By Stephen Harrod Buhner / Used with kind permissionPERPSECTIVE : Stephen Harrod Buhner writes about our forgotten beer heritage, Gruit Ale, it’s competition with Hops, it’s prohibition and fall into oblivion.
A forgotten heritage
It would have been inconceivable to our ancestors that gruit could ever be forgotten. But ask anyone today what it is and a blank stare or a bad joke about gardening will be all you will get – unless for some reason you happen to ask a beer historian. But for most of European history gruit (or sometimes grut) was what beer was. If you went into a pub in the middle ages in most of continental Europe you would have been served gruit. Hopped beers came much later, gaining dominance about 1750 A.D. – though gruit ale continued to be brewed in small, out-of-the-way places until World War 2.
Many people think hops became an additive to beer for its bittering and preservative qualities but the truth is quite different. Gruit was primarily a combination of three herbs: Sweet gale (Myrica gale), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre) though each commercial gruit ale varied somewhat. Different brewers added other herbs (such as juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg, and cinnamon (1) to produce unique tastes, flavors, and effects in their ale. The exact formula for competing gruit ales was, like that for Coca Cola, proprietary – a closely guarded secret. Each of the three primary gruit herbs was also used alone in brewing simple beers in cottage practice. And references to one particular quality of those herbs abound in the literature of the times; they were extremely inebriating when fermented. The brewing historian Odd Nordland comments that among rural Norwegian brewers “It was said locally that when one drank much of [sweet gale], it was strongly intoxicating, with unpleasant after effects.” (2) The English herbalist Maude Grieve notes in her seminal Modern Herbal that “The leaves [of marsh rosemary] are reputed to be more powerful than those of Ledum latifolium [Labrador Tea], and to have in addition some narcotic properties, being used in Germany to make beer more intoxicating.” (3) But among them all yarrow, the innocuous garden herb, was best known as an inebriant. Odd Nordland explains:
According to Linneaus, it was used by the people of Lima in Dalecarnia, instead of hops, when they brewed for weddings: ‘. . . so that the guests become crazy.’ Linneaus called the plant galentara, ‘causing madness’, and this plant ‘which the people of Lima sometimes use in their ale stirs up the blood and makes one lose one’s balance.’. . . Yarrow is in no way innocent when mixed with ale. It has a strong odour and flavour, and well deserves the name Linnaeus gave it, to indicate the frenzy that was said to result from it.
The high virtues of Gruit
Modern scientific research has born out the fact these herbs do contain substances that are mildly narcotic, psychotropic, or inebriating. In fact, indigenous cultures throughout the world used these herbs for at least 60,000 years, not only for their medicinal actions but also as mild inebriants and sexual stimulants.
Hops, when it began to be suggested for use as a primary additive to beer, was bitterly resisted – it was thought to be decidedly unhealthy as a primary ingredient in brewing. And hops’ introduction was fought through the legislatures, proclamations of the royalty, writings of the day’s medical practitioners, and through church edict.
Brewers in England complained to the Mayor of London about hops and noted that there was “a deceivable and unholesome fete in bruying of ale within the said citee nowe of late [that] is founde in puttyng of hoppes and other things in the said ale, contrary to the good and holesome manner of bruynge of Ale of old tyme used. . . . Pleas it therfore your saide good lordshyppe to forbid the putting into ale of any hops, herbs, or other like thing, but only licour, malte, and yeste.”
