Here is a beer style you may never have heard of, but which, in its time — some 500 to 1,000 years ago — was clearly the most common beer style in the world. The beer style is gruitbier or gruit beer. Gruit (pronounced “groot”) is old German for herbs. In modern German, the noun “Gruit” has evolved into “Kraut,” which is of course part of the word sauerkraut (literally “sour herb”), the name of the well-known German relish of pickled white cabbage.
Gruit (or herbs) — either as a single type or as a mix — is what most medieval brewers used to flavor their beers, both on the European continent and on the British Isles. But gruitbier began die out in the 16th century, when hops replaced gruit as a universal beer-flavoring ingredient. Gruitbier is now experiencing revival, however, among North American craft brewers, especially in brewpubs. At the Great American Beer Festival, these beers usually compete in the “Herb and Spice Beer” category, which had 49 entries in 2004 and 57 in 2005.
Gruit versus hops
In the Dark Ages, under the feudal system of landownership, people could do with the soil and nature’s bounty only what they had been granted permission to do. All facets of life were strictly regulated based on a clear division of rights and obligations between lords, vassals and serfs. This meant that all land that was not specifically bestowed upon a vassal remained the preserve of the crown. And crown land, which was mostly uncultivated, was also where brewers tended to find the best gruit. Though many monastery, burgher breweries and private households were given the right to brew, not everyone was given the privilege to pick gruit on public lands. Thus, the quality of a brewer’s beer in those days depended on access to gruit. Especially on the European continent, the crown reserved that privilege initially only for its own estates. Later, the gruit right was delegated even more so to local authorities — mostly secular lords and the church — who doled it out, often corruptly for a fee, to the unwashed masses. The term gruit, therefore, eventually came to mean not only the herbs brewers used in their beers but also the taxes they had to pay to their overlords for the picking privilege . . . that is, until beer flavored with cultivated hops began to replace beer flavored with wild and taxed gruit.
Apparently, hops were first used in beer by Benedictine brew monks in the Abbey of Weihenstephan in Bavaria, outside Munich. The evidence for this is a document dating from 736, only a dozen years after the founding of Weihenstephan by the Franconian missionary Corbinian. The document is the oldest known mention of hops anywhere. It refers to the cultivation of the hops vine in the monastery gardens. Though there is no reference to beer in the document, it is extremely doubtful that these industrious brew monks cultivated the vine just for its esthetic appeal. We know from other records, dating from 859, that the Bohemians (present-day Czechs), too, were among the early pioneers of hops used as a flavoring component for beer.
From central Europe, the use of hops in beer spread slowly but steadily northward and westward, replacing gruitbier in its wake. The next chronological milestone in the spread of hops in beer is a French law, proclaimed by King Louis IX in 1268, in which the King stipulated that, in his realm, henceforth only malt and hops may be used for beer-making. By the 1300s, we know, hops had also moved to the Netherlands, where it had become a regular ingredient in beer-making. And in 1516, the Bavarian beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) made hops one of only three allowable ingredients in beer (next to malted barley and water). All this suggests that, at least by the late Middle Ages, hops had become a common brewing ingredient replacing gruit on most of the continent.
In Britain, on the other hand, hops were much slower to gain acceptance in the brew houses. In fact, its introduction seemed to raise nothing but controversy. It was during the early 1400s, that the hop vine seems to have made its first appearance as a cultivated plant in England — even though hops had grown wild there at least since 5,000 B.C.
The early 15th century was the height of the Hundred Years War between France and England, which actually lasted for 116 years between 1337 and 1453. During this protracted cross-channel strife, trade blossomed particularly between England and Flanders (in present-day Belgium) just to the north of the region most affected by the war. Raw wool and finished cloth from such beer towns as Bruges and Ghent were among the most important trading commodities. Many Dutch-speaking farmers from Flanders even migrated to England, where they settled mostly on the fertile soil of Kent.
These Flemish immigrants were almost certainly the first to introduce British brewers to hops, which they cultivated in Kent as they had done back home. And today, of course, Kent is still the home of what is perhaps the most famous of English ale hops, called East Kent Goldings. As we know from a manuscript from 1440, the new — hopped — ale became known as “beer” to distinguish it from the traditional un-hopped “ales.” By the time of the Glorious Revolution under William III of Orange that gave Britain a more stable constitutional monarchy, in 1688, British ale had emerged with a dominant hoppy nose, and the term “ale” had taken on a meaning that is closer to our own. By then, ale denoted a strong, hopped, top-fermented brew made from the first runnings of the mash, while the term “beer” was reserved for a brew from the second runnings. Also, a “small beer” was an even weaker brew from the third runnings. Thus, by the beginning of the 17th century, the once-dominant unflavored or gruit-flavored beers had all but disappeared from British brew houses, too.
With this kind of lineage, there is no right or wrong way to make this beer. In a sense, you could make (almost) any old beer and flavor it with any old amount of any old herb or combination of herbs, and you would have a gruitbier. Thus, when replicating a gruitbier at home or in a craft brewery, there are only a few rules to observe. The rest is just our interpretation of the brew from the foggiest of evidence. Here are the basic rules:
The medievals used just about any herb to flavor their brew. Sometimes they even used herbs that were harmful to your health. Perhaps the most common herbs for spicing beer in those early days were yarrow, bog myrtle (also known as sweet gale), juniper, rosemary, lavender, and woodruff. Depending on the flavor you want in your gruitbier, you can choose a single herb or a mixture of herbs. As always when using ancient descriptions, measurements can be a problem. What really is “a handful?” I use about five ounces (or 140 grams) of herbs for five gallons (19 liters) of beer. I made mine with 2 ounces (56 g) of woodruff, and 1/2 ounce (14 g) each of rosemary, lavender and juniper berries. Place these in a pot and pour about two quarts of boiling water over them, then steep them for about an hour and strain the herb tea through a sieve. Discard the herbs.
