What is gruit ale?

What is gruit ale?

January 26, 2018 illustrations: denis routhier words: patrick jodoin

Or: How Gruit Ale Disappeared (Until Now)

Ask a layperson to list for you the ingredients used in brewing beer as we know it. They’ll likely tell you that beer is composed of water, yeast, malted barley and lastly, hops, the species of herb that imparts a variety of different flavours and aromas to beer, and acts as a preservative.

Thankfully, despite their simplicity these four ingredients have yielded countless interpretations, from the I.P.A. to the stout, and many beer styles in between.

In recent years, however, craft brewers have rediscovered the tradition of brewing beers that veer from this recipe, even omitting — or at least decreasing the use of — that much-loved source of many beers’ flavour: the hops.

These alternatively spiced beers are known as gruit ales.

But what exactly is gruit ale? Where does it get its name? What happened to it all those years ago that made it fall from favour, giving way to the proliferation of hops?

The origins of the term “gruit” are obscure. The word has roots in Latin. In Flemish, it’s pronounced similar to the English “grout,” the stuff you put between your bathroom tiles (but not nearly as caustic). In German, it sounds something like “fruit.” The term was first found in the 10th century AD in the Low Countries. It was emperor Otto I who granted farmers the right to trade in gruit. (See also: Attempted to control access to gruit.)

Simply put, “gruit” is a mixture of dried herbs that were used to spice and preserve beer in the Middle Ages. These ales were brewed in all sorts of places: monasteries, farms, etc.

The exact mixture of herbs varies a great deal as it was often a proprietary blend from brewer to brewer, and often comprised different combinations of herbs based on availability and preference. It also varied from place to place, over time, and from season to season.  

Yet one main ingredient was prominent.

“The assumption is — and the evidence is pretty good, but I’ve really never seen a slam dunk source that would prove it — it looks like bog myrtle was the principal component,” says Richard W. Unger, professor of Medieval History at the University of British Columbia and author of Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale, is a shrub that grows in boggy environments (hence the name). It is aromatic when dried, and contributes a sweet aroma, and slight bitterness and spice to beer.

“Knowledge of exactly what gruit was is pretty shaky,” says Unger. “[After bog myrtle], what else they put in it is not really clear: Yarrow? Rosemary? Wormwood? These things get mentioned. It’s not as if you can go to a source and they’ll say ‘This is how you make gruit, boom boom boom,’ because governments didn’t want to tell people how to do it.”

Beer in the early Middle Ages had lower alcohol content. It was consumed shortly after being brewed, which allowed for less need to preserve it.

The scale was also much smaller: “In the Middle Ages in the 13th and 14th centuries … They didn’t brew much each time. If you made 1,000 litres a pop, that would have been a big brew,” says Unger.

Many undocumented recipes could include any number of different ingredients used as flavouring agents.

“The interesting thing about gruit is that it shows an alternative to hops that remains a mystery because of trade secrets and a lack of written evidence,” says Dr. Max Nelson, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Windsor and author of The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe.

We know that gruit ale was also nowhere near as bitter as the hopped beer that would later rise to prominence. Gruit ale in the Middle Ages was believed to be sweeter in taste, according to Unger.

Hops were likely first introduced because it was discovered that they made it possible for beer to last longer. Further, in the Middle Ages in Europe, there were no temperature controls on brewing equipment, so brewers would stick to the winter months, presenting a greater need for preservation.

“People get thirsty in July,” says Unger. “So they used to brew in March and store the beer for the summer. With hops you could keep it around, and there was actually demand in July: You had some beer you could sell.”

The pros for hops were clear. It was the better preservative: “You can do a lot with stuff in six months,” says Unger. “Like ship it somewhere. Or keep it in the cellar.”

Despite their practical benefits, beers brewed with hops instead of gruit were slow to be adopted. Unger believes it’s simply because hopped beer didn’t taste like gruit ale. People had to get used to it.

For a long time, the range of tastes found in gruit ale made it the preferred drink.

