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.