pain – and reach for the nearest bottle of whiskey to get the taste out of your mouth.

Wiccans make a big deal out of yarrow, for the main reason that it used to be regarded somewhat the way cannabis is regarded today: with intense fear and loathing. Here’s Grieve again:

It was one of the herbs dedicated to the Evil One, in earlier days, being sometimes known as Devil’s Nettle, Devil’s Plaything, Bad Man’s Plaything, and was used for divination in spells.

Yarrow, in the eastern counties [of England], is termed Yarroway, and there is a curious mode of divination with its serrated leaf, with which the inside of the nose is tickled while the following lines are spoken. If the operation causes the nose to bleed, it is a certain omen of success:

‘Yarroway, Yarroway, bear a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now.’

Well, I’ve always believed that true love should cause nosebleed -and possibly other forms of altitude sickness as well! Interestingly, dried yarrow sticks are also used for traditional Chinese yin-yang divination. Contemporary herbalist Stephen Harrod Bruhner, in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fementation (Brewers Publications, 1998), points out that

Yarrow is probably one of the most widely used herbs in the world, known to all indigenous peoples and folk herbalists who have access to it. More than 58 indigenous tribes regularly use it for medicine in North America.

Evidently, yarrow has received a lot more attention since Grieve’s day. Buhner says it has been “intensively studied . . . [and] more than 120 active compounds have been identified.” He claims that “Its effectiveness lies in three primary areas: colds and flus with associated fevers, bleeding, and digestive properties.”

The use of yarrow as a vulnerary – i.e., to staunch bleeding – is particularly well attested, and a good reason to keep a small supply on hand. The genus name of Achillea millefolium recalls the legend that Achilles used yarrow to minister to his own and fellow soldiers’ wounds. (Was this practice depicted in the just-released Brad Pitt vehicle “Troy,” I wonder?)

All I know is that yarrow beer (actually, yarrow gruit braggot ale, if you want to get technical about it) makes a nice, crisp, aromatic summer drink. If it helps stave off baldness, piles and ague, so much the better.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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