“The idea that hops destroyed gruit beer — that’s true,” says Unger, “but it took a very long time.”

So how do we recreate gruit ale? With such little documentation from the Middle Ages with regard to recipes held tight by the brewers of the day, the information that guides contemporary understanding of gruit ales comes from tax records. After all, governments have been taxing beer for more than 5,000 years.

“Because governments taxed beer, they kept a lot of records about beer,” says Unger. “This is one of the reasons we know as much as we do about brewing — about the scale, the character, what kinds of grains were used. Most of the recipes come from tax records.

“Beer is taxed now as beer. They can measure the alcohol content, the density; there are all kinds of ways we can differentiate beers now, so they know how to tax them — they didn’t have any of that stuff in the Middle Ages. They didn’t know alcohol content, other than by taste, until about 1800.”

“The methods of taxation were always clumsier than the ones we’ve got,” he continues. “Because governments wanted to get their share of the money from the sale of beer, they would go through all kinds of contortions and impose all kinds of regulations … Governments wanted to prevent people from buying their gruit from anyone but the taxman.”

One particular example of government control of beer is also largely considered to be the final nail in the in coffin for the gruit ale. In 1516 a measure called the Reinheitsgebot was implemented throughout the Holy Roman Empire, stating that all beer must be made with barley, hops and water. What follows is the range of beer styles we drink today.

“An interesting piece of this: Despite being known today in English as the ‘Bavarian Purity Law,’ it’s been indicated that the Reinheitsgebot was more of a tax measure than a quality beer measure,” says Steve Beauchesne, co-founder of Beau’s Brewing Co., and the founder of International Gruit Day.

“Every government — whether monarchy or otherwise — kept detailed tax records,” adds Beauchesne. “Furthermore, the governments of the day used to tax gruit producers based on how much of the mixture of herbs they purchased as opposed to how much beer they made, and so they had this complicated means of trying to figure out the strength of the beer.

“If you weren’t putting enough of the gruit mixture in your beer, you could be fined or have your brewing license taken away … At some point governments realized that they could tax the output.”

However, in some parts of Europe, brewers had to make gruit if they were going to brew beer. The decline of gruit was a drawn-out process.

“We obviously know hops won out,” says Nelson.

In the modern age, refrigeration and pasteurization can help extend the shelf life of beer, so hops are not as critical to a beer recipe.

“And so, it makes sense to look back at what people did in the Middle Ages and earlier, before hops became predominant and everything else was forgotten,” says Nelson. “And to look back and say, ‘Well, there must be something to it: What are the properties of sweet gale [for example]?’”

It is this spirit of experimentation combined with a fascination with the range of possibilities presented in the gruits of yesterday that has inspired modern craft brewers to forage for unusual ingredients to throw into the boil. Today, brewers the world over are creating gruit ales with ingredients like cardamom, sage, juniper, heather, lavender, cannabis, the list goes on and on.

Original International Gruit Day poster by Jordan Bamforth, Beau’s Brewing Co., 2013

“One of the interesting things that’s going on right now is that we’re in a new era of experimentation,” says Nelson. “When you think about it, after hops were added to beer the next significant change is the rise of the popularity of lager in the 19th century. By the late 20th century we have a return to older styles … right now it seems the newest trend is to really push the boundaries and experiment again. I think brewers are inspired to try any kind of thing … we live in an exciting time. Brewers are willing to experiment”

“Now craft brewers try to make beers with different tastes and variants, and that’s all to the good,” says Unger. “And if they go back to the Middle Ages for a recipe — or ideas about how to make a different beer — wonderful.”

“When you drink a gruit ale, you’re drinking a piece of history,” says Beauchesne. “You really have a direct connection to the beer that people were drinking thousands of years ago. It’s kind of like getting to share a beer with your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, likely made by your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother.”

Beau’s would like to thank Richard Unger and Dr. Max Nelson for allowing us to pick their brains on all things gruit. Cheers!

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