Beers brewed with spices, herbs, and vegetables is the topic of one of the latest articles on BellaOnline: Is Beer the Secret Spice of Life? It’s a pretty good article, and it starts with sweeping, lofty intentions:
Cultures of the past, although geographically and temporally disconnected from each other, have an underlying theme attached to the creation of beer – to fermentation itself. Throughout anthropological and ethnobotanical research, the discovery that multiple cultures possessed similar stories about the origins of beer is astounding. Tales of Gilgamesh, Nungui and Manioc, and the Balm of Gilead. Similar tales, from locations as diverse as Scandinavia and Mexico, Sumer and India, tell of sacred beings that wept over the human condition, thus bestowing the gift of beer upon these beings to bring joy and spirituality to them.
Almost sounds like a dissertation, or the opening to an episode of Good Eats or something. Along the way, she highlights Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, touches on a wide variety of herbs and spices found in brewing, and finishes with a respectable list of beers that fit the bill.
Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers is quite a good book, actually, one I own. (One I need to reread, too.) There’s a brewing experiment I’ve wanted to try that was inspired by the book: spontaneous fermentation. By that, I mean brewing a batch of beer, but not adding yeast—instead, place the wort outdoors overnight and see if wild yeasts colonize it and ferment it "spontaneously." Before science discovered yeast and people knew what caused fermentation, this was the standard procedure for brewing beer, and much of the beer today that we associate with a particular region owe much of that distinction to the particular strain of yeast that was found in that region (lambic is a prime example of this).
Yeast is found everywhere, though not all yeast is suitable for beer; it would be just as likely that the yeast growing in the experimental wort would render it unusable. But I was always curious what kind of wild yeasts might be indigenous to Central Oregon, and if I could brew decent beer from them—plus, imagine the bragging rights if you pulled this off