Pronunciation guide for
"groot-beer" (as in "root-beer")
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
millefolium) has bitter, astringent-tasting leaves and flowers. Today,
it is grown mostly as an ornamental garden plant.