Achille’s Heal Gruit Ale: Tasting Notes

The completion of this recipe marks the beginning of a new era for me in terms of my gradual evolution as a home brewer;  bit of an eccentric home brewer at that. There are a few different techniques and ingredients featured in Achille’s Heal Gruit ale that I have read extensively about but never put into practice until now. The first major change that was made was my switch from using almost exclusively liquid malt extract (LME) to experimenting with dry malt extract (DME),. I’ve got to say that I welcome this change and will very likely continue to use DME from now on. I find it significantly less messy and you don’t need as much of it because LME contains roughly 10% water and so is slightly less concentrated than the DME which has all of the water removed from it. Furthermore, I made the switch from amber malt to pale malt, although this was made not necessarily out of preference but because I was attempting to replicate a different style in this beer: something with a very light malt profile and much more hop character and bitterness. This, I believe, I most definitely achieved. Continue reading “Achille’s Heal Gruit Ale: Tasting Notes”

Achilles’ Heal Gruit Ale

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is probably one of my favorite native perennial medicinal herbs. It was one of the first plants that I learned to identify with confidence, and it is a common sight in many parts of the northern hemisphere, found virtually right across the top of our world. One of the chief medicinal applications of yarrow has been to both as a topical disinfectant and to stop profuse bleeding when wounded. It’s these compounded characteristics of the plant which earned it its genus name Achillea. Achilles is a warrior in Greek mythology who was believed to have treated the injuries his soldiers sustained in battle by applying a poultice of crushed yarrow leaves.

Indigenous peoples, where ever they have access to this plant, developed surprisingly similar medicinal and therapeutic traditions for yarrow, many of which have been proven by modern science including it’s ability to increase perspiration and thin the blood. Folk medicinal proclaims yarrow to be almost something of a cure-all, and many of this proposed medicinal attributes I can personally vouch for either directly or indirectly including it’s effectiveness for soothing sore throats, relieving nasal congestion, easing headaches and discouraging/relieving symptoms of indigestion and nausea. Continue reading “Achilles’ Heal Gruit Ale”

Creeping Charlie ’14

There isn’t anything quite like enjoying a fresh, deeply aromatic creep in the spring. By ‘creep’ I am referring to ‘creeping Charlie’, one of the many curious, colorful and quirky names given to a plant I most often refer to as ground-ivy, the species Glechoma hederacea. It has enjoyed a long history in beer brewing, dating back centuries in northern Europe where the plant is indigenous. At times, ground-ivy altogether replaced hops in recipes when hops was unavailable or because the individual brewer preferred the flavor and other benefits of ground-ivy. So would it be a stretch to say that our familiar hop could be a substitute for ground-ivy? The plant also imbibes the ale with a great deal of medicinal potency, but I’ll take a look through that when I review this beer in a few weeks time.

Ground-ivy has been documented to help preserve beer, imbibe pleasant bittering flavors and qualities, and also help improve the clarity of the beer. I would like to believe that these claims are true, although the first beer that I made back in 2012 featuring ground-ivy also had hops in it, and so it was not a legitimate recipe where I could solely experience the unique aspects of ground-ivy. The second attempt, which I believe also had some hops in it, ended in disaster last year (2013) when the carboy it was fermenting in exploded. Just couldn’t handle the awesome I suppose. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again. Please. This time around, I’ll definitely get to know the beery nature this herb better and will very likely gather some again soon and preserve it to use in recipes throughout the summer, autumn and winter. It’s best harvested when in bloom, and that is pretty much all of May and June, so there is lots of time to make excuses to stake your claim to your share of nature’s bountiful riches.

Adding ground-ivy gradually at intervals throughout the boil achieves an even balance of bitterness, flavour and aromatic compounds being distilled into the beer, as well as preserving delicate volatile medicinal compounds but also accessing more heat-tollerant compounds.

Ground-ivy is a thin, wiry herbaceous plant with creeping stems, rounded opposite leaves and light to dark purple tubular flowers which appear in the axils of the leaves in spring. It has a shy but tenacious nature, with a tendency to clamber over surrounding vegetation and spread aggressively, announcing it’s subtleties for those who are curious enough to notice. Lightly shaded woodlands, partly sunny hillsides, open rocky or gravelly areas and cool sunny riversides are all environments suitable for ground-ivy. I don’t encounter this plant everywhere I travel, but where there is some there tends to be a lot. The stems are weak and easily break off at notes or by the roots, which makes gathering them not particularly labor intensive and efficient. I like having it around, it’s useful and somehow strangely alluring.


