Herb-filled, spice-stuffed and hop-free, ancient gruits are catching on with modern brewers.
Butch Heilshorn isn’t interested in brewing a traditional IPA. Same goes for a stout, pilsner, saison or just about any other standard style of beer. Instead, the cofounder of Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Earth Eagle Brewings favors beers flavored with sassafras, catnip, bog myrtle, mushrooms, bear meat, smoked pig heads, mushrooms and reindeer lichen—he especially loves reindeer lichen. “That stuff is incredible,” Heilshorn enthuses. “It tastes like the deep, dark forest.”
Among his laundry list of choice ingredients, many of which are locally foraged, one is notably absent: hops. Sure, Heilshorn will occasionally throw a handful of the bitter, aromatic flowers into the brew kettle, but it’s merely one element in his flavoring arsenal. “Nine times out of 10, people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know a beer could taste like this,’ ” says Heilshorn who, unsurprisingly, is married to an herbalist. “Gruits are the fringe and perhaps future of brewing in a what-is-old-is-new-again sort of way.”
One of brewing’s fundamental rules is that beer is comprised of malted grain, water, yeast and hops. Grains supply the fermentable sugars that yeast convert into alcohol, while hops provide balancing bitterness, preservative prowess, flavor and aroma. Today, hops are nearly as crucial to beer as water, especially in this IPA-crazed era. But if you were to time-travel to visit medieval brewers, you’d discover that beer contained nary a hop.
Back then, beers were seasoned with gruit (pronounced “grew-it” or “groot”), which was a proprietary blend of herbs such as bitter and astringent yarrow (a flowering plant), wild rosemary and resinous, eucalyptus-like wild gale (a.k.a. bog myrtle), along with sundry spices. In large quantities, gruit was considered a euphoric stimulant and an aphrodisiac, and brewers often slipped in hallucinogens to enhance the effects. By the 1700s, whether due to health concerns or religious pressure, gruit was largely phased out in favor of hops. No longer.
Increasingly, craft brewers are ditching hops for herbs, creating adventurous gruits that challenge beer’s basic definition. (The federal government requires a “malt beverage” to contain hops, so brewers typically use a token amount.) In Massachusetts, Cambridge Brewing’s Weekapaug Gruit utilizes tea, nettles and licorice root, while California’s Moonlight Brewing makes Working for Tips with twigs harvested from redwood trees. Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series channels the hop-less elixirs of olden civilizations, which is a similar launch pad for the historical beers championed by Scotland’s Williams Bros.—care for a 4,000-year-old-style heather-infused ale? Conversely, Portland’s Buckman Botanical Brewery cranks out modern riffs like the chamomile-infused Chamomellow Pale Ale, and fellow Oregonians Upright Brewing age gruit in gin barrels.
What’s Past Is Present
On the yawning continuum of brewing history, hops’ hegemony is a recent blip. Of nature’s innumerable herbs and spices, it’s rare for one little flower to so firmly grip brewers’ imaginations.
The reason for hops’ almighty ascent is rooted in religion. During the Middle Ages, explains Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers author Stephen Harrod Buhner, the Catholic church enjoyed a gruit monopoly, taxing both brewers and the blend. Not everyone adored the intoxicant, which often contained psychotropics, such as henbane and nightshade. “In essence, they got the drinker high and somewhat sexually stimulated,” Buhner says.
To sever the Catholic church’s stranglehold, or possibly to dull libido, Germany passed the Bavarian Purity Law in 1516. Gruit was a goner. The replacement was hops, a traditional sedative that, quite interestingly, can lower testosterone levels. “In other words, they put the drinker to sleep and dull the sexual drive in men,” Buhner says.
By the 1750s, hopped beers had conquered the continent, a vise grip that’s only grown stronger. Thing is, this contradicts standard operating procedure. “Herbed ales and beers have a long tradition in the world’s cultures,” Buhner says, touting the range of flavors made available “by moving outside hops and reclaiming more ancient styles of beer.”
That could be Sam Calagione’s rallying cry. Since founding Delaware’s Dogfish Head in 1995, Calagione has been driven by a spice-forward, herb-laden experimentalism fit for the 15th century. For example, early formulations included beet sugar–packed Raison d’Etre and Chicory Stout, which is chockablock with licorice root and chicory. “Our ancestors incorporated a boundless combination of culinary ingredients into beers for thousands of years,” says Calagione, who launched the Ancient Ales series to demonstrate this truth.
Over nearly 15 years, Dogfish Head has spun the globe with antediluvian elixirs worthy of a revival. The delicate, mead-like Midas Touch is based on saffron, honey and white muscat grapes, and inspired by a mixture found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels in King Midas’s tomb. Drinking vessels salvaged from Italy’s 2,800-year-old Etruscan tombs kindled the idea for Birra Etrusca Bronze, which stars root beer–like Ethiopian myrrh resin. And Kvasir is a sour Scandinavian-style grog fashioned with bog-grown berries and birch syrup. “Historic beers remind everyone that there can be more to beer than the four most common ingredients,” Calagione says.
Dogfish Head is hardly alone in reviving ancient hop-free beer and gruits. Floral and unfiltered, Professor Fritz Briem’s 13th Century Grut Beer is flavored with bay leaves, caraway and rosemary. Elsewhere, Brasserie Dupont’s delicately spicy Posca Rustica is dosed with a dozen ingredients from the Gallo-Roman era (roughly 50 B.C. to 500 A.D.), including bog myrtle and sweet woodruff. “Hops are great for aroma and bittering, but they’re not the only answer,” says Wendy Littlefield, cofounder of importer Vanberg & DeWulf. With gruits, “there’s an emphasis on local ingredients and terroir.”
Sense of place is important for Scotland’s Williams Bros. Brewing, which grew from Genbrew, a homebrew shop that altered its fortunes one fortuitous night in 1986. A woman came in clutching a 17th-century family recipe for leanne fraoch, or heather ale, which she’d translated from Gaelic. The style had been brewed in Scotland for 4,000 years, but now it was essentially extinct. Could the shop help her re-create it? Bruce Williams bit. He spent several years experimenting with grains and herbs, including floral, pleasantly bitter heather and fragrant bog myrtle. Thrilled with his recipe, Williams cooked a batch of Fraoch, as he called the beer, at a local brewery. Demand rapidly drained supply. “He created something that was both historic and tasted good,” says Chris Williams, Bruce’s son.
Since then, archaic Scottish ales, many sourced from history books and archaeological finds, have become the brewery’s stock-in-trade. With ingredients supplied by foragers scouring Scotland’s countryside, Williams Bros. creates beers such as Ebulum, an elderberry brew based on a recipe introduced to Scots by Welsh druids; seaweed-fueled Kelpie; and the Viking-derived Alba, which is laced with pine sprigs. “It’s not just the case of, ‘Let’s find a tree, chop it down and brew with it,’ ” Williams says of the challenge of using recipes that are essentially rough sketches. “Are you going to use the pinecones, the needles or the bark? You need to experiment.”