Mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris.

Mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris.

Before the use of hops as bittering, flavour and aroma agents of beer became widespread in the late Middle Ages, all sorts of weird and wonderful herbs were employed to achieve the same effects. These herbs are known as “gruit” and the beer resulting from their addition “gruitbeer”. Hops, as well as contributing to the sensory aspects of beer also play a very important preservative role: the resins and essential oils found in hops are powerfully antimicrobial, and are one of the reasons why even the most hopeless of home brewers’ batches are rarely contaminated to dangerous levels. (Home pickling or bean sprouting on the other hand are much higher-risk hobbies in terms of the potential to give yourself a dose of the squits). It is no coincidence that during the millennia prior to the universal adopting of hops, most of the herbs added to flavour beer also possessed antimicrobial properties.

Among the most commonly added gruit were rosemary, bog myrtle (sweet gale), coriander, caraway, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, juniper, milfoil, mugwort, thistle and yarrow. As well as the flavours and bitterness* the above herbs impart, many also contain psychoactive compounds. A spoonful of nutmeg will get you reasonably high, for example, not that I am advocating this practice, to which sailors in the old days used to resort when stocks of rum had run out. Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) is a cousin of wormwood (Artemesia absinthum) which is used in absinthe, a liqueur which fuelled much artistic creativity in the nineteenth century.

Mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris.

Mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris.

The name “mugwort” in itself is interesting. The received wisdom among brewers is that the plant was so named because of its association with ale: mugs, ale; ale, mugs — geddit? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, however, mugwort derives from the Old English mucgwyrt: mucg is derived from the Germanic word for moth, with wyrt similarly coming from a word meaning “root”. My faithful Encyclopaedia of Brewing by Christopher Boulton (2013, Wiley-Blackwell) begs to differ from the OED, claiming that the “mug” part of the word comes from the Old Norse word for marsh, an environment the plant tends to favour. As well as this, mugga in Old Norse means drizzle or mist. We still call humid and warm weather muggy. Perhaps Prof Boulton is correct?


*If you’re ever feeling brave, break open the stem of a thistle and sample a wee dram of the sap. You will never forget the peculiar bitterness which coats the mouth for hours!


About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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One Response to Mugwort

  1. Very interesting!
    Around here, everyone is fascinated by different brews here. I’m not a beer fan, but some really taste yummy.
    I’m not up for your challenge tho. .. I’ve accidentally gotten antiperspirant on my tongue and feel it would be the same outcome! Yuck!!

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