The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications



Other Names


Acca, acupe, ahai, akka, ale, asua, badek, bakhar, bier, binburam, birra, biru, bosa, bouza, burukutu, busaa, cangüi, cashirí, cauim, caxiri, caysuma, cerveza, chang, chhang, chica, chicha, darassun, dolo, huicú, ikigage, kaffir, kalya, kiwa, kufa, kwass, lugri, masato, mazamorro, mekzu, merissa, mqombothi, munkoya, murcha, nawá, øl, pachwai, paiva, paiwariu, pajuarú, pissioina, pito, sende, sendechó, talla, taroba, tesvino, tesgüino, tizwin, to, toach, torani, tulapi, tulbai, tulpi, utywala, yale


Beer and beerlike drinks are found throughout the world (Bücheler 1934; Fairley 1992; Hürlimann 1984). Beer consists chiefly of water in which starch or sugar has been dissolved (see the table on page 729; cf. chicha). By adding cultivated or wild yeast (see the table on page 728), the mixture begins to ferment (for more on fermentation, cf. Hlavacek 1961). This yields a brew with an alcohol content of generally between 2 and 5%. However, modern brewing techniques make it possible to increase the alcohol content to around 10% (as in bock and strong beer). Today, most industrial beer is made with malted barley (Delos 1994; Jackson 1988); in former times, almost all the various kinds of grain known to man (many of which were also made into bread) were fermented (Gastineau et al. 1979; Lazzarini and Lonardoni 1984; Ziehr and Bührer 1984).

Throughout the world, beer was originally a ritual drink that was drunk during shamanic or religious ceremonies to honor the gods (libations) and in order to establish contact with other realities (Huber 1929). Psychoactive plants were usually added to these ritual beers (see the table on page 730). Some fifty known psychoactive plants have been added to beer at some time and place in the world. Such beers were consecrated to the gods or goddesses (e.g., Thor, Dionysos, Bacchus, Hathor, Bhairab/Shiva, Isis; cf. Golowin n.d.). Some of the more famous of these beers are the mandrake beer of the Egyptians (see Mandragora officinarum), the maize beer of the South American Indians—which is flavored with seeds from angel’s trumpets or thorn apple (see Brugmansia sanguinea, Datura innoxia, Datura stramonium)—and the “true pilsner,”the Germanic henbane beer (see Hyoscyamus niger). The porst beer of the Vikings, which had potent inebriating properties, was brewed with marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre) or bog myrtle (Myrica gale) (Simpson et al. 1996).


Today, barley (Hordeum vulgare) is the most commonly used brewing grain in the world. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)



Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is the most important source of fermentable material for beer brewing.



The root of the cassava bush (Jatropha multifida) is used to brew beer in South America.



In Africa and Asia, beer is brewed primarily from true millet (Panicum miliaceum).


“The art of brewing beer was revealed to the humans out of a special goodness and grace. When no one yet knew how barley could be used, Dionysos conceived of the drink and taught it to those who had no vineyards, so that they would not have to drink water like the geese and ducks.”




In the Middle Ages, beer brewing was associated with alchemy and witchcraft and was consequently a sometimes disreputable practice. This was often due to the “secret ingredients” (Eckstein 1927). Not only strong, inebriating beers but also aphrodisiac and medicinal beers were made. In Germany, “the land of beer,” beer was brewed with strong psychoactive additives, some of which cannot be botanically identified, well into the early modern era. In 1720, Paul Hönn, a royal councilor of Saxon, wrote in the Betrugs-lexicon [Dictionary of Deception]:


Brewers deceive, when they throw so-called cat brains [?], valerian [Valeriana officinalis L.], and other such mind-boggling things into the pot, so that they will make the beer strong and the people who drink it stagger, even more so when hops becomes expensive and they instead use wormwood [Artemisia absinthium], ox bile, and such things in the beer simply to make it bitter. (In Mathäser 1996, 57)


The so-called Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 was the first German drug law; it specifically forbade the use of henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) as a beer admixture. The use of hops (see Humulus lupulus) as a flavoring agent in beer is an invention of Christian monks. It has been suggested that the Bavarian Purity Law was intended primarily to suppress the use of pagan ritual plants and thus to finish the work of the Inquisition (Rätsch 1996).




The potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) was cultivated in South America; it is one of the most important sources of highly nutritive carbohydrates in the Andes. The entire plant is highly toxic, and only the tubers are suitable for consumption. The native peoples of the Andean region use the tubers to brew beer. Potatoes are also used to make vodka. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)


“Of the herb margosae [neem tree]. This herb, which the Dutch use instead of hops for flavoring sweet beer, is dried because of its bitterness. Its leaves are almost like those of hemp but grow somewhat smaller, or like cinquefoil, it vines up trees.”












In Asia and Africa, most beer is brewed from many different kinds of millet. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)


“In any case, the Chinook of the northwestern coast of North America report an unusual form of alcohol fermentation for the purposes of inebriation. They consume as delicacies acorns that have been allowed to soak in human urine for over five weeks, which causes them to ferment. These Chinook olivesproduce a pleasant state of inebriation.”









In the early modern era, beer and beer drinking were often demonized and associated with pagan witches’ cults. Indeed, beer, especially that brewed with henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), is an ancient, heathen ritual drink. The caption reads: “A female innkeeper being taken by the devil.” (Illustration of an old English sculpture)



In recent years, home brewing has been gaining in popularity again. At home, of course, people can put anything they want in their beer. In the United States, spices (cinnamon, coriander, ginger, paradise grains, nutmeg and mace, cardamom, pepper, chilies, cumin, turmeric, vanilla) are often added. In Germany, henbane beer (pilsner) is being brewed once again, and a Swiss brewery introduced a hemp beer to the market in 1996. A mixture of wheat beer and a guaraná extract (Paullinia cupana) is popular in Brazil and is now available in Europe as well. In Belgium, a wheat beer known as Floris Chocolat is made with chocolate (cf. Theobroma cacao).

In Central and South America, ritual beers (see chicha) with psychoactive ingredients were very common in pre-Hispanic times (Arriaga 1992*; Cobo 1990*). Some tribes, such as the Tarahumara, Huichol, and Quechua, still use varied admixtures to increase the strength of their maize beer. Many of the same plants are also added to ayahuascacimora, and San Pedro drinks (cf. Trichocereus pachanoi).



See also the entry for chicha.


Appun, Carl Ferdinand. 1870. Die Getränke der Indianer Guayanas. Globus 18.


Ardussi, John A. 1977. Brewing and drinking the beer of enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism: The doha tradition in Tibet. Journal of the American Oriental Society 97 (2): 115–24.


Baldus, Herbert. 1950. Bebidas e narcoticos dos indios do Brasil. Sociologia (São Paulo) 12.


Behre, K. E. 1983. Aspects of the history of beer flavouring agents based on fruit finds and written sources. In Plants and ancient man: Studies in palaeoethnobotany, ed. W. van Zeist and W. Casparie, 115–22. Rotterdam: A. A. Balkema.


Bücheler, Walther. 1934. Bier und Bierbereitung in den frühen Kulturen und bei den Primitiven. Berlin: VGGB.


Delos, Gilbert. 1994. Biere aus aller Welt. Erlangen: Karl Müller Verlag.


Eckstein, F. 1927. Bier. In Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, ed. Bächtold-Stäubli, 1:1255–82. Berlin: De Gruyter.


Fairley, Peter. 1992. Probably the oldest lager in the world . . . New Scientist 16 (May): 6.


Feest, C. E. 1983. New wines and beers of North America. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 9 (2/3): 329–35.


Gaessner, Heinz. 1941. Bier und bierartige Getränke im germanischen Kulturkreis. Berlin: GGBB.


Gastineau, C., W. Darb, and T. Turner, eds. 1979. Fermented foods in nutrition. New York: Academic Press.



