Gruit Quest

Fri 26 Nov 2010 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Posted by: Michael

Gruit—beer brewed with herbs instead of hops—is a lost magic art, thrust into obscurity and near-forgotten. But a few noble beer heroes have rediscovered its secret knowledge and now seek to bring its power back to the world. I’m taking up that banner.

Nobody will ever know exactly what real gruit tasted like, because—like the hypothetical wooly mammoth clone—it went extinct and must be resurrected. (Read about gruit’s checkered history in previous Literary Beer entry The Beer of Alchemists and Witches). There are lots of great, well-educated guesses out there, but the real work lies in experimentation: fresh/dry, boiled/not boiled, quantity, volume vs weight vs exposure time, herb flavors/properties/effects—it boggles the mind. The people who succeed at it have the resources and the patience to try again and again until they work out something great. Cambridge Brewing Company’s Weekapaug Gruit, Vermont Brew Pub’s Absinthe Ale and Amherst Brewing Company’s Heather Ale are examples of this. I’m not at their scale—I have to drink the beer in the bottles I have before I can brew more, if you get me.

I have patience. I’ll get there. But it’ll be a quest.

Analogies to the Grail Quest:

  1. Both involve drinking?
  2. Both interminable and with their only goal an unattainable ideal.

Flaws in the Analogy:

  1. Gruit quest produces joys and comforts along the way.
  2. Gruit quest does not end in war.

Rudiments of a Chivalric Code:

  1. Brew in the spirit of the medieval brewer, not the letter. Since he probably didn’t know letters.
    1. Grow your own when practical. Harvest your own. It’s cheaper, and you’re forced to learn more about the ingredients.
    2. Science is great and all, but some of the best stuff was made by accident. Relax. They didn’t have hydrometers in Koln in 863. Nor did they have access to 27 different cultivated yeast strains.
  2. Where possible, follow the preparation techniques of herbal medicine as well as modern brewing. The use of herbs in medicinal practices dates from the era of gruit and takes advantage of some of the same principles—and the herbalists’ tradition never went extinct.
    1. Try not to boil the herbs to death the way you might with hops. Medicinal properties, aromas and flavors can all be damaged by excessive heat. And there’s no call to get all paranoid about sanitation. As with hops, half the reason half these herbs were used is because they’re antiseptic by nature. See rule 1b.
    2. Full-strength herbal extracts don’t taste nearly as good as beer. Go easy.
    3. Learn about the herbs. Treat them with respect. Yes, some of the options available are indeed psychotropic/poisonous/alterative/stimulant/sedative/…/. Go easy. Beer might as they say be magic, but I’d prefer not to cross the line into witchcraft. Much.

The above in mind, the true purpose of this quest will be to develop a roster of herbs I can buy fresh, pick wild or grow myself, whose flavors and properties I know well and enjoy, that I can with confidence combine into a variety of gruits to suit all moods, styles and seasons, in order to (1) save money on hops, (2) save carbon footprint by not having ingredients shipped to me from Germany and New Zealand, (3) live in the aesthetic spirit and tradition of the Frugal Housewife, the thrifty carpenter, the lowly serf, and yes, even the maligned and misunderstood witch, and (4) discover amazing new/old beer experiences to expand the mind and cast the palate back to a lost golden age.

The word gruit literally refers to the blend of herbs used. A prevalent historical gruit, according to Buhner, Gruitale.com and recipes elsewhere, consisted of wild rosemary, bog myrtle and yarrow. The closest beer I’ve had to this would be the CBC Weekapaug Gruit, which is completely awesome and I hope they do it every year. I haven’t attempted the homebrew version because it would violate the Code a bit: I haven’t found (fresh, local) sources for wild rosemary or bog myrtle and have yet to try growing them. Yarrow, on the other hand….

The Herbs

I grew my own lavender, lemon balm, chamomile, rosemary and sage. I wild-harvested yarrow and sweet fern. There are way more herbs than these out there that I could have, may yet, and totally will use in the future. Rome was not built in a day.

To get an idea what they might taste like in beer, I made “practice” teas from those herbs with which I was less familiar by steeping 1 teaspoon herb in 10 oz boiling water for 5 minutes. Though the flavors and properties of herbs as extracted by alcohol and by water differ significantly, tea is quick and easy to make, and beer is mostly water anyway.

French lavender leaf tea was quite bitter, slightly astringent, slightly floral, overall a little strong, “medicinal”, probably would have been better with milk and sugar. The aroma I’m sure everyone is familiar with—in aromatherapy it’s considered a potent calmative. And—surprising to me, anyway—the tea had noticeable stimulant effects, acute though not particularly long-lasting, potentially headache-inducing if drunk too fast.

I’ve made tea several times with sweet fern (comptonia peregrina) leaf. It’s delicious—green-gold in color, not very bitter, but with a pleasantly mouth-puckering tannin note as long as you don’t let it steep too long, with an aroma like fern growing in the sun on a hot day: sweet, vegetal, spicy. Sweet fern grows in dry, sandy, rocky soil, often among oak saplings at the edges of deciduous woods. It puts out little green burrs in mid-July and brown fruiting bodies in September. I picked mine in September, on some rocky, wooded cliffs adjacent to Forest Hills Cemetery*. I have wanted to use it in a beer for a long time, but only recently found a tenuously legitimate excuse in the form of a recipe found in The American Frugal Housewife, 1832 edition, by Mrs. Lydia Francis Child:

Beer is a good family drink. A handful of hops, to a pailful of water, and a half-pint of molasses, makes good hop beer. Spruce mixed with hops is pleasanter than hops alone. Boxberry, fever-bush, sweet fern, and horseradish make a good and healthy diet-drink. The winter evergreen, or rheumatism weed, thrown in, is very beneficial to humours. Be careful not to mistake kill-lamb for winter-evergreen; they resemble each other.

