Herbal Beers! What a marvellous idea, it struck us with the force of a revelation 4-5 years ago and we have been cheerfully making beers on and off (time permitting) ever since. Our original inspiration was Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book ‘Sacred Herbal & Healing Beers’ highly recommended as inspiration for recipes and general beery herb lore.

Our motivation was the realisation that our beer habit at the time was costing far too much. Our herbal beers cost us less than 50p a bottle to make. I’m not including the price of buying the bottles as they get re-used so many times that their cost is offset. Homemade herbal beers are also much more delicious, more complex and flavoursome in taste than commercial beers (or home brew in a can) and, because they contain herbs, you can fool yourself that they’re good for you. Which they are of course. Mostly.

Included in this article is general advice as well as several tried and tested herbal beer recipes to get you going. Tried and tested does not of course mean infallible – all beers fail sometimes for no apparent reason and that is part of the organic and mysterious world of herbal beer making.


You must have: demi-john; airlock bung; a tube to use as a siphon; sieve; bottle brush; bottles, funnel.

A word or two about bottles, our favourites are swing top (like old Grolsch) bottles. They look lovely, are very sturdy and offer the ability to let out a little gas at a time if your beer is a bit lively. We do also have a supply of brown beer bottles which need a crown capper, the device for putting on those crimped caps. This is fun to do but doesn’t allow for gradual opening so we only use those for beers we know are not overly fizzy. Some of our bottles were bought empty and some originally contained beer, we only re-use swing tops or thick glass beer bottles, not those frail green ones (for example Becks).

It will make life easier to have: beer making thermometer; a huge funnel; a huge stainless steel pot; a siphon tube with a tap on the end.

You don’t really need a thermometer as you can judge this using touch and common sense but it does save on arguments.

In an ideal world have: a shed for extra bottles; a slave to wash the bottles.


All our beers are made with no more than 5 ingredients: sugar, malt syrup or molasses, herbs, water and yeast. We don’t use malted barley or do any spurging (although it sounds like fun) because we don’t have the time, space, equipment or attention span.

We always use organic ingredients because part of the reason to make herbal beer is to reduce the chemical content. In Stephen Buhner’s book he complains about the taste of city water, well, we live in London so we’re used to it, but I suppose you could use bottled spring water or filtered water if you like. We use tap water and boil the water for 15 minutes before we start.

Brown sugar (by this I mean demerara not that white-coloured-brown stuff) is usually best for beer as it breaks down a little more slowly than the white or golden kind giving the yeast a bit more to work on. It isn’t cheaper though, surprisingly. You could also use muscavado sugar which will give a deeper flavour.

Malt syrup we buy by the jar, which is co-incidentally about the right size for a gallon of beer and saves all the problematic weighing business.

Molasses gives a very particular flavour to the beer which is not to everyone’s taste. The health benefits of molasses may persuade some to try it instead of malt syrup. Or you could mix the two.

Yeast must be brewing yeast, not bread yeast or brewers yeast food supplement. We use Young’s yeast in a tub which is by far the easiest to use and store (in the fridge). A teaspoon per gallon and we’ve never had it fail. Yeast needs both warmth and a sugar source to work its magic, and too much heat will kill it. Storing it in the fridge keeps it alive but dormant.

Nutrients are often mentioned in the older wine recipes (particularly in Mrs Grieves). You can buy yeast nutrient for wine making but according to Christopher Hedley you can simply float a piece of toast on the brew. For beer making my esteemed colleague and fellow beer maker Tim Lane tells me that some nutrient may be required because ‘yeast, as with most living organisms, needs citric acid to respire (remember the Krebs cycle)’. So if you find a particular brew consistently failing a squeeze of lemon juice may do the trick.

Herbs The rules of combining herbs for a beer are similar to herbal tea mixing; roots generally give a depth of flavour and either sweetness or bitterness depending on the root; berries give a fruitiness, and the aerial parts impart, well, herbiness and often a volatile top note. Some mixtures seem good in your head but horrible on the palate, I realised I REALLY don’t like Liquorice beer and we had a lemon balm and damiana theory which turned out to be horrible in practice.