Maize/corn (Zea mays L.) was first cultivated in Mexico, and it is the most important source of nourishment for many Indians. In all of those places where maize was adopted into Indian culture, it is known that it can be used to make beer. The Indians usually improve their maize beer (chicha) with such powerful psychoactive substances as peyote, angel’s trumpets, thorn apple, tobacco, and coca. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)


Golowin, Sergius. n.d. Die weisen Frauen und ihr Bier. Brauerei Hürlimann.


Hartman, Louis Francis, and A. Leo Oppenheim. 1950. On beer and brewing techniques in ancient Mesopotamia. Journal of the American Oriental Society suppl. (10) (Baltimore).


Helck, Wolfgang. 1971. Das Bier im Alten Ägypten. Berlin: GGBB.


Hlavacek, Frantisek. 1961. Brauereihefen. Leipzig: Fachbuchverlag.


Huber, E. 1926. Bier und Bierbereitung im alten Babylon . . . im alten Ägypten. In Bier und Bierbereitung bei den Völkern der Urzeit, 9–28, 33–46. Berlin: VGGBB.


———. 1929. Das Trankopfer im Kulte der Völker. Hannover-Kirchrode: Oppermann.


Hürlimann, Martin. 1984. Das Buch vom Bier. Zurich: Brauerei Hürlimann.


Jackson, Michael. 1988. Das große Buch vom Bier. Bern, Stuttgart: Hallwag.


Kistemaker, R. E., and V. T. van Volsteren. 1994. Bier! Geschiedenis van een volksdrank. Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw.


La Barre, Weston. 1938. Native American beers. American Anthropologist 40 (2): 224–34.


Lappe, Patricia, and Miguel Ulloa. 1989. Estudios étnicos, microbianos y químicos del tesgüino tarahumara. Mexico City: UNAM.


Lazzarini, Ennio, and Anna Rota Lonardoni. 1983. Gesundheit aus Halm und Korn: Heilsame Kräfte aus Gräsern und Getreide. Freiburg i. Br.: Bauer.


Litzinger, William J. 1983. The ethnobiology of alcoholic beverage production by the Lacandon, Tarahumara, and other aboriginal Mesoamerican peoples. PhD diss., Department of Biology, University of Colorado.


Lohberg, Rolf, et al. 1984. Das große Lexikon vom Bier. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: Scripta.


Mathäser, Willibal. 1996. Flüssiges Brot: Andechs und sein Klosterbier. 2nd ed. Munich: Hugendubel.


Mathiesen, Liv, Karl Egil Malterud, and Reidar Bredo Sund. 1995. Antioxidant activity of fruit exudate and C-methylated dihydrochalcones from Myrica galePlanta Medica 61:515–18.


Maurizio, A. 1933. Geschichte der gegorenen Getränke. Berlin and Hamburg: Paul Parey. Repr. Wiesbaden: Sändig, 1970.


Navchoo, Irshad A., and G. M. Ruth. 1990. Ethnobotany of Ladakh, India: Beverages, narcotics, foods. Economic Botany 44 (3): 318–21.


Rasanen, Matti. 1975. Vom Halm zum Faß: Die volkstümlichen alkoholarmen Getreidegetränke in Finnland. Kansatieteelinen Arkisto 25. Helsinki: Suomen Muinaismuistoyhdistys.


Rätsch, Christian. 1996a. Urbock: Bier jenseits von Hopfen und Malz. Aarau: AT Verlag.


———. 1996b. Vom Bilsenkraut zum Pils. Natürlich 16 (7–8): 50–3.


Röllig, Wolfgang. 1970. Das Bier im alten Mesopotamien. Berlin: GGBB.


Rose, A. H., ed. 1977. Alcoholic beverages. New York: Academic Press.


Rosenthal, Ed. 1984. Marijuana beer. Berkeley, Calif.: And/Or Press.


Simpson, Michael J. A., Donald F. Macintosh, John B. Cloughley, and Angus E. Stuart. 1966. Past, present and future utilisation of Myrica gale (Myricaceae). Economic Botany 50 (1): 122–29.


Ziehr, Wilhelm, and Emil Bührer. 1984. Le pain à travers les âges. Tielt, Belgium: Editions Lannoo.

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