Laura Gosalbo: Gruit as a trend or style. Back to the ancient recipes and their values

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  • On 12th July 2013

In last decades, industrial beer has seen a dramatic fall in bitterness on a world level, with a tendency to create commercial beers softer and sweeter. On the other hand we found that the push of artisanal beer  and the microbrewery is for more intense and bitter beers with “hops addition” more than ever in vogue of examples of IPA´S, Imperial IPA´S  and a lot of IBU´S ( 1000 or more), thanks to the use of different types of hops, ( a beer elaborator of Yorkshire has made a beer with 2.012 types of hops) and in high concentration, and a wide range of varieties with a content of a-acids (bitterness responsible) higher than 15-16%.

Hops are the ingredient that we all identify with the soul of beer, which modulates its aromatic personality and contribute to the bitterness, being an essential stabilizer and preservative. But the use of hops is relatively recent (since about ten centuries ago) if we compare it with the long life of beer, whose origin we can place between 6000 and 10.000 years ago, parallel to the bread appearance .

Other plants such as sage, wild rosemary or bog myrtle have preservative powers and were used before hops to make beer (1). Ancient Egyptians, for example, initially elaborated Zythum fermenting wheat bread and later malting barley grain and adding saffron, ginger, cumin, honey, cinnamon, dates, etc., obtaining different colors and aromas.

gruitherbsIn fact , in  ancient times every brewer used their own mixture of herbs, spices, roots, fruits,  berries , and other ingredients in what was called gruit: Achilea or Yarrow, Bog Myrtle or Myrica gale, and wild rosemary were the basics, and they were complemented, in many cases, with Labrador tea, dwarf juniper, sage, licorice, heather, Artemisia Vulgaris or Sant Jonh´s Herbs, Artemisia absinthian or wormwood, broom, henbane, mandrake, darnel, lavender,  saffron, clove, cinnamon, anise… and a crowd of other plants and trees considered sacred or medicinal.

Many of these herbs and compounds were part of the popular traditional “medicine chest“and functional, owing to their medicinal properties and their antiseptic powers. The exact proportion was maintained in absolute secret and most of time, was transmitted from generation to generation.

Every beer has a unique aroma and flavour, could even be used special in mixtures for beers used in sacred ceremonies. The effects of every drink were different because of the properties of every plant, sometimes narcotics, aphrodisiacs, psychotropic or intoxicating.

The gruit was a beer of high fermentation, dark ales, not blond; a result of malted grain with simple and rudimentary techniques, oven dried on open fire obtained a toasted and smoked grain.

From our point of view, gruit represents another era, “ the expression of a different way to see the world” as the definition  of Harrod in his book Sacred Herbal and Healing Beers, but we are assistant to a small but progressive recuperation of this style with examples that market in EEUU and Canada as well as many European countries.

This rescue of flavour of ages ago is sometimes difficult and challenging for our brewmasters: long development of formulations from zero, (without documents due to the secret  character of ancestral recipes)  and a laborious work, which  might be called alchemy of XXI century, landed with trial/error  and  personal experience, finding the exact combination that works is a drawn-out  process. A new perspective about the entire range of botanical that can use for beer personalization is needed. Next to the ingredients already mentioned, are added other ones, as a result of the creativity and investigation of the beer tradition of other cultures like South American (2) or Asiatic. The Hibiscus flower, mate, bay leaf, pine, caraway, gentian, redwood sprigs, mint, cardamom, basil, lemon grass…. They are some of the ingredients that we can find in the new generation gruit ales.

There are the new limits to conquer, when it seems that the hops´ field is more exploited. Are we in front of a gruit revival which invests in new roles to dethrone hops? That is not the plan, but to open another way to the experimentation adventure and the discovery of unreleased flavours and nice scents that for the brewmaster of the XXI century  results on something original and revolutionary, and for the amateur with restless palate, an exciting new scene that promises a lot of new sensations.

Dra. Laura Gosalbo


(1)   The use of hops in breweries was introduced by the Bavarian Monasteries in the XI century because that its antiseptic action facilitated the process and improved the appearance, flavour, smell and the conservation of this drink, although there were other economical, sociopolitical and religious reasons for complete institutionalization in 1516, when the duke of Bavaria, Guillermo V, wrote the purity law (Reinheitshgebot). The English breweries took a long time to accept the use of hops. They even called “ale” to the beer without hops and “beer” to the hops’ drink. But finally, hops won the battle and only some barley wines and other recipes like the sahti of Finland survived to its hegemony.

(2)   The Peruvian and Bolivian chicha and other American Indian beers like the tesguino of tarahumara Mexican, are other examples of the corn, cassava, millet uses, seasoned with numerous botanical varieties, including cactus fruits, berries and red fruits, spices, mead, angel trumpets or even coca leaves.