The Ancient Art of Fermentation

It’s becoming increasingly clear that prehistoric populations were using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents much longer than previously thought. For instance, a recent chemical analysis of the bones of ancient Nubians shows that they were regularly consuming the antibiotic tetracycline, most likely in their beer. The finding is the strongest evidence yet that the art of making antibiotics, which officially dates to the discovery of penicillin in 1928, was common practice nearly 2,000 years ago.

The research, led by Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and an article regarding it appeared this morning in Science Daily.

Armelagos and his fellow researchers tied the source of the antibiotic to the Nubian beer. The grain used to make the fermented gruel contained the soil bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline.

And, according to Armelagos “The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments,” and “the complex art of fermenting antibiotics was probably widespread in ancient times, and handed down through generations.”

The Ancient Art of Fermentation

Herbs and other natural, nourishing substances have many ways of sharing themselves with us, and many different methods of preparation exist, depending on your goal. Fermentation is one method. It is an ancient process of preservation and potentiation, and one that has been used by cultures all around the world, throughout time.

Since antiquity humans have been fermenting intoxicating beverages as one way of enhancing our ability to enter into the realm of the sacred, to inspire healing. Throughout Old Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas, early people were making and consuming fermented drinks with an amazing variety of plant substances that were indigenous to their area.

These fermented beverages were distinctive to each individual culture, place, time, and value system, and were usually consumed as part of communal ceremonies in honor of the sacred. Some of these brews were quite intoxicating, aphrodisiac or psychotropic and most contained medicinal herbs. Australia and isolated parts of North America appear to be the only places on earth where fermented drink was unknown.

Stephen Harrod Buhner tells us in his book, Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers, over 200 different plants, 20 different kinds of yeasts, and 15 different sugar sources combined in various ways to make thousands of different fermented drinks.

These beverages were traditionally brewed by women, because the art of fermentation, the ancients say, was given to women to hold for the benefit of all. It was offered by the gods to bring us joy, ease our suffering, and relieve our anxiety over our mortality.

Ancient legends from many cultures say that humans were taught the art of fermentation by sacred beings. They say that fermented beverages contain a life spark of the sacred realms from which they come, and hold some magical substance, a spirit, that can awaken dormant capacities within us.

Many ancient stories speak of the connection between sacred inebriation and the creation of poetry, music, healing and art. They say that fermented drinks were consumed to attain non-ordinary states of consciousness, to communicate with ancestral spirits, as nutrient rich food-stuff, to celebrate seasonal turnings and important community events, enhance creativity, and for healing.

The ancient ones tell us that a change of human consciousness is linked to the use of magical and intoxicating plants, and the fermentations made from them.

You can safely and easily make your own fermented drinks at home. The simplest, most ancient, and perhaps most elegant of the fermented drinks I have made or tasted is honey mead. The addition of pure, unheated honey to warm water does amazing things. Try it. Stir the two together well, and cover loosely.

Place your attention and intention on what you are doing and visualize the unique chemical transformation that is taking place between the water and honey, the vitamins, minerals, natural sugars, yeasts, carbon dioxide, alcohol, and the unseen, immeasurable qualities, that will all be churning and bubbling in that jar. Visualize the life force, that primordial power of life that will be nourishing you with this drink. Pray over it. Pray earnestly for the good bruggieman to come.

All parts of the fermentation process were attended to with prayer and reverence in every ancient culture that made use of it, but the moment when the bruggieman enters, when the yeasts begin to work, when your brew bubbles and comes alive, is considered most supremely important. It is the moment when the sacred has entered into the mundane world. Your brew has been made holy.

Attend to your fermentation work with mindfulness, ceremony and offerings if you want, and then put the fermenting vessel in an out of the way place, away from direct light. Check it daily, very briefly, so that you can see what is going on and learn about the process. Watch it carefully, note its changes. Take a sip now and then, being careful not to disturb it. Don’t tarry. You don’t want to spoil the brew with uninvited guests.

After a week or so, start drinking your mead. You can bottle it, if you wish, in a loosely corked bottle. (You’ll tighten it in a few weeks.) Add a tiny bit of honey to the bottle, if you want it to be carbonated. If you can keep it for at least three months to a year before drinking it, the incredibly delicious flavor of a delicate summer bouquet will be even more pronounced.