4 pounds liquid amber barley malt extract
5 ounces freshly gathered flowering shoots of ground-ivy
4 gallons water
0.5 powered Irish moss tablet
8 grams dried ale yeast
16 grams yeast nutrient


1. Bring 1 (or 2) gallons of water to a boil.
2. Once boiling, remove from heat and stir in liquid amber barely malt extract until it is thoroughly dissolved. Return to heat and bring back to a boil.
3. Set timer for 30 minutes.
4. Add 1 ounce of freshly harvested ground-ivy, bruised slightly or coarsely chopped, every 10 minutes (30, 20, 10 and 0 mins.) for a total of 4 ounces at the end of the boil.
5. Add half a tablet of Irish moss 15 minutes from the end of the boil. Stir in briefly to help dissolve.
6. Remove from heat after 30 minutes of boiling and allow to cool with ground-ivy still in the wort to at least 100 °F before pouring into fermenter.
7. Fill fermenter partially with cold, clean water. Pour in the wort, straining the spent ground-ivy through a sieve, into the fermenter.
8. Alternate pouring in the cold water and wort until a total of 4 gallons is reached (this is so that the hot water does not shock and crack the glass carboy).  Stir to ensure an even mix.
9. Once the 4 gallons of wort is slightly warm to the touch, pitch dried ale yeast and yeast nutrient.
10. Before adding airlock, place remaining 1 ounce of ground-ivy in a cloth bundle and hang from clean string from the top of the fermenter.
11. Ferment until complete, 7-10 days. Bottle condition for 7-10 days at 16-19 degrees °C for 10-14 days.

* In case you are a home brewer yourself and you may be wondering why I don’t include original gravity readings or any of that slightly more technical and specific information in the recipe and instructions, there are most certainly reasons for this. This is because, number one, I don’t own a hydrometer. Two; there would be no point. The unconventional ingredients that I use wreak havoc on the formulas used to determine this information and therefore cannot be used reliably. For most people, consistency in terms of mathematics is important, but for the herbal brewer, specificities such as this are a fever dream and from my current understand would be almost impossible to determine short of working out new formulas which take into consideration the ways in which different herbs affect the density and gravity of the wort.

Oyster Mushrooms & Spent Brewery Grains

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and it’s close relatives, being the generalist-adaptable type that they are, grow wonderfully from a wide variety of different substrates in addition to spent coffee grounds (which you can explore in my previous post on the subject right here). This time around I am trying out a few different modifications to my original method of culturing oyster mushrooms, the most obvious being the substitution of spent barley brewing grains instead of used coffee grinds, and wrapping a double layer of cheese cloth over the top of the mason jar in order to improve air circulation.

Unfortunately, the majority of the oyster mushrooms that started off so well in my previous posts did not make it past the 2nd or 3rd week. There were a number of different contamination issues, particularly Trichoderma harzianum, a green mold which can grow under anaerobic conditions and out compete the oyster mushroom mycelium, reducing future yields once the substrate is fully colonized. In order to remedy the situation, I decided to increase the air circulation and see if that will alleviate the problem at least a little bit. Because the mushroom start isn’t completely sealed off from the outside world, regulating humidity and moisture levels is now a concern. When I notice that the coffee grinds (or any substrate for that matter) are not glistening with moisture, I open the jars and spray them a few times using filtered water that I boiled and then allowed to cool to sterilize it.

So that is my rationale behind why increased air circulation might be a good idea. You will find out whether or not this adjustment is successful in one of my future posts on the matter. The focus of my article today however is introducing you to a new substrate: spent brewery grains. Grains, as well as pasteurized wheat straw, are traditional ingredients in commercial substrate mixes for oyster mushrooms and a few other different species. They work very well because they contain enough nutrient and cellulose (fiber) that the mycelium needs to grow strong and produce bountiful mushrooms. Usually various other additives are included in the mix to regulate acid/alkaline levels of the substrate and for added nutrition, but we aren’t looking for industrial scale efficiency here (or at least I’m not) and so for the time being I am going to skip those details.

