St. John's Wort: An Herbal Alternative to Hops in Beer
There's no doubt that beer is experiencing a renaissance. According to the Brewers Association, the number of breweries in the United States has skyrocketed over the past decade, from 1,813 in 2010 to 8,884 in 2020 — a 390% increase!
But don't let the numbers fool you: while craft beer might seem trendy, brewing is an ancient art that has been practiced for thousands of years. In fact, some historians think that grain production and brewing may have been a factor in shifting our ancestors toward agriculture and away from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence.
The four main ingredients in modern beer are malted barley, water, yeast, and hops — the green, cone-shaped flowers of a plant called Humulus lupulus. Hops give beer its signature aroma and bitter flavor, balancing out the sugars from the malted barley. They also serve as natural preservatives, since hop acids are antimicrobial. In fact, one of today's hoppiest and most popular craft beers — the India Pale Ale, or IPA — gets its name from the fact that British brewers in the 1800s added extra hops to beer to keep it fresh during the six-month-long sea journey to India.
Like those British sailors, we love hops, both in our beer and in many of our herbal tinctures, where we include them for their calming qualities and their support of a healthy inflammation response. But you might be surprised to learn that hops haven't always been the star of the show when it comes to beer and brewing.
Beer Before Hops: Gruit Ales
Before they began using hops, brewers made what were known as gruit ales — beers brewed with a blend of herbs (called a "gruit") rather than hops. The traditional gruit ale included a blend of myrica gale (also known as bog myrtle), yarrow, and wild rosemary. Another popular herb used in early brewing? St. John's wort.
St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been used for centuries to heal wounds, support mood, soothe sore muscles, and even banish demons! It also has a long history when it comes to brewing. It was especially popular with brewers in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia before hops became widely available in that area of Europe. Traditional Norwegian St. John's wort ales were fairly simple, and typically included just water, malted barley, yeast, and flowering St. John's wort, sometimes with the addition of brown sugar.
Tastewise, St. John's wort adds a slight woody note and bitter undertone to beer. Also similar to hops, St. John's wort has both antibacterial and antidepressant properties. It also imparts a reddish tint from its oils, giving the ale a distinctive color.
Want to give homebrewing some St. John's wort gruit ale at home? You'll find two recipes in Stephen Harrod Buhners' book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, along with over 100 other recipes for ancient and indigenous beers and meads from more than 30 countries.
More Ways to Enjoy St. John's Wort
Of course, you don't have to brew or even drink beer to reap the benefits of St. John's wort. According to a study by scientists at University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the herb may even help those who want to cut back on their alcohol consumption, a benefit the researchers attribute to the plant's active ingredient, hypericin.
If you still like the idea of "brewing" up some St. John's wort, try this St. John's wort herbal tea recipe from Delishably. The recipe calls for the dried herb, but if you prefer using fresh, simply double the quantity.
WishGarden Herbs also includes St. John's wort in some of our favorite herbal tinctures and topical treatments. To ease concerns and combat stress, try our Emotional Ally: A Big Herbal Hug. To soothe sore muscles, opt for our Deep Recovery Musclar-Skeletal (to be taken internally) or our Arnica Oil with St. John's Wort (to be applied to the skin and rubbed into the muscle).
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Valerie Gleaton is a professional writer and editor. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she also earned a certificate in science and environmental reporting.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.
Feature photo: Mountain Rose Herbs