When you drink mead you are drinking the elixir of the Goddess, the elixir of immortality. It is the very essence of all the wild medicinal herbs, potentized and magnified, not only by the bees’ magical process of creating the honey, but also again through the process of fermentation, which relies on the presence of another magical and mysterious life form, yeasts, a type of fungus.

Honey is a powerful medicine, and fermenting it in water (the water of life, universal solvent) makes it many times more powerful. This is because the process of fermentation not only preserves, but potentiates: makes stronger, more powerful, more potent.

Yeasts and their allies, enzymes, combine to work a magic all their own, transforming the water and honey mixture into a much more nutrient rich liquid than when it began. In fact, honey meads were an important source of nutrients as well as medicinal constituents, in the diets of our ancestors. B-complex vitamins, including B-12, are synthesized by the yeasts during the process of fermentation, and drinking mead was the primary source of B-complex vitamins in the diets of many indigenous cultures.

Brewer’s yeasts also contain trace minerals such as selenium, copper, and chromium in amounts very similar to those contained in fruits and vegetables, and make a profusion of riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, and vitamin C.

Traditional meads were not clarified, and so still contained the yeasts within them, and these were consumed along with the beverage. Since the longer you let a beverage ferment, the more yeasts are contained within it, and since yeast is very high in protein as well, a fermented beverage will provide considerable protein where little or none existed before, provided you consume some of the yeasts that have settled in the bottom of the bottle. If you make your own mead, you can do this simply by drinking them along with the brew.

Yeasts “eat” sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide makes breads rise for baking, and the alcohol lifts our spirits in much the same way. Carbon dioxide also promotes the rapid absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, through the stomach walls.

The range of alcohol produced in herbal mead is usually between 3.5 and 12 percent. This small amount of alcohol, undistilled, and still part of the original plant matrix from which it came, containing the life force, and prayed over, is a benefit to the body, mind, heart and spirit. It is a euphoric and consciousness raising substance. A door to sacred realms. An agent of healing.

The alcohol in an herbal mead is mildly anesthetic and antiseptic, and a healing, health-promoting tonic to the entire body. Drinking herbal meads is especially nourishing to the brain and the liver, stimulating and increasing activity in both these organs. It also benefits the digestive process and promotes a healthy heart and circulatory system.

Herbal meads can relax and reduce inhibition, exhilarate, intoxicate, increase cerebral activity, energize mental activity, and heighten sensory perception. These effects are the reason behind mead’s historical connection to poetry, song, music, and the arts, and probably why it was referred to as Mead of Inspiration.

South American Indians say that the spirit of a plant realizes its fullest potential when fermented. And of course, ancient people, as well as those in the present, add a variety of herbs, usually whatever grows abundantly in their locale, to honey and water for a huge variety of tastes, effects, and degrees of intoxication.

Some medicinal herbs traditionally used to make mead include the roots of burdock, yellow dock, and dandelion, flowers such as rose, calendula, elder, and chamomile, the leaves, flowers, stems, and roots of angelica, and leaves and flowers of lemon balm, peppermint, pennyroyal, rosemary, lavender, St. John’s wort, hyssop, rue, violets, and meadowsweet.

Spices used in fermentations include cardamom, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, fennel, and ginger.

Psychotropic effects are said to be obtained by fermenting sage, the Artemisias mugwort and wormwood, yarrow, poppy heads, and wild lettuce.

Trees commonly used in making meads are pine, birch, maple, spruce, fir, oak, and juniper.

Interestingly, the well known negative effects from excessive alcohol consumption are decidedly absent from the traditional cultures that use fermented drink in a sacred context. Alcoholism and its related diseases arise from the extraction and separation of the active ingredient, the alcohol, from the fermented plant matrix. This pure, undiluted, distilled alcohol damages both the liver and the brain. It is a far different substance, in every way, from a pure and simple, health promoting, homemade, low alcohol content, herbal mead.

About gailfaithedwards

Gail Faith Edwards is an internationally recognized Community Herbalist with over thirty years experience. She is the author of a number of books about herbs and has taught in India, Italy, Poland and Russia, at the Yale School of Nursing, the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic, among others. She is the founder of Blessed Maine Herb Farm and Director of the Blessed Maine Herb Farm School of Herbal Medicine. She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of four grandsons. Gail leads sacred journeys and ancestral pilgrimages to Southern Italia twice a year.
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