Spent brewery grains, mainly barely or wheat, are a readily available byproduct of commercial beer production. Once germinated, mashed and boiled in water to make wort for the beer, the grains are ready to be disposed of. They could be composted, given away to livestock farmers (I know at least one brewery that donates their spent grains to a local pig farmer as feed) or down right thrown out, but that as we all know is tremendously wasteful considering you could also grow mushrooms in them. Like coffee, the grains are boiled and therefore sterilized when they are processed, so further sterilization (as long as the grains are stored in clean air tight containers or used almost immediately) should not be necessary. The spent grains that I used I saved from a past home brewing experience and frozen them. Today, when I began a new mushroom starter, I thawed the grains in advance and mixed them with my oyster mushroom cuttings following the same protocol as I always have.

So if you are interested in experimenting with other re-purposed mushroom growing substrates, give brewery grains a shot. If you live in southern Ontario, as well as most places in Canada or the Unites States, local craft breweries which use good quality malted grains are not something that you will have to try very hard to find. Give them a call or drop by their retail outlets and inquire about whether or not they can save you a bag of grain. Like coffee shops, breweries have to pay for their byproducts to be picked up and hauled away, so by diverting some of their grain you are helping them to save money. Just another fantastic reason to grow some mushrooms and go take a visit to your nearest brewery.


Wermuth Wormwood Ale

Wormwood is an herb famous for it’s wickedly bitter bite. There are few things, even in my experience sampling different wild and cultivated medicinal plants, that quite reach this level of bitterness. It’s a good one to turn your face inside out if that is the sort of weird experience that you’re after. Although not the most delightful flavor to brew up as a tea or for straightforward eating (although wormwood was apparently used in small amounts to season meats much like culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which also has a somewhat bitter flavor but is more aromatic and interesting I feel) when added to malt deepens the flavor and cuts out the molasses-like sweetness. Consequently, wormwood’s history in brewing traditions is almost as old as records of the herb itself, going back well into the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe and even older in the case of Chinese herbal literature.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is a pungent-aromatic, stoutly branching wispy perennial herb with finely divided fern-like foliage that is covered in soft white hairs and bears inconspicuous yellow flowers. The species was originally found throughout Europe and Asia but was spread to North America and other places by early herbal missionaries. Since then, it has escaped cultivation and can be found in a variety of open, sunny positions in moist, rich or dry impoverished soils alike. In the Greater Toronto Area, wormwood does not seem to be as common as mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) which grows in the gravely shoulders of highways and on steep rocky embankments, looks similar although it’s leaves are green on the upper surface and divided in a different fashion.  The bitterness is more modest (although still wicked compared with many other herbs) in mugwort but the majoriy of the medicinal properties between the two species are shared.

Wermuth means ‘preserver of the mind’ and can be traced in it’s origins to the belief that wormwood had a stimulating and rejuvenating effect on the nervous system and improved memory. I think this also makes a good name for the beer: I love to resurrect ancient terms which conjure up relationships of language long passed. Our way of describing things and understanding our own personal definitions of reality have been changing at almost the same rate as our architecture, politics and technology. With each leap in innovation or theology, a new way of existing emerges which dispels the acceptance of an early method of understanding. Information may become outdated, but it most definitely does not stop being useful or intriguing, for what do we truly have other than the foundation of our history in the form of accumulated knowledge?

Wormwood possesses a wealth of medicinally active components that have a wide range of influences in our bodies. For the longest duration of it’s relationship with humans, wormwood has been prescribed as a vermifuge; a plant which kills internal parasites such as ring or roundworms; hence the origin of this species (most) common English name. The other area in which wormwood has a particularly powerful affect on is the digestive system. Chewing on or drinking an infusion of the extremely bitter leaves, flower buds and stems of wormwood stimulates the action of the saliva glands, liver, gallbladder and stomach. The production of saliva in the mouth, the flooding of digestive enzymes and bile from the liver and gallbladder and the production of stomach acid all help to prepare the body for digestion.