Most of which makes absolutely no sense to me (horseradish? humours!) but I figure I’ve got to start somewhere.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) tea has a strong astringency which, as with lavender, can be reminiscent of cleaning products or soap when over-concentrated. It is very lemony. Lemon Balm has recently been demonstrated to help with outbreaks of herpes simplex virus aka cold sores. Though I’m not going to use enough of it for that.

Chamomile I’m sure everyone is familiar with. It makes a calming, mild-flavored tea purported to be good for settling the stomach. It is still commonly used in several European beer styles including the witbiers of Germany. I used home-grown German Chamomile, Matricaria recutita. It flowers consistently through the summer and into fall; I went out every few days, pinched off the heads and spread them in a draft-free place to dry.

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, deserves an article to itself. Its aroma and flavor are floral and strange, slightly bitter, maybe something between chamomile and… thyme? No. “Haylike” might be a better description. Also slightly like some kind of baked good, a multi-grain muffin. These descriptive terms are subjective, obviously—they only work on an established consensus, like those words for the flavors of wine that piss off some casual drinkers but doubtless make connoisseurs feel quite pleased with themselves. I brewed an all-yarrow honey ale at an earlier stage of the gruit quest. It was surprising and intense. Some of the Small Beer folk were brave enough to sample it—you can ask them what they thought and whether my muffin assessment misses the mark. Yarrow is native to Europe, now widely naturalized in the US. I harvested mine* from a streamside meadow in Sunderland, MA back in June.

Rosemary and sage (both the common officinalis varieties) are some of my favorite culinary herbs. I used them in the now-legendary Black Beer of Aaaargh!. The first gruit I ever had, at the GABF in 2008, was a rosemary ale.

*A wildcrafting caveat: I never pick more than 10% of any patch of herbs I find in the wild. You shouldn’t either.

Workingman’s Gruit

This is a very light-bodied, fruity English-style ale, something similar to a Yorkshire bitter or a mild ale, chosen because I was interested in mimicking the complex blend of delicate flavors in those other gruits I rave about above.

I brewed two one-gallon variations from a two-gallon recipe. Original gravity was 1.046, final gravity 1.011.

  • 2 gallons water
  • 8 oz light dry malt extract
  • 13 oz two-row barley malt
  • 8 oz cara-foam malt
  • 8.5 oz munich malt
  • 4 oz wildflower honey
  • English ale yeast
  • 1.75 oz corn sugar for bottling

Herbs added for 30 minutes of a 60 minute boil:

  • 4 grams dried yarrow flower
  • 5 grams fresh lavender leaf
  • 3 grams dried chamomile flower
  • 3 grams dried lemon balm leaf
  • 4 grams fresh sweet fern leaf

Variation I, whole herbs added to secondary fermenter for 7 days:

  • 2 grams dried yarrow flower
  • 5 grams fresh rosemary leaf
  • 6 grams fresh lavender leaf
  • 2 grams fresh sweet fern leaf

Variation II, whole herbs added to secondary fermenter for 7 days:

  • 2 grams dried yarrow flower
  • 5 grams fresh sage leaf
  • 2 grams dried chamomile flower
  • 6 grams fresh lemon balm leaf

Tasting Notes (one month in the bottle)

Variation I has lovely yarrow, lavender, sweet fern and chamomile in the nose. Tart, biscuity and fruity at the top of the palate, with more biscuit, grain sweetness and herbal notes coming in at middle and end. I taste chamomile, yarrow and sweet fern, with a slight, pleasant tannin astringency in the mouth feel, which builds up over time as does the taste of hops due to hop oils. Earlier (two weeks in bottle) I detected a certain chalkiness in the mouth feel I remember from the yarrow honey ale, but that has faded. I expect I probably taste the lemon balm in the tartness and astringency, but can’t really identify it as such. Can’t taste the rosemary at all. Very sad about that. But this is a fascinating, complex, delicious beer. I think it would be great with pork, salad, maybe even a slice of pie.

Color is light straw-golden. Head is white, barely evident. Carbonation is low, and I find I barely miss it, there’s so much else going on.

Variation II is even lighter, yellow straw. Taste is drier, less fruity and more “savory”, with astringency but not the tannin kick at the end. Sage tastes different in alcohol than in food. I taste a little more lemon, which I assume comes from the lemon balm, though yarrow also can be lemony. Lavender manifests in the bitterness and mouth-feel only, undetectable in the nose. I think I like this one better. The chamomile flavor and aroma is really nice, I can taste more of the honey. I think the three hard-stemmed herbs in vI is a bit too much tannin for a beer this light.

But the ambiguity of the herb blend, to me, is what makes gruit magic. The sum is a little like each of its parts but different from any. It’s always a surprise, a puzzle and a pleasure. And there are so many variations to try! No flash in the pan beer fad this—I could brew gruit for the rest of my life and not exhaust the possibilities. The prospect is a little bit daunting, I’ll admit. But it also fills me with anticipation for the next batch. And the next bottle.

Will you join me at my Round Table for a pint?

“13th Century Grut Bier”, brewed by Dr. Fritz Briem of the Doemens Institute, Germany. Gruit purportedly consists of: bay leaf, ginger, gentian root, caraway, anise seed, rosemary, “pollinated wild hops” (quotes theirs). Strong ginger nose and initial ginger flavor. Grassy, medium-bitter middle, some subtle savory elements I am guessing come from the rosemary. I detect no anise. Straw color, slightly cloudy, white head, fast dissipating. Alcohol content only 4.6%. Buzz from one pint bottle subjectively seems a mite distinct from ye standard hop beer buzz. Seems…warmer?


If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry, and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck.