In our never-ending quest to learn about the connection between inula and beer, we offer a summary of our research into the historical uses of elecampane (an inula species). We pursue elecampane (rather than other types of inula) because of its traditional use in beer.
Elecampane (also known as Scabwort, Elf Dock, Wild Sunflower, Horseheal, and Velvet Dock) has a long history as a beer additive. The plant is widely distributed in Europe and eastern North America and typically grows in moist and dark places. After the fall of the Roman Empire, elecampane was still mentioned in Latin texts throughout the Late Antique and Medieval period for its medicinal and bittering properties (Grieve, A Modern Herbal). Analysis by Valentine Rose in 1804 discovered that the active (medicinal) ingredient in elecampane is inulin or Alantin [German] (Grieve, A Modern Herbal). Because elecampane’s strong healing properties, modern herbalists and healers suggest steeping 0.5-1 oz of the root in a pint of water for a tea to cure coughs or other lung related issues. Caveat Bibitor! Too much inula can cause gastrointestinal distress.
In antiquity, inula concoctions were particularly known for the medicinal benefits and bittering properties. Horace indicates that an inula-steeped bitter can help allay the anti-hunger pangs of gluttonous men, writing “. . . quamquam/putet aper rhombusque recens, mala copia quando/aegrum sollicitat stomachum, cum rapula plenus/Atque acidas mavult inulas” (Satires 2.2 ll. 41-44) “Although the recent boar and turbot stink, when evil abundance stirs up the sick stomach, the full man prefers the turnip and harsh elecampane.” In its earliest Classical reference (5th c. BCE), elecampane was suggested by Hippocratus to be boiled with wine and castoreum to help with various “womenly” ailments (see KONUZA, defined). Even the wife of a Roman emperor, Julia Augusta, took inula daily for its medicinal properties. BCS has also previously shared a passage by Pliny the Elder about elecampane and its role as a bittering agent in food and wine.
Elecampane (or inula/konuza plant) has also consistently served as a steeping/boiling herb in alcohol for at least 2500 years. Although the early texts only indicate its addition to wine by the Greeks and Romans, the Thracians are reported to have added it to a millet and barley beer, called parabias (Hecataeus). It is possible that the elecampane was simply added for flavor or preservation because no other medicinal qualities are mentioned.
Cornell mentions an Anglo-Saxon leechdom, a medicinal book, that describes elecampanes use in beer. Gagellan and wort are boiled with elecampane and other spices to help with lung diseases – no date or source is given (Cornell 2010, “Herb and Flavoured Ales”). Elecampane was also sometimes found in British Mum beers – ales brewed with barley, wheat, and a complement of herbs. The Mum or Mumme beer is German or Dutch in origins with its earliest references from the 13th and 14th centuries. An English version of this beer from 1768 calls for elecampane along with fir, cardamom, ginger, and sassafras in one mum beer (Child 1768, 231; Cornell 2010, “Wheat Beer”). Another zany 18th c. use for beer and inula include the suspension of elecampane in a sack, along with betony, sage, agrimony, Roman wormwood, and horseradish, that is suspended in casks of fermenting ale (Cornell 2010, “Herb and Flavoured Ales”). A 1683 recipe tells more about the practicalities of this addition by writing that any herbs or other flavorings should be added to mum beers once fermentation begins.
In a funny anecdote, elecampane beer is mentioned in the autobiography of George Fox (1624-1691), an English dissenter and founder of the Quakers who traveled throughout North America. While on military campaign, he suffered from a cold and asked for elecampane beer as a cure (ed. by Jones 1904, 441). As a practical joke, his soldiers downed this “strong beer” in Fox’s absence as he Fox was diverted on a diversionary mission (Hodgkin 1896, 199).
Finally, elecampane and beer are found together in several 19th century dictionaries to describe a type of medicinal, herbal beer “Alantbier.” In one entry, Alantbier is succinctly defined as “elecampane-beer” (Grieb 1873, 42). An even earlier dictionary (1811) defines alantbier: “Das Alantbier, des -es, plur. inusit. ein Bier, welches mit einem Zusatze von Alantwurzel gebrauet worden um es dadurch zu einer Arzeney zu machen” “A beer that has been brewed with elecampane root added to make a medication” (Adelung 1811, 193-194). In case you feared the thrill of German dictionary entries had come to an end, I offer one more: “Alantbier, n. a beer medicated with the roots of elecampane” (Lucas 1863, 73)
Not beer, but . . . : In Switzerland, elecampane has also been used during the preparation of absinthe as an aroma enhancer (Grieve, A Modern Herbal). It is also found in Culpeper’s 1653 “The Complete Herbal” as an ingredient for absinthe (“Absinthe,” Home Distillation of Alcohol)
In the modern craft-beer era, there is only a single beer that (to my knowledge) has been brewed with elecampane: Eoforwic Ale by Leeds Brewery. On its UNTAPPD page, the beer is described to contain malted barley, bog myrtle, yeast, hops, and elecampane. “Anglo-Saxon Ale.”
In sum, elecampane has been used as a medicine for millennia – often added to beer. The use of elecampane in both Thracian beer and in 16th-19th c. European beers is intriguing, but it is impossible to know if this represents a continuous beer tradition or simply a re-discovery. Elecampane’s properties as a bittering agent would have made it an attractive alternative or pre-cursor to hops for beer. This root, however, seems to have died in popularity when modern medicines began to replace herbal concoctions for healing
Hands(Nose)-On with Elecampane
It has a fragrant, herbal aroma, but with an earthy backbone that smells . . . like a root. However, it is far more aromatic than I had expected. Quite nice.
If anyone knows anything more about elecampane in beer, ancient, historic or modern, please get in touch with BCS by leaving a comment or emailing at email@example.com. Thank you!
J.C. Adelung, 1811. Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart. Wien: Bauer.
S. Child 1768. Every Man His Own Brewer. London
M. Cornell, 2010. Amber, Gold, & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers. Gloucestershire: The History Press.
G. Fox, 1904. George Fox. An Autobiography. Edited by R. M. Jones. Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach.
C. Grieb, 1873. Dictionary of the German and English Languages. Vol. II. Stuttgart: Paul Neff, Publisher.
T. Hodgkin, 1896. George Fox. London: Methuen & Co.
N.E. Lucas, 1863. A Dictionary of the English and German and German and English Languages. Bremen: C. Schünemann.
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