You probably know there’s a difference between an ale and the cold fermentation that goes into making a lager, but what about this gruit beer that your favorite craft breweries have been playing with lately?
Beer lovers anticipate the earthy tartness of hops on the tongue, or the mellow roll of malts at the end of a sip, but for most of the history of beer making, the particular ingredients used to make what we call beer have been a literal witch’s brew of whatever the brewer had growing in the garden, weeds that popped up, or goodies foraged in the local forests or field.
Nearly every edible herb, spice, and weed has served as a brewing herb at one time or another. Gruit makers’ passion for flavor and inebriation even lent itself to the names we still call a variety of plants, from mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), to the lawn creeper ale-hoof (Glechoma hederacea), the common names of many weedy plants continue to conjure up the memory of the long history of beer making.
More interestingly, it seems evident both in scholarship and personal experimentation that the particular blend of gruit herbs used tend to produce unexpected intoxicant effects in the drinkers. Plants like sage, calendula, and yarrow have long histories as medicinal herbs, as well as common flavoring agents in pre-hops brewing. It seems well understood that earlier societies relied on fermentation to sanitize water, and the inclusion of the plant-based pharmacopoeia of the time was likely designed to assist the body during the day’s physical labors.
The shift from gruit to hopped beer was fraught with politics as the interest groups of 18th century Europe battled for dominance. Stephen Harrod Buhner has a thorough write up on how the shift happened, but from a practical standpoint, the best thing is to talk about how to get back to brewing in the old school way.
Many common gruit herbs can be purchased, dried, in local homebrew stores or online. As a gardener, I prefer cultivating or foraging what I can. Here in Georgia, mugwort grows rampant as a weed, and it isn’t difficult to locate in quantity all summer long. Yarrow is easily grown even from seed, and Calendula is a bright note in the garden even during the hottest part of the year, and often well into winter.
The best thing about gruit making is that the process is really the same as beer making, but instead of putting hops in, you add your herb pack. And that really can be anything. Peppercorns can provide some bitter heat, edible flowers from the garden (borage, squash blossoms, calendula, hyssop, and many, many more) can supply a range of flavors or aromatics, and the leaves of plants like mugwort and yarrow provide a unique psychotropic edge to the drinking experience. This small selection of gruit recipes might help you get started, but don’t feel limited in what you can experiment with. Every