Gruit Beers

Definition

It is the conversion of cereal starch into fermentable sugars, made possible by the reaction of enzymes in the malts and the later alcoholic fermentation of the wort by yeast.

The main ingredients are:

  • Water: which represents 85 to 90% of the total beer.
  • Malt: barley that has been germinated and has subsequently dried up in a process called malting.
  • Yeast: in charge of transforming, via fermentation, the amino acids and carbohydrates of cereals into alcohol. There are basically three main families of beers, grouped according to the type of fermentation involved in their production. Ales have high fermentation, Lagers have a low fermentation and some are the result of spontaneous fermentation.
  • Hops: a relatively modern ingredient responsible for adding flavour to beer as well as head formation and retention. Its use dates from the introduction of the 1516 purity law (Reinheitsgebot) decreed by King Guillermo IV of Bavaria. Although today this law is no longer in effect, it’s still being used by many prestigious beer houses.

GRUIT is an ancient mixture of herbs used during the middle ages (before the advent of hops) to give flavour and aroma to beer. Some of these plants also have properties which help in conservation.
The three main herbs of GRUIT are: Yarrow (achillea millefolium), Artemis (artemisa vulgaris), and Bog Myrtle or Sweet Wind (myrica gale). In addition to these, the farmers introduced other herbs, roots, fruits, etc., to produce unique flavours and different aromas among them; wild rosemary, juniper, sage, liquorice, ginger, cinnamon and walnut.

  • Yarrow: For the elaboration of beer the dried flowers and leaves were used. They gave a bitter/sweet taste and pleasant aroma.
  • Artemis: The whole plant was used, but flowers and leaves were preferable. It is probably the most bitter of the plants utilised and was used sparingly, with caution. It has very good antiseptic qualities and offers a good complement to the malt flavour to beer.
  • Bog Myrtle or Sweet Wind: the leaves have an astringent, bitter and balsamic, flavour with a strong, but not unpleasant, and rather spicy aroma. It was used like hops today, and the residue added in the fermentation process.

Each GRUIT was different in flavour and aroma depending upon the area and geographical location (mountain, valley, etc.) and climate (dry, very rainy, etc.) in which it was produced. This gave beer a localized and geographic distinction. GRUIT, in medieval times, was the fermented drink, consumed all over continental Europe. The herbs and wild plants were generally collected by women and the recipes passed from generation to generation. Beer production was undertaken by families for their own consumption.

For our ancestors of central Europe and the British Isles it would have been unthinkable that the word GRUIT would disappear from use. Entering an Inn or a tavern in any village, town or city was synonymous with GRUIT. The GRUIT during that era had a dark brown colour derived from being dried, baked and smoked in the most parts. It was also very turbid and surely filtering was unsatisfactory. It contained proteins and many carbohydrates, which produced a very nutritious drink, which was consumed by both the nobility as well as peasants. The origin of the name GRUIT according to some historians has its roots in old German and was used to define herbs in general.

Like many other ancient recipes, the origins of GRUIT- how and when it came to be used- are lost in antiquity. However, we are talking about a time period from around 700-1700AC with its time of splendour being around the 9th century to the 13th century.

The preparation of this drink was a female task and took place within the family nucleus. Recipes and knowledge were passed from generation to generation. At this time the ecclesiastical communities had acquired an advanced level of economic organization, possibly due to the cultural level of the priests. It was in the monasteries where the best harvests were reaped, where the best fabrics were produced, etc., and soon they became the best brewers of beer, forging the way for its evolution from domestic level to specialized craftsmanship. Together with monasteries, feudal power also began to elaborate beer, since it had its own infrastructure, such as mills, bakeries, stores, etc. In the height of the Middle Ages with the emergence of major cities and their prosperous bourgeois class, the struggle for the manufacture of beer begins. As these cities become the main axis of European growth, the production of beer takes on considerable new dimensions.

During these centuries beer was different from today, it was seasoned with a blend of GRUIT herbs. The GRUIT was of such importance that the monasteries began to control its production by means of strict regulations. Later on, feudal lords took advantage of this dependence upon GRUIT to impose further regulations and taxes. Despite this, GRUIT enjoyed its utmost splendour at this time.

GruitierThe Gruitier was the person in charge of making mixtures and who had knowledge of herbs, and botany, in general. The compositions of the mixtures were top secret, and the Gruitiers were very important people enjoying great privileges. Many had their own guards and lived in very luxurious houses. Some were under the direction of the feudal lords, but in the cities and with free trade they became very rich and powerful people. By the end of the middle ages the use of GRUIT had already been abandoned in much of Europe, as the properties of hops gave greater stability to beer.

In order to realize the significance of such a beverage, it should be mentioned that a coin of legal tender was minted and used during the reign of Carlos V- the Gruut. This coin served, among other things, as a unit to pay taxes on GRUIT.

Now, Annick De Splenter uses these coins as a brand identity on the Gruut labels and bottle tops (Gruit in Spain) of the five styles of beer, fully handcrafted, with a blend of GRUIT herbs.

Annick de Splenter is the alma mater of GRUUT GENTSE STADSBROUWERIJ. Beer flows through her veins and the art of brewery is carried in her genes. Annick is the daughter of Ivan de Splenter, master brewer who set up Dentergem witbier, Lucifer, Liefmans and Straffee Hendrik beers, which continue to enjoy a reputation of quality, despite the fact that Ivan is no longer the owner. Her mother Diane´s family were also involved in the brewery and the production of Yango Pale Ale.

Annick wanted to produce beers as they were produced in the middle ages before the introduction of hops. This is no easy task. Through five years of laborious research, numerous erroneous test, many failed fermentations, a multitude of trials to produce these excellent Belgian ales Annick has stood firm in her conviction. It is a delicate task in which herb mixtures should give a good head stability, provide flavour and colour, together with antioxidant properties. In the end an unfiltered beer emerges full of flavour and natural aromas.

Annick founded GRUUT GENTSE STADSBROUWERIJ brewery in 2009. She acquired a building that was an old mill and which later housed a famous restaurant for the bourgeois class from the 14th century. This recently remodelled building contains a bar and a restaurant as well as the beer production area, where the manual, completely handcrafted brewing process can be observed before our eyes. Upon entering the premises we are hit by the impact of the brewing machinery and the smell of malts and beers in the environment. We also see the fermentation and maturation tanks where already matured beer is removed directly from the barrel via a tap for tasting.

Fortunately today we can consider the GRUIT as an alternative ingredient in the development of a modern, excellent beer of proven quality. We have recovered the lost flavour.

As a result of the collaboration between GRUUT GENTSE STADSBROUWEIJ and GRUIT PROJECTS, we can now enjoy these beers in Spain under the brand name GRUIT.