By Alexandre Bessette
Gruit can be understood in a historically precise sense, but also in a larger view: when Hops are optional, call it Gruit Ale.
What Gruit was then
Before beer, it was Gruit. For more than 700 years, Gruit Ale was the brewed beverage of medieval Europe. Like today’s beer, it was brewed with water, cereal grain and yeast. Unlike today’s beer, it was spiced with any number of over 60 plants in herbs, roots and spices form. The Hop, which is now the quintessential aromatic and bittering herb of our contemporary beers, was before but one of many herbs sometimes used by brewers in their recipes. Hops were often completely unknown in some brewing areas of Europe. Instead, brewers relied on a healthy collection of herbs. This was Gruit Ale. It has a fascinating history: centuries of consumption, Gruit recipes and taxes were controlled by Church operated monopolies, followed by an ideological and mercantile competition with the Hop which resulted in the Prohibition of Gruit and its eventual downfall.
What Gruit is today
Today, Gruit is making a comeback. Brewers are slowly realizing that although Hops is a delicious herbal addition to beer, it has its fair share of down sides. As with any brewed herb, Hops conveys a number of qualities to the beer we drink. It helps to preserve the brew, gives it a delicate bouquet and delicious bitter taste – but it also causes drowsiness and diminishes sexual desire. Gruit Ale, with its herbs, roots and spices not only convey varied taste and flavor to a brew, but also a myriad of medicinal and psychotropic qualities. If we’re to remember anything at all from our brewing and beer loving ancestors, it’s that choice ingredients play a defining part in the way beer makes us feel. To the attentive mind, all plants are psychotropic; they all change consciousness, awareness, understanding, and sense of self. Hops do. But so does Yarrow, Rosemary, Sweet gale, Juniper, Licorice, Wormwood, Chamomile, Mugwort, Cardamom seeds, and countless others.
A bove all else, Gruit Ale is about thinking beer outside the cone… the monolithic Hops cone. Why should we limit ourselves to one single brewing herb? Gruit is an open window on a forgotten brewing tradition which inspires renewed brewing possibilities.