Bog myrtle or sweet gale, (Myrica gale), was a very common beer flavoring in England. Beers brewed with it in place of hops use to be called gale ale. Bog myrtle is a small, deciduous shrub with resinous-tasting leaves.
Juniper, (Juniperus communis) is a coniferous shrub that grows well throughout the northern hemisphere. The blue-black juniper berries are available dried in the spice section of your grocery store. Their taste is probably best known from gin, which is a clear spirit flavored with juniper berries. The traditional ale of Finland, sahti, is spiced with both juniper berries and twigs. Unless you want the juniper flavor to be dominant, add no more than 1/2 to 1 ounce (14–28 g) to your brew.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a widely available herb in the mint family Labiate. It is a perennial with gray leaves and purple flowers that bloom in summer. At harvest the leaves and flowers are cut about 6 inches (15 cm) below the buds as soon as they bloom. Although lavender has a sweet aroma, it is used in brewing for its bittering qualities and
flavor. You should add lavender late in the boil or if you’re feeling experimental, dry hopping with the flowers is an alternative.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is easy to find in the herb and spice section of your supermarket. It is an evergreen shrub with one-inch long leaves that impart a camphor-like, aromatic pungency to the brew. Tastes are subjective, but I would not use more than 1/2 to 1 ounce (14–28 g) of rosemary in my gruitbier.
Woodruff (Asperula odorata) appears to have been more common in the Germanic beer culture on the continent than in the Anglo-Saxon beer culture on the British Isles. Sweet woodruff grows in shady patches at the edge of forests. It has star-like whorls of narrow, bright-green leaves on 8 to 10-inch high stalks. I happen to be very fond of woodruff, so I like to use about 2 ounces (28 g) of it as part of my herb mixture for gruitbier. To me, the sharpness of woodruff is mildly reminiscent of hops. Today, the marriage of woodruff and beer is still alive in Germany, where a jigger of woodruff-flavored sugar syrup is often used to balance the lactic acidity of a spritzy Berliner Weisse. Woodruff leaves are also used to flavor a German May punch made from a mixture of young Moselle wine and Champagne, with fresh strawberries immersed in it.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has bitter, astringent-tasting leaves and flowers. To my taste, yarrow can easily overpower a brew, so do not use more than two ounces of it.
While some of these herbs are available in supermarkets, others may be hard to find. For the rarer herbs, there are mail-order vendors on the Internet. If all else fails, you might have to plan your gruitbier way ahead by ordering seeds on the web and plant them in small flower pots in your kitchen. Woodruff and yarrow, incidentally, are easy to grow, if you have a garden.
Because most of these medieval herbal hops-substitutes add a slight bitter-sweetness to the brew, a quick and easy way to imitate the flavor of gruit is to make a regular, un-hopped, dark brew and add about a cup of Vermouth right after the start of fermentation. Taste the brew before bottling. If desired, you can add more Vermouth before conditioning and packaging the brew.
Because all the beer of the common folk in the Dark Ages was brown or darker, compose the grain to a color roughly between a porter and a stout, around 40 to 60 SRM. Precision is not crucial when making a gruitbier. The darkness of these early beers was the direct result of unpredictable malting techniques. The malted grist was kiln-dried over open fires, which caused the grain to become somewhat dark, smoky and roasted.
Also, the kernels were almost certainly unevenly malted and some may have remained unmalted altogether. Therefore, contrary to all modern brewing practices, an authentic gruitbier probably ought to be made with the worst rather than the best brewing grain. To imitate this condition in modern homebrew practice, compose the grain bill with about 55% of any pale ale malt for enzymes.
Then, to replicate the unevenness of the malting process, mix about 10% flaked barley (such as Briess at approx. 1.5 °L) plus 5% roasted barley (such as Briess at approx. 300 °L) into the grist. The latter also adds a needed acrid burnt component. Finally, to supply the brew with body, use about 25% dark Munich malt (such as Briess at about 20 °L).
For a little bit of creaminess, I also add about 10% dark wheat malt (several maltsters offer these around roughly 6 to 8 °L). Because medieval beers tended to be stronger than most modern session brews, I would shoot for an original gravity of about 1.064 (16 °P).
Although we have not included an extract-only recipe, my advice for the pure extract brewer is to use any kind of dark ale liquid malt extract as a substitue for the grain (an extract blended for porter is probably the best choice) — but check the can’s label to make sure the extract does not contain corn syrup. Corn is a New World crop that would not be authentic in a beer that evolved long before the New World was discovered!
You can use essentially any ale yeast for gruitbier. I like to use hefeweizen yeast, because it adds a slightly phenolic and spicy bubblegum note to the brew — I think this adds some depth to the brew’s herbiness. For a full run down of all the yeast strains available to homebrewers, take a look at our Homebrew Yeast Strains chart on page 32. Note that gruitbier does not need to be all that effervescent, so half a cup of priming agent is plenty. After about three weeks, prime and package. The brew is ready to drink after about a week of conditioning.
Horst Dornbusch is an award-winning beer writer and brewer. He owns Cerevisia Communications, a PR agency for the international beverage industry. Visit www.cerevisiacommunications.com.