Last week I said I’d use today’s column to talk about rare beer utilizing non-traditional ingredients. I wasn’t lying, but I also wasn’t telling the truth in a way. Allow me to explain.
Hop cultivation began in the mid 8th century but they weren’t mentioned in any brewers’ records until the 11th century. Even then, hops’ role in beer making didn’t start to really gain in popularity until the 1300s when brewers began to understand the flower’s role as a preservative and flavoring agent. Prior to hops, most people made do with whatever medicinal herb they were fond of at the time.
People from ancient times believed – and were right in most cases… trial and error! – that certain plants had healing properties. Almost all imparted flavor to their ale as well.
A quick side-bar on “beer” and “ale:” Despite the growing popularity of hops, many puritan-minded citizens decried its usage in beverages. Back then, ale was the name for un-hopped non-liquor drink and beer contained the “evil and pernicious weed,” as hops were known.
So, yes, the use of plants and herbs was the norm until the 14th century. Technically, they can be considered to be traditional, except it hasn’t been part of tradition for seven centuries. However, there are a few intrepid brewers out there making use of gruit.
Gruit is the name for ale made with these herbs, although today most brewers attempting to make any throw hops in the mix to inhibit spoilage. These beers run the gamut from Williams Brothers’ historical Scottish recipes to Dogfish Head’s scientifically-recreated drinks out of antiquity.
Some herbs and plants used include sweet gale, mugwort (which I used in the beer we made for Sweet Water’s Brew Your Cask Off event!), heather, black henbane, juniper and ginger. Recently, New Belgium Brewing made a gruit for their Lips of Faith Series.
Theirs makes use of horehound, bog myrtle, yarrow, wormwood and elderflower. The result is a mostly-clear gold liquid producing an amazing amount of carbonation that feeds a tall, fluffy head. As it recedes and the beer glass empties sip after sip, a surprising amount of lacing stays behind. This is owed to the small amount of hops New Belgium uses for this recipe, I suppose. Scents are very spring-time; earthy with grass, citrus, wheat and candy sugar. The yarrow provides a bitter-sweet substitute for hops while the rest of the herbs come together and give out flavors of fresh hay, a little banana, minimal smoke and sweet malt.
Meet the new beer, same as the old beer. New Belgium Gruit is a wonderful look back to the origins of ale.