James Lindenschmidt runs BardicBrews.net, a website dedicated to telling forgotten stories about fermented beverages. He is an enthusiastic meadmaker and mead advocate, and is also dedicated to the bardic arts of storytelling and song. He is the author of From Alcohol To Alchemy: The Lore And Craft Of Mead, which is a concise yet powerful guide for the novice and intermediate mead maker. Head to his PoppySwap store to see this work of art! His “day job” is as an acoustics consultant in the music industry. His academic training is in philosophy.
What was your first inspiration to become an herbalist / work with herbs?
My first exposure to herbalism came more than 20 years ago when I became interested in neopaganism and earth-based spirituality. My first exposure to this was Wicca, and I learned early on that “witches” are also healers. Therefore, herbalism seemed a natural extension of this early study.
It’s funny, I have never really considered myself An Herbalist with capital letters; since I began years ago I have merely been someone interested in plants and herbs. I never underwent any sort of rigorous study of herbs or herbalism; rather I just read a lot, spent time in nature, and learned a bit at a time over many years.
I have also used herbs on my own health journey for a very long time, and have picked up much of what I know via self-experimentation. Early on, I looked at herbalism the way many “newbies” do, poking through catalogs at herbal supply stores, thinking in that all-too-Western way of treating symptoms with specific plants. These days my approach is more about developing a relationship with the plant itself, meeting the plant on its own terms, and deepening my relationship with plants that grow in my own local ecosystem. With very few exceptions, nearly all of my brews use local, organic, and wildharvested ingredients.
My interest in herbalism has really skyrocketed the past several years as I have striven to incorporate the plants in my ecosystem in my own homebrewing. This intersection between homebrewing and herbalism was the impetus for creating BardicBrews.net.
You seem to be bringing fermentation and herbs together in a unique way. Is this something new or has it been around for awhile?
I have been accused of being unique in this respect before, and it is very humbling. However I have to say that it makes me smile a bit, because if you go back 500+ years I don’t think there was a separation between fermentation and herbalism; they were intertwined aspects of the same practice. In our modern world we have lost this intimate relationship.
If you go back far enough, “going to the pub” also meant a visit to the healer; you would get an “ale” for what was “ailing” you. Up until about 500 years ago, fermentation was done with gruit, which were herbal mixtures — often closely-guarded recipes handed down from one generation to the next — provided by the local gruit guild. Each gruit guild used plants indigenous to that area, and they would have different herbal mixtures depending on the kind of beverage or medicine you were looking to make. Sadly, the gruit guilds were virtually wiped out overnight, when the Purity Act passed in Germany in the early 16th century. This law mandated that all beers must be made with hops, and that no other herbs were allowed. 500 years later, our alcohol consumption is dominated by huge corporations that produce a very narrow range of fermented beverages focused almost exclusively on hops (which has soporific effects on the human physiology), and alcoholism has become a tragic part of our culture. Overall, I believe we have lost our connection to the sacred roots of fermentation.
In modern herbalism, making tinctures with, say, 80 proof vodka is common, but we often forget that distilled alcohol has only been widely available for 400 or 500 years. Prior to this, herbalists had to make their own alcohol. Before distillation techniques became widely available, we had a “ceiling” in terms of alcohol content of about 18 to 20%, or about 40 proof. This is the percentage of alcohol we can get before there is too much alcohol present for the yeast to survive, which brings up an interesting point/metaphor — can you think of another organism besides yeast that gradually toxifies its environment with its waste products, until it can no longer survive?
In conceiving my website, BardicBrews.net, I took the name very literally. I wanted the subject to be about brewing, but I also knew that the stories of ancient brewing were important. The Bardic Tradition has largely been lost in our modern culture, and one of my prime motivations is to remind people — myself included — that “every bottle has a story.” I wanted my website to tell these “forgotten stories in fermented beverages.”
What kind of herbs work best in your meads?
