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The Yeast of the Ancients

By Stephen Harrod Buhner

Copyright © 2003 Stephen Harrod Buhner

God made yeast, as well as dough, and loves fermentation just as he loves vegetation.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ancient peoples did not have microscopes but they knew there was a unique and special substance that came through the air and caused the wort to become ale. And to all ancient and indigenous peoples it was considered sacred and magical, filled with power.
Ancient Norwegian terms for this substance are suggestive of how it was thought of - its meaning: gjar - working, gjester - foaming, berm - boiling, kveik - a brood that renews a race, nore - to kindle a fire, bryggjemann - brewing man, and fro - seed. All the terms are suggestive: there is a boiling, a fire being kindled, a new race being born. The commonness of terms associated with burning, boiling, and kindling a fire, for instance, are interesting. Yeast works through a rapid oxidation of the sugar, a kind of burning. And when they are their most active the brew, the wort, actually bubbles energetically. And this association is clearly a part of older terms for yeast. A term meaning "boiling" is used throughout the world. And when preserved yeast is added to new batches of beer, it is a brood renewing a race that has been dormant (and it is interesting that kveik comes from the same root word as kvaser - the Nordic being from whose blood the original beer, the "mead of inspiration," was made).
The Charoti of South America view the moment of yeast activity as "the birth of the good spirit" in the wort. But the Charoti say that there are many bad spirits that will try and prevent this birth. So they sing and play musical instruments while exhorting the fermentation to begin. Once the good spirit enters the wort, they say, it is powerful enough to stop any bad spirits from getting into the beer. Throughout the ceremony of encouraging the good spirit to enter and begin fermentation the Charoti singers keep their attention focused on the essence of the good spirit, calling its intelligence into awakening, urging it to hear their call, exhorting it to come to them and settle into the home they have prepared for it. Hearing this without prejudice and comparing it to the perspectives of Western brewers, it is not so very different. We wish only one yeast, the good one, to come and ferment our beer. And we take steps to prevent the bad ones from getting there first. We know, too, that once the good yeast is in the wort, it is very difficult for a bad one to gain entry. We place our emphasis on sterility and using store-bought yeast. But those cultures who depend on wild yeasts use prayer to influence its appearance. Though superstitious to our Western way of thinking what is truly surprising is not only the prevalence of this belief among the world's peoples but the effectiveness of the brewing based on it.
The Tarahumara of northern Mexico brew a beer called pulque from the sweet sap of the agave cactus. And they too pray to usher in the spirit of fermentation. Like the Norwegians they believe that they have to be of particular mindfulness when the moment comes because if they are not, if they do not hold the "space" for the spirit to enter the wort, it will not ferment. The Tarahumara call it "boiling" when fermentation begins and they use special fermentation jars that are considered sacred and are never washed. Once a jar "learns to boil" it is placed near other jars (filled with unfermented pulque) that have not learned how to boil so that they might be taught to do so. Interestingly, the Tarahumara place wormwood, an Artemisia species on top of the covered jars once they start fermenting to "frighten away the evil spirits who might want to spoil the liquor." Artemisia is strongly antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal - it can be used in the treatment of yeast infections.
The Ainu, the indigenous tribal culture of Japan, see fermentation in much the same way. When the wort is ready, they circle around it and make prayers and offerings to Kamui Fuchi, the hearth goddess and guardian spirit. They call on her to protect the wort from the intrusion of "bad spirits" that can infect the wort and help bring the good spirit to awaken their rice or millet beer into potency. In return, like the majority of cultures on Earth, they make an offering of the first drink of beer, poured onto the hearth. While the beer is fermenting they chew quantities of mugwort, another artemisia species, and place it around the brewing vessel to protect it from infection.
One of the major teachings of ancient and indigenous cultures is that yeasts, like other plants, respond to being talked and sung to, to being "treated like a human being." Most beer recipes suggest the use of a domesticated, store bought, yeast. But, if you can bring yourself to experiment, you might try making some of them with wild yeast. When the wort is ready you might leave it out, uncovered, in a container with a wide opening. Then sit near it and begin to talk with the spirit of the yeast - to
call on the bryggjemann or kveik to come - and see what it is like. To do so means reconnecting to an ancient tradition of fermentation - to connect to the thousands of wise women and wise men standing over their brewing vessels in small villages around the world calling on the spirits of fermentation to come to the wort and kindle the fire in it. Once you have brought a wild yeast to live at your home, like the Norwegian brewers, you can place a carved stick in the fermenter and allow the yeast to fall deeply within its carvings. When the beer is finished take the stick out and hang it up to dry somewhere out of the way. At your next fermentation take it down and place it in the fermenter and call on it once again to awaken to life.
If you do take the risk to call on a wild yeast and the wort turns out badly, what will you do then? you might ask. The ancient brewers might answer, "Perhaps you will have to dance harder the next time."

Some little things I planted in my field
Crawling on hands and knees
With my weed hoe.
Nothing could I raise
That would ferment.

Only my child knew the plants
That were around us.
Repeatedly did he go picking them,
And in the palm of my hand he placed them.
With water I mixed them;
Crouching before the jar I sat,
Desiring that speedily it would ferment.
After two mornings it felt kindly toward me
And gloriously it fermented.

(Part of the Papago Mockingbird Speech at the making of Tiswin)


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