Beer history

The mystery of avens in ‘Augsburg Ale’

The peril of being a beer geek is that even unconnected questions can take you down a beer-related rabbit hole.

We were sitting in our makeshift beer garden, drinking Jever and Augustiner, when Ray said: “What’s that flower?” It was a somewhat attractive weed that Jess was allowing to grow in one of the wilder corners.

She looked it up and identified it as wood avens, AKA herb bennet (Geum urbanum). She then read the Wikipedia entry and was intrigued by the following section:

The roots contain the compound eugenol which is also present in cloves and are used as a spice in soups and also for flavouring ale. For example, the Augsburg Ale is said to owe its peculiar flavour to the addition of a small bag of avens inside each cask.

This is referenced to A Modern Herbal, a 1931 book by Maud or Margaret Grieve, available and searchable as website.

In fact, the Wikipedia page is pretty much a direct quote from that book, with no further hints as to who “is said to” have said it.

An earlier herbal reference, Nicholas Culpeper’s The Complete Herbal from the 17th century, also available and searchable online, makes reference to the clove character of avens.

It also says it has for a range of health benefits and as an additive to wine, giving it “a delicate savour and taste”.

Martyn ‘Zythophile’ Cornell wrote an extensive piece on herbs in ale in Britain which references avens a few times, including in a recipe from 1430. And there is more in his excellent book, Amber, Gold and Black.

So there’s evidence to back up the use of Avens in beer. But what we remained baffled by is why a British book written in 1931 references Augsburg Ale. Why not use an example from closer to home?

Andreas Krennmair is an expert in German historic brewing and we checked the comprehensive index to his Bavarian Brewing in the 19th Century: a reference guide. It contains a few references to Augsburg Ale including a statement from one 1834 source that says it gained its unusual flavour from the practice of pouring beer into the casks when the pitch was still hot.

Then we emailed him to aske whether he had heard of the use of avens in brewing in Augsburg and he kindly sent us a detailed response with a few sources and suggestions:

Christian Heinrich Schmidt’s 1853 book Grundsätze der Bierbrauerei makes a very brief mention that Geum urbanum is allegedly used in large amounts in the famous Augsburg beer. It also describes how Geum urbanum is used: the dried roots are cut up, put into a fine linen bag, and hung into the cask.

If I had to guess, I’d say that that’s quite likely the source of that claim of Geum urbanum being used in Augsburg beer. But the way it’s formulated is so vague, it’s probably something the author had only heard about but had never seen any confirmation for.

We still don’t know why Mrs Grieve would choose to reference Augsburg Ale, particularly as use of herbs in the beer would, we think, be unusual almost everywhere by the late 19th century.

The next thing to ask is… has anyone brewed with avens recently? Or fancy giving it a go?

Because we know where to find some.

Main image: Geum urbanum adapted from a photograph by Neuchâtel Herbarium at Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

One reply on “The mystery of avens in ‘Augsburg Ale’”

Utopian did an Augsburg Beer, based on a 19th century recipe that head brewer Jeremy found and translated, it featured a boiling mash, but no avens as far as I know

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