The short answer is whichever herbs in your local ecosystem with which you have a relationship. And the lovely thing about this short answer is that it’s not an oversimplification.
I view mead as the highest alchemical expression of a given ecosystem. Honey is nearly ubiquitous to the planet, you have to go to the extreme latitudes before you can no longer find honey. I view honey as the lifeblood of an ecosystem, and when we use this precious substance as the sugar for fermentation we are creating beverages on the highest order of what the ecosystem has to offer.
In addition, mead is one of those ultra-rare alcoholic beverages that can occur naturally in the wild — when rainwater falls into an abandoned hive that still has honey, wild yeast will settle in and convert the sugars to alcohol. Can you imagine being an ancient person and discovering this for the first time? No wonder mead is considered a gift from the gods in nearly every ancient culture that has it (which is nearly every culture on every continent)!
In its simplest form, a traditional mead has only 3 ingredients: water, honey, and yeast. But the beautiful thing about mead is that you can incorporate just about any ingredient you can think of — from herbs to berries to fruits to nuts to spices, or literally anything else you can imagine. Mead is a form of food preservation, and most meads improve dramatically with age. Therefore, when I make a strawberry mead, the nutrition from those strawberries from this year will be available to me for many years as I let the mead age.
As an example, one of my most popular meads has been the Treequinox Mead I brewed in the spring of 2011. All the ingredients apart from the honey and the yeast came from trees in my local ecosystem. I began with freshly-harvested maple sap rather than water. With that sap, I made a decoction using freshly harvested fir, hemlock, and spruce tips — ingredients both the indigenous folk and European settlers in North America used as a source of Vitamin C. Then I added the honey and the yeast to this tea and allowed it ferment into a delicious sweet mead, with an unmistakeable evergreen flavor. I can’t say it’s my favorite one personally, but I have had several people tell me it was the best mead they’d ever had. Many people told me it tasted like Christmas!
I notice that you use spring water for the base of your meads. Why do you do this?
There are two reasons why I make all my meads with spring water (except when I use other liquids such as tree sap, or freshly-pressed apple cider to make a cyser).
First is that I am a big believer in spring water in general. The state of “urban tap liquid” in our society terrifies me. Most urban tap liquid contains chlorine, fluoride, human biological waste, and many dozens of identifiable residual pharmaceuticals. I won’t drink it as water, so why would I use it in my meads? Furthermore, in some cases there is enough chlorine in tap water to kill the yeast, preventing fermentation from occurring in the first place.
In addition, there is some fascinating research being done in the last decade or two about the not-so-obvious properties of water. For instance, one hypothesis that I find very appealing is that water naturally contains a liquid crystal structure, and that this structure lingers in the water long after it is formed. Water seems to respond to consciousness in ways science did not predict. Spring water, freshly harvested from the ground into glass containers, that has never touched plastic, is for me the highest quality water possible. It measures cleaner, tastes better, feels more hydrating, and just has a superior vibe.
Second, in general there are very few ingredients in mead — again, it can be as few as 3 ingredients — so each ingredient should be the highest possible quality. I always suggest that you use the best water available to you in your meads. For some this will mean commercial spring water. For me this means fresh spring water I harvest myself from a mountaintop near my home in Maine.
This spring water I collect measures out at 10ppm (parts per million) in TDS (total dissolved solids), as compared to most urban tap water which can be as high as 200 or more. It is likely to be the cleanest substance I will ever come into contact with in my lifetime anywhere on the planet; it has been naturally filtered by the earth itself over countless decades, encased in stone aquifers longer than pollution has existed on our planet, and is offered up as a gift from the Earth when She is ready to give it up, rather than when we drill into Her and extract it.
Gathering spring water is, for me, both a health practice and a spiritual rite. When I am at the spring, I am usually barefoot (even in winter in Maine) and feel that I am walking on sacred ground.
Like most herbalists, I think this is a difficult question to answer. But if I had to narrow it down to a few it is probably the medicinal mushrooms, specifically chaga (Inonotus obliquus) and reishi (Ganoderma tsugae).
