What is gruit?

photo by Bernt Rostad of a “grut bier” brewed by Fritz Briem of Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan (CC BY 2.0)

I use the term gruit to refer to any herbal blend used in an unhopped beer. Many traditional gruit recipes from Germany and the Low Countries were closely guarded secrets, since the right to make and sell gruit blends was a monopoly granted by the state. But somehow the idea has gotten around that there was a basic gruit recipe consisting of marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre), sweet gale (Myrica gale) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). I was pleased to see that the beer historian Martyn Cornell debunks this in his book Amber Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers, in the chapter “Herb and Flavoured Ales” (which is worth the price of the book). Since marsh rosemary tended to be used only when sweet gale couldn’t be obtained, he writes, it’s unlikely that they would’ve been used together.

He expanded on this a bit in a post to the hist-brewing listserv. Whatever the merits of that particular detail, however, I think it’s clear from the information that has come down to us that there was a great deal of variety in gruit blends… and that yarrow was often the keystone herb, no doubt because, as any homebrewer can easily demonstrate, it is one of the best hop-substitutes you’ll find: aromatic, bitter but not forbiddingly so, and a reliable antiseptic. But I’m sure there were also gruits that were juniper-centric or gale-centric (among many other possibilities).

I’m open to other suggestions of how to describe beers made with flavoring and bittering agents other than hops. But to me, “herbal beer” isn’t sufficient, because it could easily just refer to a hopped beer with some creative adjuncts (which describes some of the recipes on this site). Yes, at one time, “beer” meant the hopped stuff and “ale” the unhopped, but some of the latter apparently didn’t include any herbs whatsoever, and was meant to be drunk quickly before it went off, like some of the traditional beers of Africa. And we’re not in the 17th century any more; ale has become the catch-all term for beers made with a strain of top-fermenting yeast. So to me, the most expedient course is to continue using this newly revived word “gruit,” and just expand our notion of what it might include. The Wikipedia article on gruit concurs:

Historically, gruit is the term used in an area today covered by the Netherlands, Belgium and westernmost Germany. Today however, gruit is a colloquial term for any beer seasoned with gruit-like herbs.

Beer Advocate claims that gruit brewing is a movement now among international craft brewers.

Although small, the worldwide movement to bring more attention to Gruit has gained steam, and will be recognized for the sixth straight year with International Gruit Day on February 1. Started by Beau’s in 2013, the celebration of this historical style has expanded from five participating breweries in three countries to more than 60 breweries from nine countries in 2018. At events and beer releases from Australia to South Africa, attendees will be able to try creative recipes like Lamb’s Wool, an apple and spice Gruit from Beau’s made with yarrow, cinnamon, cloves, and unfiltered apple juice, or Earthbound’s Lavender Chicory Gruit, one of its original recipes.

“As former archaeologist, I just enjoy going back to the roots, and it is the best part of every tasting session when you get to destroy people’s understanding of ‘what is beer,’” says Kimmo Kyllönen, founder of Hopping Brewsters, the only brewery in Finland that makes any type of Gruit apart from Sahti, a traditionally unhopped Finnish beer style. Kyllönen, who has brewed five different Gruits to date, explains that he looks to Nordic Viking mythology for inspiration and ingredients. Thora, for example, is brewed with a variety of red fruits (ligonberry, raspberry, cranberry, red currant) to allude to a red-haired shield maiden who saved the life of her chieftain.

“Gruits offer a very different and creative way to understand and experience beer,” says Beauchesne, adding that about 5 percent of the brewery’s production is dedicated to the style. “We have a Gruit Series through which we release three Gruits per year—some fan favorites come back, and sometimes they are new recipes. The idea goes back to about 10 years ago, when [Beau’s] wanted to make a beer that riffed off a 10,000-year-old peat bog close to our brewery, and ended up discovering bog myrtle as a beer ingredient.”