Why brew at home? If you’re perfectly satisfied with the taste of Budweiser or Coors, you’re not going to save any money by trying to reproduce their stuff in your own kitchen (1). Moreover, unless you’re a fanatic for detail and cleanliness, you may not have a whole lot of luck reproducing more exotic or specialized beers, either. And if you haven’t noticed, the culture of homebrewing in the United States today is overwhelmingly male and techie. If math is a turn-off for you as it is for me, you probably won’t fit in.
But the good news is you can brew perfectly good beer without ever having to calculate final gravity, International Bitterness Units or degrees Lovibond. Unless you’re dead set on making light pilsners or other beers with very little taste–and therefore a very narrow range of error–you don’t have to be a fanatic. In fact, you can relax and enjoy the whole experimental aspect of brewing. The judicious use of hot tap water (or a dishwasher), iodine solution, large yeast starters and a whole range of herbs (including, but not limited to, hops) will neutralize the effects of most bacteria and wild yeasts (2). The better news is that if you enjoy altered states (and who doesn’t?) you can quite easily brew stuff that will blow away anything you can buy–even from your friendly neighborhood microbrewery. You don’t have to break laws, either. (At least, not any major ones.)
There’s a strong aesthetic dimension to homebrewing: it’s more like alchemy than chemistry. Anyone who likes to cook will love to brew. But more than that, for me it’s a way of connecting with my Northern European ancestors. Brewing ales and making meads was (and is) a highly developed art, something Europeans did that is truly worth celebrating. It’s a tradition with submerged elements of pre-Christian religious practice that add to my appreciation and sense of connection with pagan roots, though I have no urge to try and recreate those elements in any precise form. Actually, that’s not really possible–too much has been lost.
What we’re left with is mostly educated guesswork. Most gruit recipes were closely held secrets that were passed down in families or jealously guarded by monasteries, and very few authentic formulas have survived. That’s why, for me, it’s so much fun to play around with gruits.
Gruit Ale: Unhopped and delicious
So what’s a gruit? Simply stated, it’s a blend of herbs that traditional brewers added to their beer in Renaissance times and before. Herbs are essential ingredients in beer, both as preservatives and to counterbalance the otherwise cloying taste of malt. You may hear such herbs referred to as hop substitutes, but that’s historically inaccurate. Hops are a gruit substitute. You don’t need hops to make beer, but you do need something–or else plan to drink it immediately, before it can spoil (see discussion of small ale, below).
Let’s start with the language. “Gruit” (grut) is actually the German term; the English word was “grout,” though for some reason the former term has been revived, so we might as well stick with it. You won’t find either word in the Oxford English Dictionary–that’s how completely they fell out of use. “Grout,” of course, continues to mean a thick, muddy sediment, but it’s now applied only to a kind of mortar, not to the stuff that accumulates in the bottom of your brewing vessel when you add a lot of herbs to the wort. “Wort,” of course, is an old way of saying “herb,” and contemporary usage still reflects this: until the hops are added it’s still just sophisticated sugar-water–malt extract and/or mash. (See Note 4 for a brief explanation of mashing.)
But what’s wrong with hops? Nothing, if you need help going to sleep, going to the bathroom or going through menopause. Hops are a strong sedative, a good diuretic and an estrogen substitute. If you’re a guy, however, you should be aware of a well-documented but under-reported phenomenon known as Brewer’s Droop. In technical terms, hops are a strong anaphrodisiac for men.
Some otherwise fairly reliable sources of information on brewing with herbs claim that hops came into use because of their superior antiseptic properties. Reference to a good herbal should quickly dispel this notion (3). In general, any herb with strong bittering qualities is also a reliable antiseptic: common examples include yarrow, wormwood, mugwort, sage, heather, oak bark, dandelion roots or leaves, juniper berries and branches, nettles, yarrow, ground ivy (a.k.a. alehoof) and many more.
Hops & gruit rivalry
The story of how hopped beer came to replace gruited ale is a complex and convoluted one, with origins in both the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. An anti-gruit campaign, similar in scope and absurdity to our contemporary War On Drugs, fed off the anti-clerical and anti-pleasure hysteria of the Protestant Reformation, and coincided with the violent persecution of herbalists as witches and herbs as dangerous substitutes for “scientific” medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It didn’t help that gruit blends in many parts of northern Europe were exclusive monopolies of the Church. All brewers in those areas were forced to purchase their gruits from specially licensed monastic houses at highly inflated prices, which probably did more to enflame anti-clerical feelings than anything Martin Luther ever said.
