Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

January 27, 2008

Home Brewin’:

Just Gruit

If the hop shortage is giving you the home brew blues, spice things up with an herbal beer.
by Jug Dunningan

Jug Dunningan is just here for the beer.
Contact Jug»
My latest adventure in home brew shopping left a rather bitter taste in my mouth. As I’m sure most of you are aware there is a global hop shortage. Although I could still get most varieties of hops at my local home brew shop, there were more than a few I couldn’t find. I talked to the zymurgist behind the counter, and he explained they simply could not get the supply they usually carried. Plus, they were limiting all purchases to include no more than 6 ounces of hops.

I scanned the refrigerator that was usually full of bitter glory that was now only sparsely filled with green gold. Sure, there was Cascade in abundance (I don’t think we’ll see the end of that green monster), but of the noble hops, only Kent Goldings made an appearance, and only in a depleted plug form. I looked at my hop schedule the way a child studies his Christmas list on Christmas Eve. It will soon be maibock season, and Hallertau was not to be found. I looked in the Simcoe rack (I blame Eddie for my sudden and now insatiable craving for a Simcoe IPA) and it was also empty. I felt my face flush, my heartbeat quicken, my palms sweat. Panic was setting in.

Luckily for me, the clerk noticed my anxiety and came to my assistance. “Missing something, Jug?” he asked. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t stop panic from racing through my mind long enough to answer. After a few tense moments and I managed enough self restraint to utter, “Maibock.”

The clerk smiled and nodded. “I think I might have seen some Hallertau in the back. I’ll go check the refrigerator back there. We have a small stash set aside for our best customers.” He returned with a grin and 4 ounces of Hallertau, which he put in my still trembling hands. It is good to be Jug sometimes.

My panic abated to mere concern and I went to check out. I inquired how long this hop drought would last. He said that by summer most varieties would be back in abundance, but others would be almost impossible to get in 2008. “We’ll all be drinking gruit by next Christmas,” he said jokingly.

Now, gruit is something I had never made. In fact, I knew very little about making it, but now the idea had been put in my mind and I knew I’d have no rest until I gave it a try. All I knew right then was that it was a beer made before the discovery of hops. The bittering came from herbs instead. Before I left the home brew shop that day, I filled a paper bag with every brewing herb they had in stock.

I did some research, and talked to many people, but the art of brewing gruit was not easy to dig up. No ancient records exist, as the recipes were closely guarded by their brewers. There are lists of more than 50 herbs that were once used in a vast variety of combinations to produce the hopless drink. The more I studied the more intrigued I became.

The term ale originally meant a brew containing no hops, and beer was used to describe brews containing hops. Hop use was at one time shunned, used only in cheap unsavory brews. The switch from herbs to hops occurred over a period of centuries, with economic and political forces affecting the change. In central Europe, the Roman Catholic Church controlled the use of hops in beers, and it was not until many German princes became Protestant that hops became more widespread (and hatched Reinheitsgebot). Another factor that likely influenced the change to hops (and Reinheitsgebot) is that nobody except the brewers actually knew what was in the beer they were drinking. Throughout history people believed herbs had magical properties and in reality many herbs and spices can, in fact, affect the health and the well being of the drinker. Along with the fact that hops naturally helped preserve the beer in the days before sanitation and pasteurization, this is why hops won the battle. I can find absolutely no evidence that taste was a factor in the changeover.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hops and until lately would never have considered a beer without them, but mankind survived for over a millennia and apparently made good quality beers before hops came around. And if they could do it, Jug can, too. If there was ever a time to play with gruit, it is certainly now.

I did find a few recipes for gruit, but honestly it was all Greek to me. I don’t know the taste of yarrow from bog myrtle or heather tips. I decided to make a tea of each herb I purchased that day in the home brew shop to gain an understanding of the flavor impacts they might make on my home brew. The results were very interesting (I plan to post my personal observations of these teas at some point, too). I decided to make two half batches (2.5 gallons each). One would be sort of a control based on some of the most basic gruit recipes I could find. The other I would go a little more extreme with, and use what I thought I had learned from the teas. Batch #1 we’ll call a Gruit Pale Ale. Batch #2 we’ll call a Gruit Imperial IPA. I used the same super-basic extract and no specialty grain base for both batches so we can isolate the herb flavors.

Before I show you the recipes, I want you to understand that brewing with herbs is a different animal than brewing with hops. Many people are allergic to hops. Likewise many people can be allergic to herbs used in gruits. Also a lot of these herbs used have real—and mythological—properties that can affect you and your health. Do your homework. Don’t just throw some herbs into your wort just because Jug did.

Batch #1: Gruit Pale Ale
3.0 pounds Briess Gold unhopped liquid extract
0.5 ounces Mugwort—60 minutes
0.5 grams Sweet Gale (Bog myrtle)—10 minutes

Batch #2: Gruit IPA
3.0 pounds Briess Gold unhopped liquid extract
0.5 ounces Mugwort—60 minutes
0.5 ounces Wormwood—60 minutes
1 inch licorice stick—60 minutes
0.25 teaspoon Cardamom Seeds—10 minutes

Both ended with a specific gravity of 1.044. I pitched both with a third generation Wyeast 1318 London III.

I sampled both before fermenting. Batch #2 was slightly darker (10 SRM) than Batch #1 (8 SRM). The bitterness in batch #1 is evident but no noticeable “herb” flavor or aroma yet. Batch #2 is considerably more bitter with a distinct “herb” character to both taste and smell. I will let them ferment for a week and rack to a glass carboy. Of course I will keep you updated, but if there are any gruit gurus out there, I’d love to see your recipes!


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