Gruut

Roger Protz visits his friends at the iconic Belgian brewery
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If you want to know how beer was brewed centuries ago and what it tasted like, there’s no need to hire a time machine. Head for Ghent in Belgium and visit Gruut brewery where Annick De Splenter creates a dazzling array of beers using fruit, herbs and spices with scarcely a hop in sight.

In our hop obsessed world it’s hard to believe that the plant is a late entrant to the brewing process. In some parts of the Low Countries – modern Belgium and the Netherlands – hops were banned and in many countries, including Britain and Germany, brewers used a mixture of “botanicals” to counter the sweetness of grain and give beer a refreshing character.

The potpourri of herbs and spices was known as gruut or gruit, which explains the name of Annick’s brewery. She had to battle hard for recognition. She’s a graduate of Ghent School of Brewing, where her professor said it was impossible to make beer without hops. But she’d researched the history of brewing in the Low Countries and was determined to write a new chapter in Belgium’s vast lexicon of beer.

She won support for her project from the revered brewing scientist Professor Freddy Delvaux at Leuven University and eventually her professor in Ghent relented and deployed some of his staff to work with Annick.

She opened her first brewery in 2009 and, as a result of the interest she has aroused both within and without Belgium, she has moved twice to bigger premises to keep up with demand.

She has beer in her blood for she’s a member of a Belgian brewing dynasty. Her father, Ivan De Splenter, ran Liefmans brewery in Oudenaarde and Riva in Dentergem, while her cousin Mieke manages the Ter Dolen brewery. Annick herself learnt the brewing skills at Riva.

Hops were banned and in many countries, brewers used a mixture of “botanicals

The third home for Gruut is a former leather works. Annick brews 1,700 hectolitres a year and has room for expansion in the long, raftered, two-storey building decked out with artefacts and photos of old Ghent. As well as making her own beers, Annick has developed a school of brewing that enables beer lovers to fashion their own brews with guidance from her and her brewing engineer, Matthieu Mahau. “Alchemists”, as Annick calls the brewing students, can inject their own choice of botanicals into a 5.5% base beer.

Annick doesn’t reveal which herbs, spices or fruit she adds to particular beers but the list of botanicals available include allspice, anise, cinnamon, cranberry, fenugreek, fennel, hyssop, rosemary, sage and sesame seeds. Part of the attraction of visiting Gruut and its tasting room is to sample the beers and attempt to work out which particular botanicals are used in each beer.

The regular beers are a pale wheat beer, Wit (5%), Blonde (5.5%), Amber (6.6%), Brown (8%) and Inferno (9%). Annick admits to using American hops in the Tripel-style Inferno. As a result of its strength she feels the beer needs some hop balance to counter the powerful malt character, but that’s the only departure from the Gruut norm. The beers are neither filtered nor pasteurised and are aged for several weeks before packaging in keg and bottle.

The naturally cloudy Wit has a lemon and spice (cinnamon?) nose with honey malt. Tart fruit and juicy malt dominate the palate followed by a bittersweet finish with spicy, herbal and fruity notes balancing the biscuit notes of the grain.

Annick describes Amber as “an old English ale”. It uses four grains, including some roasted malt. It has a russet colour with a pronounced roasted grain aroma balancing herbal and spice notes. Rich grain dominates the palate but there’s a good balance of herbs and spices. The long finish is a melange of toasted grain and spice.

Blonde is a crystal clear beer with a pale gold colour and a peppery and spicy aroma balanced by biscuit malt. The palate is dry with pepper, spices and tart fruit balancing juicy malt. The finish is long, quenching and delightfully spicy.

Brown has a hazy copper colour and an intense spicy (sage? cinnamon?) nose. The palate is herbal and spicy, backed by creamy malt, followed by a dry finish dominated by roasted grain and spice notes.

We’re on more familiar territory with Inferno, with floral hops on the nose and palate of the ruddy brown and slightly hazy beer. The hops are joined by spice and herbs and toasted malt. The palate is dry with toasted grain to the fore but with a good balance of hops, herbs and spice. The finish is long, dry and fruity with spice and hops lingering at the back of the throat.

Matthieu Mahau took me through the phases of a workshop he conducts with beer lovers who want to make their own interpretation of a Gruut beer. Using Blonde as the base beer, Mathieu offered cinnamon, cranberry and fenugreek as the three botanicals to choose and blend. 

Two drops of cinnamon produced a beer that was very tart and bitter. Cranberry was surprisingly bitter while fenugreek was herbal and bitter with a fresh hay note. Matthieu said fenugreek was the most popular addition with people attending the workshops.

We then blended the botanicals. First we added drops of cinnamon and fenugreek, which I gave the maximum of four points. Cranberry and fenugreek won three points while cinnamon and cranberry also notched three points. For the final beer, I chose a blend of cinnamon and fenugreek that produced a beer with a spicy and bitter aroma balanced by biscuit malt, with toasted malt and spices on the palate and an intensely long, dry, bitter and spicy finish.

Annick is not resting on her laurel leaves. She is endlessly searching and experimenting with new botanicals, as well as different grains. She is importing sorghum from Africa and is also using buckwheat and oats as possible new grains. She plans a gluten-free beer and has bought six oak casks from the port and whisky industries to age beer in wood.

Once a year she makes a special organic 8% beer called Maîtresse (mistress) that uses extra spices and chilli pepper. Just 260 bottles are produced and are much sought after.

The fame of Gruut has spread. The beers are available in Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland. James Clay handles sales in the UK.

Annick was delighted when I called her a brewster. She hadn’t come across the old Saxon word for a woman brewer before, but she fully deserves the title for helping us unravel the rich history, tapestry and flavours of beer from the past.


Did you know?...

In the 10th century the distribution of gruut – also known as gruit or gruyt – was controlled by Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, using an edict known as the Grutrecht. The emperor gave knights and bishops permission to sell gruut to brewers in the Low Countries and Germany: the main ingredients at the time were laurel, rosemary and bog myrtle. 

In the 13th and 14th centuries, local authorities in the Low Countries also became responsible for distributing gruut. It became a major business, making substantial profits for the church and other distributors.

The use of botanicals was caught up in the complex politics of Europe. In the 14th century, for example, in Oudenaarde, the River Schelde that runs through the town marked the division of the area between the French and the Germans. On the right side of the river, brewers had to use hops under German instructions, but on the left bank the French outlawed hops and told brewers they must use gruut.

As the power of the church waned, brewers switched from gruut to hops not only because hops gave beer better keeping qualities but also as a reaction against the high price charged for gruut.


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