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In the Middle Ages, European Beer Was Hallucinogenic

People have been enjoying beer for thousands of years, with the earliest brews believed to have been used for sustenance rather than intoxication at the dawn of the agricultural age. By the medieval era, beer (or ale, as it was commonly called) was widely drunk by all social classes in place of water, as it was believed to be a more nutritious — and psychedelic — alternative. Drink enough beer today and you may feel like you’re flying, but once upon a time, brewers actually incorporated a hallucinogen into their brews that actually induced this feeling: black henbane.

Native to Europe, black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) is a part of the nightshade family and, despite its toxicity, was once widely used to bolster beer’s intoxicating properties. In relatively low doses like those used in the brewing process, the plant did exactly that: made beers slightly more intoxicating by inducing mild psychoactive effects. In high doses, though, it was known to cause memory impairment, confusion, seizures, and even death.

Despite the risks, many brewers continued to use the hallucinogen in the region known now as modern-day Germany. Demand for henbane (or bilsenkraut, as it was called there) grew so high that entire gardens were planted dedicated to harvesting the plant. These bilsenkraut gardens served as the namesake for several towns, including the Czech town of Pilsen, the birthplace of the beloved pilsner. As such, it’s been speculated that the original pilsners actually contained doses of bitter-tasting henbane before the introduction of hops. Henbane’s prominence throughout the world, though, has been proven: In 2011, archeologists discovered the remnants of a Celtic beer recipe over 2,550 years old at a Neolithic brewery site in modern-day Germany that called for henbane. A similar discovery was made at the site of an ancient brewery in Skara Brae, Scotland, where archeologists unearthed the residue of a beer made with a variety of psychoactive ingredients including hemlock, meadowsweet, nightshade, and, of course, henbane.

While henbane could increase intoxication and provide beer with pleasing bitterness, it also had the unfortunate side effect of dry mouth. This prompted people to drink more in order to quench their thirst, making overdoses, bizarre trips, and intense cases of delirium not uncommon. As physician William Boericke noted centuries later in his 1827 book “Homeopathic Materia Medica,” henbane intoxication felt “as if some diabolical force took possession of the brain and prevented its functions [and] causes a perfect picture of mania of a quarrelsome and obscene character.”

Widespread use of henbane in German beer brewing was outlawed in 1516 with the passing of the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Laws, which declared that beer could only consist of barley, malt, hops, and water. But in other countries, the practice of brewing with hensbane remained, and was closely associated with witches. Henbane even earned the nickname “witches’ herb” for the women who added the nightshade to their own beers, or “brews.” When men entered the predominantly women-led brewing industry in the Reformation period, many of these women were accused of witchcraft, despite henbane’s presence in beer production dating back centuries. Henbane was also said to be an ingredient in “flying ointment,” a hallucinogenic salve alleged witches were said to apply to broomsticks before “riding” them.

Occult-adjacent or not, it’s for the best that henbane was outlawed from beer production — despite the fact that some homebrewers appear reluctant to let it go. To each their own, but we’ll take our brews sans hallucinogens.

*Image retrieved from kishivan via stock.adobe.com

The article In the Middle Ages, European Beer Was Hallucinogenic appeared first on VinePair.

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