By initiating this behavior prior to food consumption, fat, complex carbohydrates, protein, and many other nutrients are more thoroughly broken down which allows for better nutrient absorption when your food moves on into the small intestine. Consuming wormwood after a meal can likewise help ease indigestion, wind, diarrhea and constipation; the herb has a wonderfully restorative and nourishing effect on sluggish digestive systems and may be helpful for those who suffer low stomach acidity, irritable bowel syndrome or other such chronic diseases.* For more information on the specific medicinal uses of wormwood, consult Plants for A Future, one of my personal favorite online sources for reputable and scientifically sound plant based medicines.

Wormwood was not added to fermenting wort simply as a bitter substitute for hops when it was in short supply, but was introduced to the tradition of brewing for many different reasons. The entire herb is strongly insecticidal, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-septic, which not only helps the beer to keep for long periods of time but transfers those same virtues into the body through consumption, scrubbing clean the digestive and urinary systems of toxins, parasites and viruses as it passes through. The inebriating effects of wormwood were also thoroughly acknowledges centuries ago, as it was one of the main ingredients in the legendary drink absinthe, which also included hyssop, coriander, sweet flag, nutmeg, cinnamon, marjoram, mint, anise, fennel, juniper and parsley among others.

Not only was absinthe notoriously strong (traditionally 120 – 160 proof) but many of the herbal ingredients contained psychoactive compounds, thujone and wormwood included.* This gave absinthe a powerfully intoxicating effect on the human body which inspired heaps of anecdotal encounters with the ‘green fairy’ that many poetics and philosophers who apparently abused absinthe experienced centuries past in Western Europe. All of this considered, beers brewed with wormwood are not nearly as potent as 120+ liquors or invite the joyful possibilities of momentary insanity, hallucinations and other such disturbing side effects. However, wormwood beer was certainly well known to have a ‘competitive edge’ so to speak, which I am quite interested to experiment with. It makes me wonder, that as long as the appropriate doses of wormwood are thoroughly understood, why has interest in it has an ingredient in beer disappeared? Likely with prohibition of it as a feature of Absinthe, me thinks. It’s a shame, because there is lots of fun to be had here.


– 4 pounds liquid malt extract
– 1 pound raw wildflower honey
– 1/2 ounce dried wormwood herb
– 4 gallons water
– 10 grams brewer’s yeast.

I might substitute some fresh grain for the liquid malt extract if the opportunity presents itself, but I have never done sparging or any of the other necessary techniques of doing whole grain batches. If you are someone that happens to know quite a bit about that whole process, I would appreciate some pointers. I would like to move in the direction of doing whole grain batches, but there is quite a few things holding me back from that at this moment and so I can’t see myself doing it all the time until further notice, even though I would like to.


– Bring 1 gallon of water to a boil and add wormwood herb. Boil for 30 minutes.- Strain tea through malt extract and stir until completely dissolved.
– Allow wort to cool until approximately 100-110 °F.
– Strain wort once more into fermenter and add remaining 3 gallons cold water, stirring to combine. add yeast.
– Insert airlock and ferment for 7-10 days.
– Add 1/2 teaspoon of sugar to each bottle and cap. Ready in 10-14 days.

*Wormwood, like many powerful medicinal herbs, should be respected and used with caution, only to be used on a regular basis under the supervision of a health care professional or herbalist. Wormwood contains thujone, a controlled substance in Canada, the United States, and many other countries around the world. Taken internally, high doses of thujone or the essential oil of wormwood can cause nausea, loss of coordination, insomnia or in more unfortunate circumstances, seizures, hallucinations and trigger epileptic fits. The sale of wormwood as a medicinal herb is not regulated, as the level of thujone in the herb is relatively low although poisonings throughout the world do still occur.

Thuja occidentalis, the eastern white-cedar tree, also contains thujone in it’s foliage and this plant also has a rich history of medicinal used among the first peoples on North America. Despite thT thujone received it’s chemical name for the genus name Thuja, the eastern white-cedar as a species is not controlled. It is common in the wild where suitable habitat exists and is a commonly cultivated evergreen hedge. Any reasonable dose of wormwood will not be enough to cause the negative side effects listed above, but wormwood is discouraged from being used on children, the elderly, and pregnant or breastfeeding women or if the individual has a history of seizures. As long as you are smart about it, then there is little risk. A little wormwood goes a long way.