HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | MAY/JUNE 2014
Story by Joshua M. Bernstein
Photo by Erika Follansbee
Butch Heilshorn isn’t interested in brewing a traditional IPA. Same goes for a stout, pilsner, saison or just about any other standard style of beer. Instead, the cofounder of Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s Earth Eagle Brewings favors beers flavored with sassafras, catnip, bog myrtle, mushrooms, bear meat, smoked pig heads, mushrooms and reindeer lichen—he especially loves reindeer lichen. “That stuff is incredible,” Heilshorn enthuses. “It tastes like the deep, dark forest.”
Among his laundry list of choice ingredients, many of which are locally foraged, one is notably absent: hops. Sure, Heilshorn will occasionally throw a handful of the bitter, aromatic flowers into the brew kettle, but it’s merely one element in his flavoring arsenal. “Nine times out of 10, people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know a beer could taste like this,’ ” says Heilshorn who, unsurprisingly, is married to an herbalist. “Gruits are the fringe and perhaps future of brewing in a what-is-old-is-new-again sort of way.”
One of brewing’s fundamental rules is that beer is comprised of malted grain, water, yeast and hops. Grains supply the fermentable sugars that yeast convert into alcohol, while hops provide balancing bitterness, preservative prowess, flavor and aroma. Today, hops are nearly as crucial to beer as water, especially in this IPA-crazed era. But if you were to time-travel to visit medieval brewers, you’d discover that beer contained nary a hop.
Back then, beers were seasoned with gruit (pronounced “grew-it” or “groot”), which was a proprietary blend of herbs such as bitter and astringent yarrow (a flowering plant), wild rosemary and resinous, eucalyptus-like wild gale (a.k.a. bog myrtle), along with sundry spices. In large quantities, gruit was considered a euphoric stimulant and an aphrodisiac, and brewers often slipped in hallucinogens to enhance the effects. By the 1700s, whether due to health concerns or religious pressure, gruit was largely phased out in favor of hops. No longer.
Increasingly, craft brewers are ditching hops for herbs, creating adventurous gruits that challenge beer’s basic definition. (The federal government requires a “malt beverage” to contain hops, so brewers typically use a token amount.) In Massachusetts, Cambridge Brewing’s Weekapaug Gruit utilizes tea, nettles and licorice root, while California’s Moonlight Brewing makes Working for Tips with twigs harvested from redwood trees. Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series channels the hop-less elixirs of olden civilizations, which is a similar launch pad for the historical beers championed by Scotland’s Williams Bros.—care for a 4,000-year-old-style heather-infused ale? Conversely, Portland’s Buckman Botanical Brewery cranks out modern riffs like the chamomile-infused Chamomellow Pale Ale, and fellow Oregonians Upright Brewing age gruit in gin barrels.
What’s Past Is Present
On the yawning continuum of brewing history, hops’ hegemony is a recent blip. Of nature’s innumerable herbs and spices, it’s rare for one little flower to so firmly grip brewers’ imaginations.
The reason for hops’ almighty ascent is rooted in religion. During the Middle Ages, explains Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers author Stephen Harrod Buhner, the Catholic church enjoyed a gruit monopoly, taxing both brewers and the blend. Not everyone adored the intoxicant, which often contained psychotropics, such as henbane and nightshade. “In essence, they got the drinker high and somewhat sexually stimulated,” Buhner says.
To sever the Catholic church’s stranglehold, or possibly to dull libido, Germany passed the Bavarian Purity Law in 1516. Gruit was a goner. The replacement was hops, a traditional sedative that, quite interestingly, can lower testosterone levels. “In other words, they put the drinker to sleep and dull the sexual drive in men,” Buhner says.
By the 1750s, hopped beers had conquered the continent, a vise grip that’s only grown stronger. Thing is, this contradicts standard operating procedure. “Herbed ales and beers have a long tradition in the world’s cultures,” Buhner says, touting the range of flavors made available “by moving outside hops and reclaiming more ancient styles of beer.”
That could be Sam Calagione’s rallying cry. Since founding Delaware’s Dogfish Head in 1995, Calagione has been driven by a spice-forward, herb-laden experimentalism fit for the 15th century. For example, early formulations included beet sugar–packed Raison d’Etre and Chicory Stout, which is chockablock with licorice root and chicory. “Our ancestors incorporated a boundless combination of culinary ingredients into beers for thousands of years,” says Calagione, who launched the Ancient Ales series to demonstrate this truth.
Over nearly 15 years, Dogfish Head has spun the globe with antediluvian elixirs worthy of a revival. The delicate, mead-like Midas Touch is based on saffron, honey and white muscat grapes, and inspired by a mixture found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels in King Midas’s tomb. Drinking vessels salvaged from Italy’s 2,800-year-old Etruscan tombs kindled the idea for Birra Etrusca Bronze, which stars root beer–like Ethiopian myrrh resin. And Kvasir is a sour Scandinavian-style grog fashioned with bog-grown berries and birch syrup. “Historic beers remind everyone that there can be more to beer than the four most common ingredients,” Calagione says.