I’d recommend making only a gallon (8 pints) of a new recipe, if it works you can double the quantities the next time but don’t change any of the ingredients or method: we had a tried and approved summer ale (see meadowsweet recipe) which was a mixture of herbs including lavender. The lavender leant a freshness and sparkle to the taste, a lovely coolness and it was a great favourite. One year we made it with lavender we’d harvested from my mother’s lavender bushes. Yuck. The beer had far too much menthol and was too bitter, not very nice. Clearly the lavender from my mother was high in menthol and our previous lavender had been angustifolia which produces an altogether finer, less minty taste. We were chastened but undefeated, reduced the lavender to a pinch and brewed again, successfully.


Only medium levels of cleanliness are needed for beer making, unlike wine making where you must be sure to eradicate any unwanted ferments that may spoil the flavour. Beer positively welcomes stray yeast.

Washing out siphon tubes is tricky but necessary; if mould comes to stay you will never persuade it to leave, so always wash through with soapy water followed by boiling water as soon as possible after using. As to the rest, we usually wash everything through before we start brewing and immediately after use.


Although there are individual variations the basic process is as below.

Bring your water to the boil. Add the herbs, sugar and/or malt syrup and/or molasses, stir well to dissolve and then simmer for half an hour. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to handling temperature.

Strain. With a large amount of hot water this is much easier said than done. We use a big coarse sieve on top of a double layer of muslin sitting in a colander on top of a very large funnel in the demi-john, and two people, one pouring, the other providing reassurance, steadiness and visual acuity. Once we’ve sieved it through we tend to put all the herb matter into the muslin & squeeze it out as thoroughly as possible (wearing rubber gloves helps if it’s still hot).

Let the herb-sugar-water (the ‘wort’ as it’s known at this stage) cool to below 40°C/blood temperature and add the yeast. Fit the airlock (with water in it) and put somewhere warm, not hot. The top of our airing cupboard has enough room for 4 demi-johns; in previous houses we’ve kept demi-johns in the warmest room. It’s quite nice to have them where you can listen to the blop-blop of the gas pushing through the airlock. You get a real sense of how fast the yeast gets fermenting, which of the beers produce the most foam and when it’s nearing time to bottle.


This is tricky to determine and is a major reason why our beers can fail. Your beer will be bottle conditioned: the final fermentation which makes the beer bubbly will take place in the bottle. That’s why it’s important to get sturdy bottles (so they don’t explode y’see?). The idea is that you must wait until fermentation is complete in the demi-john or too much pressure will be created inside the bottle and may blow the lid off. Conversely you mustn’t wait until the yeast has completely finished or it won’t give you a fizz from your bottle conditioning and your beer will be flat.

You can buy a hydrometer which is supposed to tell you when to bottle (as well as final alcohol content). We’ve got one. I don’t understand the instructions.

We bottle when we can see the yeast has almost finished fermenting – there is very little gas escaping, the water in the airlock is almost level and there are only a few islands of foam floating on the surface.

‘Prime’ each bottle with a half teaspoon of sugar (using a funnel is the easiest and least messy method) and siphon in the beer, stopping about an inch from the top. Try not to siphon out the yeasty layer in the bottom, this can be saved to use again later. See ‘Waking the Yeast’ below.

Put on the lid (whichever you are using) and do label with the date or there will be much speculation about whether it’s ready to drink or not. Wait 10-14 days before you taste the beer. If it’s nice and bubbly, drink more! If not, wait another 7 days. If the beer still isn’t bubbly after that time it’s a dud – chalk it up to experience (and/or drink it anyway).


If a brew has been particularly successful you may want to save the yeast to use again in the same beer recipe. The belief is that the yeast will have taken on the character of the beer and will enhance subsequent brews.

To save the yeast simply pour the liquid left after siphoning into a bottle (and label it!) and the night before you are going to brew again pour it into a jug with 100g of white sugar, cover with cling film & leave somewhere warm. In the morning it should be frothing and can be used at the usual stage in the beer making process. If it isn’t frothing don’t use it. I’ve not had consistently reliable results with this yet but I am persevering because it makes sense to me to keep the yeast going.