I love chaga for the beautiful, mellow, maple-vanilla flavor it imparts to a beverage. In addition, recent testing I’ve done suggests that meads made with a chaga base clear more quickly and to a more beautiful hue than meads made without chaga. Chaga is probably my favorite overall tonic herb.
I love reishi for the amazing feeling in my body I get when I use it, its strong adaptogenic effect on my immune system, and lately as an alternative bittering agent (instead of hops) in my brews. Since the aforementioned Purity Act was passed in Germany 500 years ago, there are very few — almost zero — beers and ales made that use anything other than hops as its bittering agent. This is all that remains of the stunning gruit mixtures provided by the gruit guilds for centuries until they were wiped out when this act was passed.
Hops has its use, but I’m wary of both its soporific effect and its relatively high content of xenoestrogens, both of which we are oversaturated with in our culture (think mass media for the former, and ubiquitous plastics for the latter). I’ve been interested in alternative bittering agents for fermented beverages for a long time, and reishi is, so far, my favorite. I find its flavor to be richer and more complex than hops, and its medicinal effects to be more in tune with my body’s needs.
I think mead is the best alcoholic beverage to start with for two reasons. First, it is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, humans have been making mead for many millenia. The human race started with mead, so should a novice brewer. As above, so below. Second, it is very simple to make, especially compared to beers and ales!
Not to turn this into a blatant plug, but in my opinion the best place to start with mead is my eBook, From Alcohol To Alchemy: The Lore And Craft Of Mead. This book was written to be exactly this: the best place to start along the meadmaking path. I wanted it to be as concise as possible, and yet still be powerful enough to show not only how to make a consistently delicious batch of mead every time, but also how to incorporate herbs or other ingredients every step of the fermentation process.
I have my meadmaking method dialed in to a simple, 6-step process, 2 of which are optional, and I’ve never had a bad batch of mead. Yet despite its simplicity, it is powerful enough to grow with you for many, many years of meadmaking mastery. I am several years into my meadmaking vocation and I still find ways to incorporate new ingredients and techniques into the methodological framework of these 6 steps. Creating your own recipes is very easy, and is indeed the point of the ebook. The basic recipe shown in the book is fantastic on its own, and is flexible enough to adapt to your own personal alchemy and medicinal style, not to mention to the ingredients available in your local ecosystem. I daresay any herbalist will pick it up quickly, incorporate it into their own elixir and medicinal techniques, and make it their own, enjoying the results for a lifetime of meadmaking.
I have kept the eBook very reasonably priced ($20.00 at the time of this writing), despite the fact that many people have told me the information contained in the book is worth many times what it costs. The most important thing to me is to get this information out to the public. Much of it can be gleaned from spending hours perusing the website, but I wanted the eBook to be as concise as possible. I’m very proud of this book as I believe I have accomplished these objectives.
To quote Charlie Papazian (author of The Complete Joy Of Homebrewing), “Relax. Don’t Worry. Have a homebrew.” Meadmaking really is simple, and humans have been making mead as far back as we can see in history. As such, I believe mead is one of the things that makes us human. As a species, we have been making mead for far longer than we’ve had hydrometers, glass carboys, airlocks, and siphoning equipment. The hardest part of making mead is waiting for it to be ready!
If you haven’t yet tried mead, I suggest you get some as soon as you can and share it with friends, preferably under the stars and around a fire, with a song or a poem. While there have been some very exciting developments in commercial meaderies over the past decade (meadmaking is undergoing a similar renaissance to what microbrewed beers underwent 2 decades ago), all of the best meads I’ve tried have been homebrewed, either by me or my tribe. Try to find a meadmaker near you, chances are they will be thrilled to share their mead and their enthusiasm with you.
And if you are in or near Maine, feel free to contact me. I love talking and sharing mead with interested people. Thanks so much for the opportunity to “talk shop” on PoppySwap!