Story by Joshua M. Bernstein
Herb’s the Word
Though breweries love paying lip service to the past, modern craft beer is not known for following footsteps. As a notion, no- or low-hop beers have cracked open flavorful possibilities for brewers eager to separate themselves from the bitter pack.
In Canada, Beau’s All Natural offers “Eastern Ontario” gruits such as the lavender-driven St. Luke’s Verse and imperial-strength Bogfather. (The brewery also declared February 1 to be International Gruit Day.) Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ Mystic Brewery formulates experimental gruits flavored with calendula and honeybush tea. And in Portland, Oregon, Rogue has bet on flora with its Buckman Botanical Brewery offshoot. It specializes in lightly hopped ales laced with tea, mugwort, hemp, ginger and any aromatic wafting into head brewer Danny Connors’ imagination.
In lieu of tongue-buckling IPAs, Connors crafts the zesty Ginger Pale Ale and light-bodied, chamomile-infused Chamomellow Pale Ale, as well as the Parnold Almer Kölsch. The concoction contains lemon peel and tea, a refreshing take on the classic Southern thirst-quencher. “I try to find a good ingredient and let that shine,” Connors says of his technique, which he settled upon after several failures. When he made gruits, “they were too noisy,” he says. “I threw the kitchen sink at them, using mugwort, wormwood and peppermint. I’ve never had much success with peppermint.”
Such is the trial-and-error nature of brewing with herbs and spices. When should they be added? How long should they boil? What about quality? Ditching hops requires brewers to leap into the unknown. That’s what Upright Brewing founder and head brewer Alex Ganum did in 2009, when his dream of brewing an organic beer ran into the reality of an organic hops shortage. Seeking a solution, he hit an herb shop and stuck his nose in numerous jars. He selected hyssop, Sichuan peppercorns, lemongrass and bitter orange peel, which fueled his Reggae Junkie Gruit. It’s dry and tart, two key factors for Ganum when brewing gruit. “If you’re pulling hops out of the beer, you see that even a little bit of bitterness can make a big difference,” says Ganum, who often imparts a bit of sweetness-balancing acidity.
Beyond Reggae Junkie, which he ages in gin barrels to create Special Herbs, Ganum sprinkles spices into other Upright beers. Winter’s fruity and malt-forward Holy Herb is packed with minty hyssop, and the bitter, aromatic Flora Rustica saison contains calendula and yarrow flowers. While he geeks out on gruits, Ganum understands that he’s swimming against a strong tide. “Beer’s main ingredients are popular for a reason,” he says.
Starting a brewery that sells solely gruits might be commercial suicide. To hedge their bets, Earth Eagle Brewings’ Heilshorn and cofounder Alex McDonald—they are brothers-in-law—devised a novel business plan for their nanobrewery. McDonald would primarily brew hopped beers, such as saisons, stouts and IPAs, while Heilshorn focused on wackadoodle formulations. “It lends credibility to our gruits,” Heilshorn explains.
The approach to selling “empyreal ales” and “wonder gruits” has paid dividends. Drinkers can visit Earth Eagle’s taproom for a pint of hoppy New England Gangsta, then sample the catnip-charged Antoinette and Samquanch, a “sour forest gruit” brewed with Heilshorn’s favored reindeer lichen. “We’ve thrown wild things at people and they’ve been game to stretch their palates,” he says. “I want people who are convinced that they won’t like a gruit to try it. That’s all we can ask.”
Can Gruit Get Its Groove Back?
From Europe’s dominant inebriant to a dusty footnote, gruit has undergone a spectacular fall from grace. Could gruit be ripe for a return to the mainstream? After all, craft brewers love an underdog, bringing nearly extinct styles like Germany’s salty-sour gose and tart Berliner weisse back from the brink.
Gruit’s road to beer-geek redemption might be rockier. For starters, there’s semantics. “It’s a weird, ugly word,” says Buckman’s Connors. Earth Eagle’s Heilshorn echoes that sentiment, adding, “Pretty much everybody that comes in and hears the word gruit will go, ‘What is that?’ ” The style requires deep explanation, which is why you’ll often find small-batch gruits at hands-on brewpubs, such as San Francisco’s Magnolia, Vermont’s Zero Gravity and the Philadelphia area’s Earth Bread + Brewery. Furthermore, tasting gruit may not be enough to clear confusion—for drinkers weaned on imperial IPAs, the comparatively delicate, subdued gruit can be tough to appreciate. “People are sometimes like, ‘Oh, it tastes like dishwater,’ ” Williams says of his Scottish gruits. “Don’t expect it to be a big, bold hoppy beer.”
But does the world need another bold hoppy beer? “The whole hoppy beer scene can be polarizing,” Connors says of his approach. “I get people who come in and say, ‘Hoppy beers are not for me.’ ” And that’s where unconventional breweries like Buckman and Earth Eagle can carve a niche. Sure, Earth Eagle’s Carmalite Rifle, made with melons and bitter horehound, may not appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to someone. Gruits let brewers venture to the far reaches of flavor, moving the spotlight from hops to other worthy members of the plant kingdom.
“For us, it’s about freely applying creative energies to this great thing called beer,” Heilshorn says.