Here are some examples of beers that we regularly make:


335g (one small jar) malt syrup

225g brown sugar

50g dried Inula helenium root

8 pints water

1 teaspoon yeast

This makes a resin-y bitter tasting beer that I like, but I would regard this recipe as a starting point and experiment with adding other roots, for example a little dandelion or liquorice for some sweetness.


335g (one small jar) malt syrup

225g brown sugar

60g fresh/30g dried Rosemary

8 pints water

1 teaspoon yeast

We usually use fresh Rosemary and add half the amount again (30g) freshly chopped when the wort is cooling down; it gives extra oomph to the beer. This beer can be very feisty in fermentation, on one occasion foaming completely out through the airlock.

I love the taste of this beer but have found that it does give me really vivid dreams which can be exhausting.


This beer has two recipes for two fermenting variations. The original can be found in Mrs. Grieves under ‘Hops’.

Fermentation method 1

335g (one small jar) malt syrup

225g brown sugar

40g Meadowsweet (leaf & flower if you can get it)

40g Dandelion root

40g Agrimony

A small handful Lavender

8 pts water

1 teaspoon yeast

Boil the sugar, water and herb together for half an hour. Allow to cool then strain out the herbs and add the yeast when cooled to blood temperature. Funnel into a demi-john, fit a bung and airlock, ferment until almost complete (7-10 days). Pour into primed bottles and leave for 10-14 days.

This recipe makes a light fresh tasting beer, refreshing and pleasant on a summers evening.

Fermentation method 2

450g golden/white granulated sugar

40g Meadowsweet (leaf & flower if you can get it)

40g Dandelion root

40g Agrimony

one small handful Lavender

8 pts water

1 teaspoon yeast

Boil the water and herb together for half an hour. Allow to cool then strain out the herbs, stir in the sugar until fully dissolved and add the yeast when cooled to blood heat. Allow to stand for 12 hours in a warm place. Strain into very strong swing top bottles. DO NOT USE CROWN CAPS. Keep them where you can see them and ferment for 14 days. Open with great caution as they are liable to explode in a fountain. Let the gas out a little at a time (see ‘Opening the Lids’ below).

This method is only for the brave, foolhardy or experienced beer maker but makes an absolutely divine smooth and tasty beer with (an empirically determined) high alcohol content.


Why have a section on opening beers I hear you ask? To save soaking yourself, your house and any innocent bystanders with beer! If you suspect your beer is quite fizzy it needs to be opened in the garden until you have gained more experience.

Method 1 for crown capped bottles.

Open, remembering to keep your face well out of range of the top of the bottle and wear either nothing at all, or a very large apron. Have glasses nearby and hope the fountain subsides before you lose too much beer. I once made ginger beer which created a 5 foot high fountain on opening.  Very impressive.

Method 2 for swing tops.

Another advantage of swing top bottles is that you can tell if your beer is under a lot of pressure as the rubber seal begins to bulge.

Have the heel of one hand clamped firmly on top of the lid. Release the swing top with the other hand, but DO NOT LET GO OR RAISE THE LID, watch the bubbles rising and if they start to reach the mouth very quickly clamp the swing top back on again. Wait five to ten minutes and then repeat. Repeat as many times as is required to make it safe to open. Enjoy the gorgeous fizzy beer you have created.


I’d like to try a spring beer: gallium, nettle, chickweed and maybe a little dandelion leaf, perhaps made with some molasses and then something to make it taste good!

Nettle and sage for the older lady…


There is no law prohibiting beer making for personal consumption. There are laws covering the sale and supply of alcohol (you can’t do it unless you have the relevant licence) and it is illegal to distil spirits.


As ever the interweb is a great source of stuff and there are lots of home brew suppliers to choose from. Young’s yeast in a tub, bottles, crown cappers and crown caps, replacement rubber seals for swing tops; really anything can be bought online but do make sure you compare prices as they can vary widely.

We got our beer thermometers, air-lock bungs, siphon tubing, corks and a demi-john from Wilkinsons but their stock is intermittent. Demi-johns used to be a familiar sight in charity shops but do seem to be rarer these days but plastic fermentation bins can be used in their place.