It’s also important to remember that most brewers throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance were women. In England, at least, the competition between “modern” beer brewers and makers of old-fashioned ale took on aspects of a war between the sexes, though it was also about urban vs. rural and large-scale vs. small-scale production. Studies of tax records from the period suggest that, in more rural areas, the vast majority of commercially produced gruit ale was made by part-time brewsters or “alewives”–female homebrewers who sold their surplus ale, typically advertising a new batch by sticking a broom out the window. As long as brewing remained a minor, local activity–a source of seasonal, supplemental income for farmers’ and tradesmen’s wives–nobody cared. But when it became obvious that there was serious money to be made, men began elbowing in. The fact that hopped German “bier” was exempted from the regulations protecting the brewsters’ guilds simply provided the fulcrum. A vicious propaganda campaign stereotyped alewives as filthy, slatternly cheats who never missed a chance to adulterate their brew.
The much-lauded German Beer Purity Laws have their inception in anti-gruit and anti-homebrew regulations of this period, and formed part of the same irrational phobia toward the (darker) Other that culminated in the Nazi holocaust. To this day, many beer purists insist that any addition of non-grain-derived sugars–much less herbs and spices–makes a brew fit only for the ignorant, unwashed masses. And of course the wave of Protestant-instigated intolerance peaked in the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The resulting prohibitions were the nail in the coffin for most local brewing traditions. Nowhere was the intolerance as strong as in the Prohibition-era United States; our modern centralized, homogenized corporate brewing landscape is the result.
Fortunately, the tradition of homebrewing was never completely eradicated from the farmstead, especially in the more remote corners of Scotland (where heather ale was the persecuted national drink) and in parts of Scandinavia. But on this side of the Atlantic, contemporary homebrewers have learned (or relearned) quite a bit since the days of Prohibition, when exploding bottles and “off” batches were regarded as normal, occupational hazards of brewing at home.
There’s no simple explanation for why hops won the war in Britain, where malting and ale-brewing traditions were so elaborated and so firmly entrenched in the culture. I suspect that the sedative properties of hopped beer were a big part of the answer, however. Working people had long been in the habit of drinking weak ale–“small drink” in the parlance of the day–from the second running of the grain (4). The prolonged boiling meant it was much safer to drink than water. Alcohol content typically ranged from 1-3%, and given the heavy grain bills common with less efficiently sprouted malt, this weak ale would have been highly nutritious–a major source of B vitamins, among other things.
German-style hopped beer was introduced specifically to fill that niche. (Coffee and tea came in a little later. The British tradition of High Tea is simply a transmogrified version of the peasant’s traditional, ale-centered supper.) The big operations of these urban, male brewers made them the natural choice for supplying the rapidly growing English navy in the 16th and 17th centuries. And it’s my feeling that the much longer hours and unprecedented drudgery imposed upon the industrializing workforce would’ve proved intolerable without a cheap, readily available, state-supported sedative. In any event, the near-total loss of homebrewing traditions, including the making of gruits, coincided with the destruction of rural life by the Enclosure Acts and the Industrial Revolution.
the meaning of gruit
Gruited ale made from the first running of the grain was (and is) a very different drink from the day-to-day small ale. The latter was quickly consumed, so it didn’t matter if it was unstable. But the “real ale,” as they called it, was designed to hold up in the cellar a good, long time (hence the higher alcohol content) and served a wholly different purpose–promoting gaiety at multi-day, village-wide events such as weddings or patron saints’ festivals. Depending on the district, it might have been made by the larger brewsters, by the breweries attached to aristocratic households, and/or by monasteries.
The important point is that the Mediaeval and Renaissance calendar was liberally peppered with holidays; before the Industrial Revolution, roughly a quarter of the year was given over to festivals of one sort or another. For most of these occasions, celebrants needed a drink that would keep them awake and energetic. Many of the popular gruit herbs helped do this. In addition, some of these herbs had religious connotations that survived the switch from pre-Christian to Christian practices. Sweet flag or calamus, for instance, provided both a mildly euphorogenic gruit ingredient (the roots) and a popular, aromatic floor covering for churches on festive occasions (the rush-like leaves). Tansy was sacred to the Virgin, and angelica–as its name suggests–evoked the power of the archangel, St. Michael.
In the vitalistic worldview of pre-modern Europeans, plants were credited with distinct personalities and powers. For example, sage–its English name a corruption of the Latin salvia–was thought to have salvific properties, both literal and figurative. The sage plants in one’s garden were regarded as talismans and totems of a sort, whose fortunes would wane or grow with their owners’.
The powerful women’s herb rue was used in spells to ward off black magic and bestow second sight. Its use in gruit formulas was probably more common than contemporary records admit, since such a strong ally against the spoiling of ale (often attributed to witchcraft) would work best as a covert agent.
