I am Gruit

Before new-fangled hops came along, beer across Europe was flavoured with a diverse mix of foraged flora, often with interesting properties. Hollie Stephens finds out more


Before hops were commonplace in beer, gruit ale enjoyed a long period of ubiquity. Gruit is a mixture of herbs and spices, used in place of hops to brew a type of beer that originated in the Middle Ages in the Low Countries and western Germany. It was typically brewed in a single vessel, with the herb additives heated along with the malt and water. Much like hops, these botanicals had benefits above and beyond flavour, such as anti-septic and anti-microbial properties which helped to protect the beer from infection. The resulting beer, which was served in pubs across much of Continental Europe in the Middle Ages, would not taste awfully familiar to beer drinkers today. 

The components of the gruit mixture varied depending upon the brewer’s location, typically including bog myrtle as a central ingredient; a small flowering shrub with a bitter and astringent taste, which grows well on swampy ground. Other possible additions to the gruit mixture would depend upon what could readily be found locally, and might have included caraway, wild rosemary, horehound and elderflower. “(Bog myrtle) didn’t grow everywhere, so it wasn’t universally used” says Steve Dunkley, a brewer specialising in brewing historic and heritage beers. “To start with it seems they just used whatever was to hand at the time of year where they were. Drying herbs had been around a long time, so they would have used that practice, but we think that was used mostly for the most common ones, but other herbs in smaller quantities would likely have been used fresh when in season.”

Gruit ale was potent stuff, said to have had narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic qualities

Gruit ale was potent stuff, said to have had narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic qualities. “Gruit ale stimulates the mind, creates euphoria and enhances sexual drive” writes Stephen Harrod Buhner, scholar and senior researcher for the Foundation for Gaian Studies. Vikings reportedly consumed it to whip themselves in a frenzy before battle, though it has also been touted as a Celtic stress reliever. John Gerard, a herbalist of the late sixteenth century, noted that bog myrtle “is troublesome to the brain” and was “fit to make a man quickly drunk”. But it wasn’t all fun and games; bog myrtle has been known to cause terrible headaches. 

In the complex of lands in western and central Europe in the early Middle Ages – today known as the Holy Roman Empire - brewers were at the mercy of the powers of the land when it came to obtaining the herbs needed to produce gruit ale. “The ruler was able to establish a royal right to power over unexploited land and it was uncultivated land from which bog myrtle came” writes Richard Unger in ‘Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’. The Emperor was able to award the gruitrecht (gruit rights) to entities of his choosing at will. This was granted to secular and religious authorities, effectively placing the monopoly of this key supply for the brewing industry in the hands of a select few. 

Rulers were able to monopolise land on which an abundance of bog myrtle was growing and gain a steady source of income. “The power to control to sale of gruit was in effect a right to levy a tax on beer production” writes Unger. Public figures who had been granted gruitrecht sought to extend their power throughout their domains. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, towns had taken over the taxation of gruit, handing the task of producing the gruit mixture over to a gruiter and ensuring that it was sold on to brewers at a fixed price.

Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries hopped beer gained popularity, but gruit did not disappear completely right away. When hopped beer was first introduced, gruit ale held the benefit of being recognized and established, and brewers were naturally practiced at making it. Gruit ales and hopped ales were brewed alongside one another for some time, as hopped beer slowly became a higher quality product. As the taxation of gruit disappeared, the taxes on hops rose. In some cases, it was necessary for towns to ensure that the local owners of the gruitrecht release local breweries from the obligation to purchase gruit so that they could begin to make hopped beer. In some cases, the changes proved not to go so smoothly. “As late as 1381, the archbishop of Cologne, since he held gruitrecht, tried to suppress the use of hops completely” writes Unger. Fortunately, the issue was resolved in 1500, paving the way for hopped beer in the city that is known today for its famous Kölsch.

The Reinheitsgebot (commonly known as German Purity Law) was introduced in 1516 by Duke Wilhelm IV as the standard to which all beer in Bavaria must adhere. The law, which aimed at promoting quality and consistency across beer production, dictated that beer must be comprised of water, malt, hops and nothing more (yeast was not specifically mentioned, but was added to later documentation making reference to the law). The onset of the Reinheitsgebot naturally served to solidify the victory of hops over gruit mixture. Since beers falling outside of the description stipulated by the Purity Law were forbidden, this helped to snuff out any remaining gruit ales being served in the region, and from the sixteenth century onwards there is only limited evidence of the endurance of gruit across the Low Countries.

Bog myrtle based gruit is not the only form of ale to have preceded hopped beers, nor the only type to be recreated in the modern day. Remnants of heather and meadowsweet (a perennial herb) have been found along with cereal straw upon 2,000-year-old fragments of Neolithic pots on the island of Rhum, one of the Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides, in the Scottish district of Lochaber. Since 1988, a Scottish family business known today as William Bros Brewing has been brewing heather ale in a revival of this ancient style of beer. “The beer has a delightfully refractive amber colour, a flowery-fruity bouquet and an almost oily firmness of body with spice and apple notes in its dry, almost wine-like finish” esteemed beer writer Michael Jackson wrote of Williams Bros Brewing’s take on heather ale.

The records that remain of the beers of the Middle Ages and precisely how they were made are ambiguous. Due to the incomplete historical records, it can be difficult for modern brewers to know with certainty whether their outputs are anything like the classic varieties of centuries ago. Many of the recipes don’t contain enough information to know the ratio of malt and botanicals that was used. Steve Dunkley points out that the limitations of the records can make recreating gruit and other herbal ales in the format that they were originally brewed quite challenging. “Most (probably all) the recipes I’ve seen are more translations of recipes rather than recipes themselves” says Steve. “Writers interpreting and then reinterpreting them as they go along. So you know what they used, but rarely anything more.”

The final product would not have been much more palatable to a Viking than it was to a modern-day drinker

Steve explains that a Viking ale he made using meadowsweet is a good example of this. “We can look at these old recipes and see an ingredient listed, “meadowsweet”, but unless we know how they used it, which part of the plant, we can really mess things up” he said. He explains that felt certain that the final product would not have been much more palatable to a Viking than it was to him as a modern-day drinker. “It was incredibly medicinal, really not pleasant.” After talking to a specialist in herbal medicines and foods, he was able to refine his method. “Meadowsweet flowers are very small, and very aromatic. But they’re incredibly tedious to pick. So a lot of modern suppliers are cutting the heads on the stalk, because the stalk makes no difference for the vast majority of uses, but it gives an incredibly tannic/medicinal flavour to anything that you put it into to digest.” Once he knew more about the quantity and the part of the plant to use, he tried the brew again. “It was divine! A totally different beer.”

Steve Beauchesne, CEO of Canada-based Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co started brewing gruit after reading Buhner’s book ‘Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers’. “We had found a local forager who was willing to go out and harvest bog myrtle for us by hand” he says. “We produced a gruit series over the following decade that was very well received.” Steve even decided to create an event to celebrate gruit. “We launched International Gruit Day in 2013 to build awareness of gruits around the world” he says. The festival peaked in 2018 when 62 different breweries from 11 countries came together to participate. “Brewing gruit ales lets you colour outside of the lines when it comes to beer recipes, and expand horizons in terms of what people think beer is or should be” says Steve. “It’s both cutting edge, and hundreds of years old at the same time.”

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