The first thing to understand is that gruit is not beer as you know it. It might be “beor” but to expect a beverage that tastes like modern beer is to be surprised when first tasting gruit ale.
From Medieval times up until the 1600s “ale” referred to a fermented beverage that used herbs other than hops for flavoring and preservative properties. The term “ale” itself had connotations in those days of sorcery, magic, intoxication. “Beer” was a drink that came from the Low Countries, where the brewers used the flowers of the hop vine to flavor and preserve their malt liquors.
Gruit refers most specifically to a mixture of herbs that were traditionally used to make ale. And as “ale” implies, these herbs were likely chosen first for their inebriating properties. Today, inebriation is usually thought of as “drunk” or “intoxicated.” And while a traditional gruit ale was no doubt brewed to be strongly alcoholic, the herbs infused into the beverage were strongly psychotropic. The number of plants with psychoactive properties runs to the hundreds, so it is no surprise that over time, experimentation came up with some interesting combinations.
All this is to say treat gruit ale with respect. Drink enough and you will get drunk. But you will also get something else–exactly what that is, is hard to say. It’s not “stoned.” It’s not “wasted.” It’s “inebriated.”
The earliest surviving recipes for gruit call for marsh rosemary, sweet gale and yarrow as herbal ingredients. They are used in small quantities compared to the amount of hop flowers typically used in a batch of beer.
The first batch of gruit ale I brewed followed the basic recipe uncovered by the members of The Durden Park Beer Circle in England. The recipe dates from around 1300 AD and makes an ale of perhaps eight percent alcohol or so. It calls for pale and Carapils malts, as an acceptable substitute for the kind of malted barley that was used in Medieval times–a wood-fire-cured product that was probably an amber or even brown color.
This ale was nice, but a bit uninteresting to my palate. I decided that I would do a batch that was quite a bit darker and richer, taking advantage of the caramel and dark malts now available. These were introduced in the case of dark malts after the invention of the drum roaster in 1817, and with the process for producing caramel malts around 1850. I started with 2 kilos of pale malt, 400 grams of crystal malt and 150 grams of Carapils for a 12 liter batch. To these I added Munich malt, bicuit malt and Special B; chocolate malt and roasted barley.
I also took some time to research the many other herbs used for ale-making, and settled on a combination of the previously mentioned three, plus mugwort and heather. One-third of the dose went into the mash, another third into the boil. The final third went into the primary fermenter in a hop sack. I pitched White Labs WLP028 Edinburgh yeast for it’s great performance in malty, strong, complex ales.
The early recipes probably used Ledum Palustre as the “Marsh Rosemary” ingredient–an herb hard to come by. In fact, in ancient times it was possible to pay your taxes with marsh rosemary. For the initial brewing of this batch I substituted the closely-related “Labrador Tea” leaf. I also added a good dose of sweet Sedona juniper berries.
After five days brewing I removed a half-liter of the ale, heated it, and steeped 9 grams of heather flowers in it for 20 hours, strained it and returned it to the fermenter. In a bit of luck, my herb supplier came upon a source of genuine marsh rosemary, and I dry hopped the brew in the secondary fermenter with 10 grams of this.
It’s hard to imagine that gruit ales were originally carbonated, although the term “head,” referring to the foam on top of a glass of beer, is first found in use around 1540. Nonetheless, I chose to carbonate this batch, and put it up in 750 ml swing-top bottles.
The Regis X Gruit Ale is now two years old. It pours a dark brown with a light tan head. The aroma is indescribable for me, as I’ve never encountered anything similar. Herbal of course, piney, woody, perhaps even tangy. It has a moderately heavy body. The flavor is reminiscent of grapefruit, somewhat sour in a citrus way–definitely not lactic or acetic. The finish is quite bitter.
“Commoners” that have tasted Regis X have found it interesting and compelling. It is fully a gruit, not beer as we know it. It’s important to gauge consumption carefully. Though it is very tasty, the herbs are definitely psychotropic. The best way to describe the sensation is “Whoa!” Don’t drink more than a pint of it before you know where you’re going.
Scott likes it, and so does his wife Jody. Thanks for the bombers Scott, and bring my swing top back!