This past Sunday, February 1st, was International Gruit Day. My husband and I have been brewing gruits for a few months now with very interesting results. Since most folks are unaware of what a gruit is, as was I until a few months ago, let me explain.
Gruit is the word for herbs in Old German. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, beginning in the 16th century, ales were brewed with a variety of herbs and spices (singly or as a blend) to add bittering and flavor to their brew. Sometimes hops would be added to these herbal blends, called gruit or groot, but they were not used exclusively until relatively recently. In fact, in England the word beer wasn’t used until ales were brewed exclusively with hops. Prior to that all beer was called ale.
If you read my blog then you know that I’m given to writing about the past, so when I found out about gruit I was very excited. The craze for super hoppy beers the last few years had nearly turned me away from beer. Six hundred years ago the only reason you might find something on par with a double IPA would only be found if there was no other bittering agents around to brew with. Like most foods, textiles, etc., people used what was available to them, and hops weren’t always available everywhere. Scotland is still quite renown for brewing heather ales.
See what happened in Europe during the late Middle Ages was that a lot of brewing was done by monasteries (ever tried a Belgian Trappist beer?). The monks devised secret gruit blends that were lost to posterity when the monasteries were destroyed by the fire and fervor of the reformers. And during these early days ordinary people brewed in their homes and women were the primary home brewers. When they had more ale than they needed, they would sell it. Again, these early home brewers used what was available, herbs from their gardens or those that grew wild, such as yarrow, heather, bog myrtle, wild rosemary, juniper berries, or spruce tips. Laws were made which banned the use of any herbal bittering agents apart from hops. This was in part to help outlaw the beer brewed by monasteries and beer brewed by women.
When we decided to try gruit, we decided to split up the work. My hubby is the primary beer brewer (I usually do the mead, cider, ciser and wine), but I am the primary cook. To get an idea what the various gruit herbs and spices might taste like, I measured out a gram of each in its own individual glass then added an ounce of boiling water to each. I let it steep for ten minutes and then did a tasting. It was an interesting experiment! I found the lovely grassiness of heather and yarrow, the gin aroma of juniper berries, the floral bouquet of elder flowers, and the downright despicable bitterness of wormwood. I used all of the above in my first gruit blend. I, like the monks and wise women before me, am keeping my formula to myself, but I will share this bit of cautionary information – do not use more than two grams of wormwood for five gallons of ale!!! Since then we have brewed five gruit ales, with different gruit combinations for each brew.
I believe that with the current boom of micro-breweries opening and the hops shortage, we will start to see more brewing with gruits. Since I really like to keep my supply chain as short as possible, I’ve decided to devote much of my yard and garden space to growing gruit herbs this year. I have received my seeds and will be starting them soon. I’ll be growing heather, yarrow, wormwood, blue hyssop, white horehound, sweet woodruff, St. Johnswort, feverfew, and German chamomile. I am hoping that some of these plants will flourish in our acidic soil and hot summers. Perhaps I’ll even have enough to sell down the road.