To crib a page from Neil deGrasse Tyson: if the millennia in which humankind has been brewing beer was condensed down into a single 12-month calendar year, then hops would not have come into use as a conventional ingredient until November or so. From New Year’s Day up through at least Halloween, the flavoring of choice for grain-based ferments would have been a blend of botanicals collectively referred to as gruit.
Not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, gruit beer would have filled your mug at the pub or dinner table. The cereal-grain based substrate and fermentation by yeast (appearing as an uncredited player until the 19th century) would have been familiar, but instead of the floral, herbal bite of Humulus lupus, we’d taste a sweet-savory-bitter herbal mélange.
Medieval European gruit was built around a trifecta of sweet gale, wild rosemary, and yarrow, but could also include ginger, heather, caraway, juniper, and exotic-for-the-era spices like nutmeg, anise, and cinnamon. The formula varied from brewer to brewer and was kept proprietary. Local plants featured heavily, especially for cottage brewers.
The use of hops swept through Europe during the Middle Ages and more or less supplanted gruit on the continent by the 16th century. The herbal tradition held out longest in England (“ale” in old English specifically indicated an unhopped cereal-based beverage, while “beer” was one with hops—yeast strain didn’t enter into it), where it survived into the modern age in a few isolated holdouts.
The reasons for gruit’s decline were complex; the Catholic Church exerted a virtual monopoly on the control, sale of, and rights to use gruit herbs, so simply using hops to flavor beer became a politically, economically, and religiously significant act during the Protestant reformation.
Plus, certain aspects of gruit might have been disagreeable to some reformation-minded folks. Beer historian and herbalist Stephen H. Buhner: “Gruit ale […] is highly intoxicating and aphrodisiacal when consumed in sufficient quantity. [It] stimulates the mind, creates euphoria, and enhances sexual drive.”
Today gruit is enjoying something of a revival, alongside other extinct and archaic beer styles. A couple years ago at the Great American Beer Festival, I got to enjoy a flight of entirely unhopped herbal beers from Scratch Brewing of Ava, Illinois, who forage a lot of their ingredients from the woods near the brewhouse. Beers Made By Walking is a nationwide project in which brewers use ingredients found on hikes.
Anyway, let’s put some other plants in our beer this month. In the spirit of keeping it local, we’ll have the option to forage a local plant that’s in abundance around this time of year: ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea. You may also know this fragrant little member of the mint family as Creeping Charlie or Creeping Jenny, but to medieval Saxons it was alehoof (“ale herb”), used for flavoring and clarifying beer. Ground ivy is a non-native species, introduced by early European settlers who brought it over for culinary and medicinal use. And it’s easy to find—but obviously, first make sure your source hasn’t been treated with herbicide or fertilizer.
And with all that said, there ain’t nothin’ to it but to gruit.
A recipe to try
Target OG: 1.052–1.054
Target IBU: N/A
• 10 pounds English pale malt
• Your favorite ale strain; I’m going with good ol’ 1056
• Approximately 6–8 quarts (loosely packed) ground ivy leaves, stems, and/or flowers, well-cleaned
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