The name of St. John’s wort reflects a similar belief about that herb. Curiously, while modern researchers have substantiated its strong anti-depressant properties, they’ve also found that people who take St. John’s wort should avoid direct sunlight, or else they can suffer from a mild form of poisoning. Nothing could be more emblematic of the mysterious, ambivalent power of gruit herbs!
What does all this mean for the homebrewer? Above all, it provides an outlet for the experimental impulse. Even if more gruit recipes HAD been preserved, they might not have been much help: medieval recipes were gloriously imprecise. Also, herbs can vary greatly in strength depending on when and how they are harvested, how old they are, what part of the tree or plant they’re from, etc. I’m personally not very interested in trying to recreate historical recipes, though if I were brewing in quantity for a big celebration I’d probably give some of the surviving guidelines a bit more attention. I mostly brew for my own use and for a few guests and friends, so the typical American pattern of bottled 5-gallon batches suits me fine.
I do, however, appreciate the convenience of being able to get a decent buzz off of one 16-oz. bottle, and I really like strong, earthy tastes. A local source of really good (and cheap) wildflower honey has helped convince me of the wisdom of adding a pound or two of honey to every batch of ale. Honey has antimicrobial properties of its own, and adds a great deal not just to the alcohol content but to the quality and duration of the buzz. And the herbs make the kitchen smell even more wonderful than the malt alone.
I’ve provided recipes for a few of my most successful ales, but beginners will still need to get a copy of “the homebrewer’s bible”–The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing, by Charlie Papazian–and make a few very basic beers to get comfortable with the process before branching out. A good online tutorial is available at the 7 Bridges Cooperative website, http://www.breworganic.com. And there’s a great archive of homebrewing articles at http://brewery.org/brewery/Library.html. Check out the “styles” section for information on chicha, sahti, sorghum beer and many other strange brews. (For more links, go to my links page.)
If you’ve never brewed, there’s never been a better time to start. With the help of the internet, you can locate cheap supplies and all sorts of exotic ingredients that might’ve taken months to hunt down just a few years ago. If you’re already a homebrewer, congratulations. It’s legions of American homebrewers who, over the last 30 years, have made the microbrew revolution possible.
But the revolution, like all good parties, isn’t over in just one night. Take the next step. Go gruit!
(1) There are, of course, sound political and ethical reasons for not supporting repressive and homogenizing mega-corporations, but those really add up to an argument for supporting your local microbrewery–an increasingly viable option even for those of us out in the sticks. The beers they typically produce may seem weird or different, but remember: your great-grandparents drank stuff just like it. At least, whenever the corn crop failed.
(2) That’s “neutralize,” not “eliminate.” Don’t be a fascist! The goal of the homebrewer–as even the clean freak Charlie Papazian stresses–is SANITATION, not complete sterility. And consider: bacteria and wild yeasts play an important role in some of the most prized and exotic styles. Why should you deny yourself the chance to brew beers that are just as strange? Nothing that can live in alcohol can kill you. (Accidental methanol production is only a concern for distillers.) The one type of bacteria you absolutely DON’T want is the stuff that wants to turn your brew into vinegar. Though some of the other strains can do annoying things, as well, like blow up bottles. Or worse, make your beer taste like wine. So keep it clean, kick up the alcohol content, and don’t stint on the mugwort!
(3) Good old Maude Grieve even gives some gruit formulas in her section on hops! The whole of her classic Modern Herbal is now available for free on line, too, though at $22.00 for the 2-volume set from Dover, you ought to consider just coughing up the dough. It makes great bedtime reading.
(4) For the benefit of non-brewers: alcohol is obtained by feeding sugar to yeast. In beer or ale, that sugar comes largely from grains, most of which must first be malted–sprouted for a couple days until they start to swell, then dried or roasted for storage. The soul of the brewer’s art lies not in the fermentation–even vintners can manage that–but in the conversion of starches in the malted grain to sugar. Before thermometers, especially, this was a highly arcane affair. But in essence one maintains a sort of porridge–the mash–at certain temperatures for varying lengths of time, then drains off the sugar-laden water: the first running. In modern practice, one then rinses the remaining sugar from the grains with additional, boiling water–the sparge–and adds that to the mash. But in the old days, a larger quantity of hot water would be used to steep the grains a second time. This would then be drained off for the second running, which would be made into a wholly separate, weaker brew. Sometimes, however, the brewster would add honey to the second runnings to make a strong, mead-ale hybrid called a braggot. And occasionally a very weak third running would also be drawn off.