Beer before hops: The bittering herbs of yore are making a comeback


Blue giant hyssop was one of many herbs commonly used to add bitterness to beer before the widespread cultivation of hops // Photo via Minnesota Department of Resources website

Hops have been the dominant flavoring agent in beer ever since the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law of 1516, stipulated that hops were one of three allowable ingredients in brewing. Not only do hops counter the sweetness of malted grains with bitterness, but they also help prevent spoilage in the beer.

But prior to the widespread adoption of hops, bitter herbs were more frequently used to produce gruitbier. (“Gruit” is the low-German word for herbs.) Today, more and more craft brewers are returning to traditional gruit-style recipes in order to develop unique flavor profiles.


Joe Pond // Photo courtesy of Olvalde Farm and Brewing

Joe Pond of Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company in Rollingstone, Minnesota, grows a number of herbs to add to his farmhouse ales. “Any herb can be used to flavor beer,” he says. “I’ve grown and used rose hips, blue giant hyssop, spruce twigs, juniper berries and twigs, mint, rosemary, sage, horehound, gentian, thyme, elder flowers and berries, rhubarb stems, and more.”

Related post – Brewing on the Farm: A Chat with Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company’s Joe Pond

According to the German Beer Institute, some of the bittering herbs used today are exactly the same as those found in recipes of gruitbier from the early Middle Ages. Under the feudal system in Europe during the Dark Ages, few people were granted the right to brew beer from landowners, much less to pick herbs found on crownlands to make quality gruit. This arrangement led to what was essentially the taxation of gruit, which paved the way for the widespread cultivation of hops.

There are a lot of things to like about hops, including the ease of cultivation, price, and availability of different varieties. But Pond maintains that herbs have their benefits as well. “Herbs, especially native herbs, are often easier to manage,” he explains. “They are smaller and can be more easily incorporated into a decorative garden. Bees don’t appreciate the hops nearly as much as my herb garden, either.”

He adds that herbs are “especially good for aged beer. The bitterness from hops declines as beer is aged, but the bitterness from these other herbs is more stable.”


Common elderberry // Photo via Minnesota Department of Resources website

There are limits to alternative bittering ingredients, says Brian Schanzenbach, head brewer and owner of Blacklist Artisan Ales in Duluth, Minnesota. “In our Or Cran, for example, we use one pound of cranberries per gallon of beer which becomes unreasonable in large-scale brewing,” he explains.

But that’s where the wide array of hop varieties available to brewers today comes in, Schanzenbach says. The abundance of choices allows brewers to use certain traditional ingredients to enhance or complement the hops flavor drinkers have become accustomed to drinking. “The great thing about the variety of hops available today is that you can always find a variety that will complement other herbs or bitter ingredients that you wish to utilize in your beer,” Schanzenbach says. In their Spruce Tipped IPA, for example, Blacklist primarily uses Simcoe hops, which is known for its piney and earthy flavor and fragrance, and complements the spruce tips’ bitterness.

Whether alongside hops or as a stand-alone ingredient, spruce tips are a great example of how traditional recipes and techniques are finding their way back into brewing in Minnesota. From the time that early American colonists learned from the Native Americans how to use spruce and pine needles as a source of Vitamin C to ward off scurvy, the needles were used in beer. A recipe for spruce beer was even mentioned in Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” as early as 1796.



In addition to offerings from Blacklist and Olvalde, other Minnesota breweries have also put forth a number of distinctly different beers flavored with spruce tips. Jason Baumgarth, the head brewer at Voyageur Brewing in Grand Marais, Minnesota, recently added spruce tips to a single barrel of their flagship Trailbreaker Belgian Wit. The addition of spruce tips can accentuate the floral, exotic spices of orange peel, coriander, and cardamom. Day Block Brewing Company, in Downtown Minneapolis, also made a spruce tip beer last summer, opting for a session IPA.

Related post – Homebrew recipe: Alehoofer Gruit

Using various herbs, spices, and, in the case of spruce tips and pine needles, tree branches to balance the sugars from the grain with a hint of bitterness is not a new idea, but is gaining a second wind in today’s craft brewing world. Traditional recipes using herbs are opening up new avenues for experimentation, nuance, and diversity—all of which are welcomed with open arms as more drinkers seek out more unique experiences with their beer.


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