GRUITBIER

Pronunciation guide for English-speakers:
"groot-beer" (as in "root-beer")

Definition:
Though hardly ever made nowadays, Gruitbier was in its time, some 500 to 1,000 years ago, clearly the most common beer style in the world. Gruit is old German for herbs. Gruitbier was brewed both on the Continent and on the British Isles. Gruit (or herbs) is what most medieval brewers used to flavor their beers with before hops became a universal beer flavoring agent starting around the 15th century. Gruit was used either as a single type of herb or as a mix. The medieval pre-hops brewers used just about any herb to flavor their brews. Perhaps the most common of these were yarrow, bog myrtle (also known as sweet gale), juniper, rosemary, mugwort, and woodruff. Because most of these medieval herbal hops-substitutes add a slight bitter-sweetness to the brew, the taste of Gruitbier can probably best be described as faintly resembling Vermouth.

All the beer of the common folk in the Dark Ages was brown or darker, roughly the color of today's Dunkel, Porter or Stout. In those days, the darkness of Gruitbier was the direct result of unpredictable malting techniques. In those days, malted grist was always kiln-dried over open fires, which caused the grain to become somewhat dark, smoky, and roasted.

In the Dark Ages, under the feudal system of landownership, people could only do with the soil and nature's bounty what they had been granted permission to do. All facets of life were strictly regulated based on a clear division of rights and obligations between lords, vassals and serfs. This meant that all land use not specifically bestowed upon a vassal remained the preserve of the crown. And crown land, which was mostly uncultivated, was also where brewers tended to find the best gruit. Though many monastery and burgher breweries, even private households, were given the brew right, not everybody was given the privilege to pick gruit on public lands. Thus, the quality of a brewer's beer in those days depended on access to gruit. Initially, the crown reserved that privilege initially only for its own estates. Later, the gruit right was more and more delegated to local authorities, mostly secular lords and the church, who doled it out, often corruptly and for a fee, to the unwashed masses. The term gruit, therefore, eventually came to mean not only the herbs brewers used in their beers but also the taxes they had to pay to their overlords for the picking privilege ... that is, until beer flavored with cultivated hops began to replace beer flavored with wild and taxed gruit.

Apparently, hops were first used in beer by Benedictine brew monks in the Abbey of Weihenstephan in Bavaria, outside Munich. The evidence for this is a document dating from 736, only a dozen years after the founding of Weihenstephan by the Franconian missionary Corbinian. The document is the oldest known mention of hops anywhere. It refers to the cultivation of the hops vine in the monastery gardens. Though there is no reference to beer in the document, it is extremely doubtful that these industrious brew monks cultivated the vine just for its aesthetic appeal. We know from other records, dating from 859, that the Bohemians (present-day Czechs), too, were among the early pioneers in the use of hops as a flavoring for beer.

From Central Europe, the use of hops in beer spread slowly but steadily northward and westward, replacing Gruitbier in its wake. The next chronological milestone in the spread of hops in beer is a French law, proclaimed by King Louis IX in 1268, in which the King stipulated that, in his realm, henceforth only malt and hops may be used for beer-making. By the 1300s, we know, hops had also moved to the Netherlands, where it had become a regular ingredient in beer-making. And in 1516, the Bavarian beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot) made hops one of only three allowable ingredients in beer (next to malted barley and water). All this suggests that, at least by the late Middle Ages, hops had become a common brewing ingredient, replacing gruit on the entire Continent.

Here are brief descriptions of a few common medieval Gruitbier herbs:

Bog myrtle or sweet gale (Myrica gale) was a very common beer flavoring, especially in England. Beers brewed with it in place of hops used to be called gale ale. Bog myrtle is a small, deciduous shrub with resinous-tasting leaves. It gives the brew a retsina-like taste component.

Juniper (Juniperus communis) is a coniferous shrub that grows well throughout the northern hemisphere. The blue-black juniper berries are available dried in the spice section of your grocery store. Their taste is probably best known from gin, which is a clear spirit flavored with juniper berries. The traditional ale of Finland, Sahti, is spiced with both juniper berries and twigs.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is a member of the mint family (Labiate). It is a perennial plant with green leaves and purple flowers that bloom in sumemr. Both leaves and flowersare cut as soon as the plant is in bloom. Although the aroma of lavender is sweet and perfumey, the plant also imparts bitter flavors, which emerge when it is boiled briefly during the brewing process.

Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) has leaves that contain absinthin, a bitter compound that imparts a Vermouth-like bittersweet taste and aroma to the brew. Mugwort was gathered while in flower, dried, and boiled to create an herb tea. This potion was then added to the beer. In fact, the English name for this herb, mugworth, derives from its use in beer. Because beer was traditionally drunk out of mugs, the herb was considered an ale "mug's worth."

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) a commonly used harb in modern cooking is an evergreen shrub with one-inch long leaves that impart a camphor-like, aromatic pungency to the brew.

Woodruff (Asperula odorata) grows in shady patches at the edge of forests. It has star-like whorls of narrow, bright-green leaves on eight- to 10-inch high stalks. The sharpness of woodruff is mildly reminiscent of hops. Today, the marriage of woodruff and beer is still alive in Germany, where a jigger of woodruff-flavored sugar syrup is often used to balance the lactic acidity of a spritzy Berliner Weisse. Woodruff leaves are also used to flavor a German May punch made from a mixture of young Moselle wine and Champagne, with fresh spring strawberries immersed like olives in a martini.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has bitter, astringent-tasting leaves and flowers. Today, it is grown mostly as an ornamental garden plant.

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