In Germany, as beer historian John Arnold comments: “Hopped beers, not alone their manufacture but also their importation into the domains of the Archbishop of Cologne, were strictly prohibited in various edicts, and infractions threatened with severe penalties. The reason for this was two-fold. First, the manufacture of gruit was a privilege, exploited or granted by the archbishop and bishops, hence a source of large revenue for them, a veritable ecclesiastical monopoly. Second, “gruit” contained herbs and spices, meeting the taste of that time (and of succeeding centuries), its composition being a mystery for the common people, and in any event a trade secret for the privileged manufacturer. This privilege was now threatened in the highest degree by the hops and hopped beers which began to appear from different localities.” . . . “How determinedly the archbishops for the reasons mentioned opposed the introduction of hopped beers [can be seen] from a decree issued, April 17, 1381, by Archbishop Frederick of Cologne, in behalf of the maintenance of the gruit monopoly, according to which not only the brewers, but also the clergy, the military and the civilians, in fact, anybody who wanted to brew beer were commanded to buy their gruit in the episcopal gruit-houses; furthermore, the importation of ‘hopped beer’ from Westphalia was prohibited, and so was the brewing of such beers in Cologne itself, under pain of the severest penalties which the Church could inflict.”
Hops, until this time, was merely one of the plants used all along in the production of beer – the earliest mention of its use probably being in Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) Physica Sacra. It finally gained herbal dominance in Germany (the first place its use was legally required) nearly the same time that Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Catholic church in 1520. This, I think, is not mere coincidence.
Luther and the Protestant temperance movement
One of the arguments of the Protestants against the Catholic clergy (and indeed of Catholicism) was Catholic self-indulgence: in food, drink, and lavish life style. And it was this Protestant outrage that was the genesis of the temperance movement. (It would not stop, of course, with the assault on gruit ales but would continue on to include ale itself and any kind of psychotropic or inebriating plants and drinks by the twentieth century.)
The Protestant reformists were joined by merchants and competing royals desiring to break the brewing monopoly of the church. The result was, ultimately, the end of a many-thousand-year tradition of herbal beer making in Europe and the narrowing of beer and ale into one limited expression of beer production, that of hopped ales or what we today call beer. The majority of historical beer writers insist that this was only because (after some 10,000 years) our ancestors accidentally discovered that hops was antiseptic enough to preserve beer. Our ancestors were neither that blind nor narrow in their empiricism. Hops kept the beer from spoiling, yes, however a number of other herbs possess strong antibacterial properties and can help beer “keep.” Many of those herbs were commonly used in ale, for instance wormwood and juniper. But hops possesses two characteristics notably different than the herbs it replaced – it causes the drinker to become drowsy and it diminishes sexual desire. Protestant literature of the time, denoting the “problems” associated with the gruit herbs, contradict contemporary beer historians and are in actuality some of the first drug control manifestos on record. The laws that eventually passed in the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries restricting the number of herbal additives used in brewing are actually the first drug control laws ever passed. As Nordland reveals: “At the time the decree of 1667 ordered an increase of cultivation of hops in Norway, the authorities in continental Europe were generally trying to abolish the use of grut and bog myrtle in brewing. The provincial laws of Bavaria, of 1533 and 1616, imposed severe penalties on anyone brewing ale with herbs and seeds not normally used for ale. Similar laws were passed in, for instance, Holstein in 1623, and [in Norway bog myrtle] was expressly forbidden together with other ‘unhealthy material’. As late as 1723, the laws of Brunswick-Luneburg made it a punishable offence for a brewer to have the dangerous Post [bog myrtle], or other herbs imparting a dangerous potency to the ale, in his house. It is stated that, in spite of earlier warnings, this practice had continued to the peril of the lives and health of His Majesty’s subjects.’
(1) John Arnold. Origin and History of Beer and Brewing Chicago,Alumni Association of the Wahl-Henius Institute of Fermentology, 1911, p. 239, 241.
(2) Odd Nordland. Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, Norway:The Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities, 1969, page 216.
(3) Maude Grieve. A Modern Herbal, NY:Dover, 1971, page 460.
(4) Nordland. Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, page 223.
(5) Arnold. Origin and History of Beer and Brewing, page 375.
(6) Ibid, page 235.
(7) Ibid, page 237.
(8) Nordland. Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, page 221.
(9) Dr. John Harrison and the members of the Durden Park Beer Circle. Old British Beers and How to Make Them, London:Durden Park Beer Circle, 1991, page 21