One breath of juniper smoke, like the perfume of sagebrush after rain, evokes in magical catalysis, like certain music, the space and light and clarity and piercing strangeness of the American West. Long may it burn.
– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire 1968
There is a perfumery to juniper that elicits something otherworldly, even mystical. Various cultures across the planet have used all parts of the juniper plant to ward against bad magic, plague and other negative forces. Cultures from Eastern Europe, the Americas and the far east all use juniper for these similar reasons.
But, in a society that favours hard evidence and science against anything less tangible our gut reaction to a plant that gets rid of “negativity”, is to think, “what a load of bollocks”. However, the esteemed herbalist Michael Moore sees this other sphere of our existence in a more positive light and he suggests that we shouldn’t be so dismissive when there’s cross-cultural consensus.
Moore states, “Overlapping traditions are useful in triangulating valid functions in folk medicine. If unrelated traditions say that yarrow clots the blood, it is easy to admit that such is probably the case; if they say that juniper clears bad “vibes”, many of us will back of and start to twitch sceptically… accepting the possibility of drug effect on the one hand and … rejecting…warding off bad influences on the other… the two go hand in hand”
Negative energies and other mysticism aside, juniper has been used in beer brewing for many years and not just for its flavour but for the antiseptic qualities. The Vikings, who were as fearsome drinkers as they were warriors, frequently used juniper when they brewed their ales.
There are various recipes out there for Norwegian farmhouse ales and these are perhaps the closest to the ancient Viking ales. What is of most interest about the process of brewing such ales is how juniper can be used throughout the process from treating the water, to adding aroma and flavour and also adding bitterness. In this respect, the Vikings were light years ahead of many of the brewers around the world, as they were using juniper to treat the water before brewing. This means they were at least aware that water could contain something that would spoil the beer. One could imagine that Viking brewers may see this as, “ridding the water of evil”, or something equally as mystic and they may well have even conducted ceremonies before splitting the branches and placing them into the water pre-brew then gently heating until the juniper has infused with the water. A process that would make the juniper-infused water anti-bacterial as well as free from bacteria.
It would often appear that we are attracted to tastes and smells that do us good. Animal fats, for instance, seem to taste better during the colder months when (traditionally), we need to put on an extra few pounds for warmth. (This is why many cultures in cooler climes have many recipes for fatty meats, just look at the traditional Scottish foods such as haggis and lorne sausage)! So too then, the smell of juniper branches being burned. The heady smell that fills the air will be destroying airborne viruses and diseases. Or as some cultures might argue, it will be getting rid of negative vibes.
It is these antibacterial and antiviral properties that mean juniper is a well-used herb in the herbalists armoury. It can be used to treat cystitis, coughs, colds and even gout. Although, unfortunately, a herbalist does not administer it as a gin and tonic. Steam inhalations of the berries are recommended for coughs and colds as they help clear the airways and as an herbal infusion to treat gout and cystitis.