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Wild Gruit Brewing. The Alchemy of Herbal Libations

homebrew gruit, 9%, brewed with sprucetops, figleaves, alehoof, mugwort and yarrow

Ever asked a bartender for a beer without hops? Unless you’re living in the Ladakhi mountains, or in some hipster Oregon town, this seems a rather hopeless endeavor. It's way easier to find a beer without alcohol, than one without hops. Hops have come to be synonymous with beer.

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Until the late middle ages, some special herb combination was used for bittering the beer, together with the use of aromatic additives. There is still some debate about which ingredients were an essential part of it, although most agree that both myrica gale and yarrow enjoyed classical status. A specific melange was traded, but probably often combined with locally harvested stuff. For more historical background, take a look at this thoroughly researched article by Suzan Verberg.

mugwort, alehoof and stinging nettle

However, our concern is not the precise historical background; neither do we want to revisit old recipes. What matters to us is the contemporary potential of brewing without hops. On a culinary level, there's the potential of gruitales to push our concept of beer into new and unexpected territory. On a cultural level, and closely related: gruitales have all the potential to counter the commodification of craft beer, by reconnecting what we drink with a specific place and time. Hops are shipped all over the world, mostly cultivated in huge monocultures. By contrast, the herbs, barks, seeds, flowers... for brewing gruitales are mainly cultivated and foraged locally, just as they can be used in endless combinations.

First, a few words about the culinary potential of using gruits. Before we started experimenting ourselves with gruitales, I was a little underwhelmed by the commercial European versions I had tasted. Most of them were rather sweet with a hint of herbal bitterness. I really did miss hops in there (although most of them contained a bit of hops). These were herbal beers, but without the magic I was hoping for. It was only last year, when we made a wildly fermented gruitale, that a new gate was opened. The problem with the versions I had tasted was that they were clean beers, fermented with a selected Saccharomyces-strain, without bacteria or Brettanomyces. Not only is this cleanness a historical impossibilty, the bacteria and the wild yeasts also bring magic to these beers, converting the residual sugars, and often transforming the aromatic components of the herbs alltogether. What would otherwise be a sweetish, greenish beer, becomes through wild fermentation a refreshingly tart or sour, highly aromatic, bewitching beverage.

Luckily some experimental breweries worldwide (have a look at VonSeitz Theoreticales or Scratch Brewing) are doing a lot of small scale experiments, examining the effect of Brettanomyces on herbs, different extraction-methods, specific herbal combinations, the antimicrobial effects of herbs, the use of tree sap/bark, mushrooms... and slowly changing our concept of what beer can be.

Angelica Archangelica and some Alehoof

So, what about method? How to make a gruitale? The point is that there is no standard method, since the sheer amount of possible ingredients makes such a standardisation impossible. Brewing with hops is relatively easy: for bitterness you add them in the beginning, for aroma at the end of the boil, or cold. With herbs it's a completely different game: some herbs only need a short amount of time to contribute plenty of bitterness. Even the rules for optimal aromatic contribution are in some cases reversed: some herbs provide a deeper, more lasting effect when steeped for a longer time in the hot liquid. The same complexity goes for the possible active components, which are very difficult to measure and to control, and which are highly dependent on soil, weather... Working with herbs demands a thorough knowledge of them: where and when to forage, how to cultivate, and how to work with these specific (sometimes even toxic) plants. They ask for witches' knowledge!

This is why the shift from gruitbrewing to hopbrewing proceeded simultaneously with processes of massive upscaling. Whereas in the late middleages, brewing was mainly a homeaffair done by women (witches they are -, look at the broom!), from the fifteenth century onwards, it gradually became a trade of men, something outsourced to ever bigger companies. So, I don't think the protestants are primarily to blame for their fear of the psychoactive powers of gruitales. The preference of hops over herbs, is the preference of the growing industry, in need of a standardized product making it easier for a beer to be replicated on a big scale, and to be traded over ever longer distances.

Isn't it highly ironic then that the success of craftbeer has been built on a symbol par excellence of 'big industry brewing', on a product that precisely enabled the whole commodification of beer? Today, big industry might very well be able to make the best possible IPA's. What they cannot do, is brew a beer that reflects our own place. So why not start thinking from that place, from our own gardens, forests, fields..., unlocking these hidden culinary treasures, often so close to us that we forgot about them.

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