Dogfish Head is hardly alone in reviving ancient hop-free beer and gruits. Floral and unfiltered, Professor Fritz Briem’s 13th Century Grut Beer is flavored with bay leaves, caraway and rosemary. Elsewhere, Brasserie Dupont’s delicately spicy Posca Rustica is dosed with a dozen ingredients from the Gallo-Roman era (roughly 50 B.C. to 500 A.D.), including bog myrtle and sweet woodruff. “Hops are great for aroma and bittering, but they’re not the only answer,” says Wendy Littlefield, cofounder of importer Vanberg & DeWulf. With gruits, “there’s an emphasis on local ingredients and terroir.”
Sense of place is important for Scotland’s Williams Bros. Brewing, which grew from Genbrew, a homebrew shop that altered its fortunes one fortuitous night in 1986. A woman came in clutching a 17th-century family recipe for leanne fraoch, or heather ale, which she’d translated from Gaelic. The style had been brewed in Scotland for 4,000 years, but now it was essentially extinct. Could the shop help her re-create it? Bruce Williams bit. He spent several years experimenting with grains and herbs, including floral, pleasantly bitter heather and fragrant bog myrtle. Thrilled with his recipe, Williams cooked a batch of Fraoch, as he called the beer, at a local brewery. Demand rapidly drained supply. “He created something that was both historic and tasted good,” says Chris Williams, Bruce’s son.
Since then, archaic Scottish ales, many sourced from history books and archaeological finds, have become the brewery’s stock-in-trade. With ingredients supplied by foragers scouring Scotland’s countryside, Williams Bros. creates beers such as Ebulum, an elderberry brew based on a recipe introduced to Scots by Welsh druids; seaweed-fueled Kelpie; and the Viking-derived Alba, which is laced with pine sprigs. “It’s not just the case of, ‘Let’s find a tree, chop it down and brew with it,’ ” Williams says of the challenge of using recipes that are essentially rough sketches. “Are you going to use the pinecones, the needles or the bark? You need to experiment.”
Herb’s the Word
Though breweries love paying lip service to the past, modern craft beer is not known for following footsteps. As a notion, no- or low-hop beers have cracked open flavorful possibilities for brewers eager to separate themselves from the bitter pack.
In Canada, Beau’s All Natural offers “Eastern Ontario” gruits such as the lavender-driven St. Luke’s Verse and imperial-strength Bogfather. (The brewery also declared February 1 to be International Gruit Day.) Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ Mystic Brewery formulates experimental gruits flavored with calendula and honeybush tea. And in Portland, Oregon, Rogue has bet on flora with its Buckman Botanical Brewery offshoot. It specializes in lightly hopped ales laced with tea, mugwort, hemp, ginger and any aromatic wafting into head brewer Danny Connors’ imagination.
In lieu of tongue-buckling IPAs, Connors crafts the zesty Ginger Pale Ale and light-bodied, chamomile-infused Chamomellow Pale Ale, as well as the Parnold Almer Kölsch. The concoction contains lemon peel and tea, a refreshing take on the classic Southern thirst-quencher. “I try to find a good ingredient and let that shine,” Connors says of his technique, which he settled upon after several failures. When he made gruits, “they were too noisy,” he says. “I threw the kitchen sink at them, using mugwort, wormwood and peppermint. I’ve never had much success with peppermint.”
Such is the trial-and-error nature of brewing with herbs and spices. When should they be added? How long should they boil? What about quality? Ditching hops requires brewers to leap into the unknown. That’s what Upright Brewing founder and head brewer Alex Ganum did in 2009, when his dream of brewing an organic beer ran into the reality of an organic hops shortage. Seeking a solution, he hit an herb shop and stuck his nose in numerous jars. He selected hyssop, Sichuan peppercorns, lemongrass and bitter orange peel, which fueled his Reggae Junkie Gruit. It’s dry and tart, two key factors for Ganum when brewing gruit. “If you’re pulling hops out of the beer, you see that even a little bit of bitterness can make a big difference,” says Ganum, who often imparts a bit of sweetness-balancing acidity.
Beyond Reggae Junkie, which he ages in gin barrels to create Special Herbs, Ganum sprinkles spices into other Upright beers. Winter’s fruity and malt-forward Holy Herb is packed with minty hyssop, and the bitter, aromatic Flora Rustica saison contains calendula and yarrow flowers. While he geeks out on gruits, Ganum understands that he’s swimming against a strong tide. “Beer’s main ingredients are popular for a reason,” he says.
Starting a brewery that sells solely gruits might be commercial suicide. To hedge their bets, Earth Eagle Brewings’ Heilshorn and cofounder Alex McDonald—they are brothers-in-law—devised a novel business plan for their nanobrewery. McDonald would primarily brew hopped beers, such as saisons, stouts and IPAs, while Heilshorn focused on wackadoodle formulations. “It lends credibility to our gruits,” Heilshorn explains.
The approach to selling “empyreal ales” and “wonder gruits” has paid dividends. Drinkers can visit Earth Eagle’s taproom for a pint of hoppy New England Gangsta, then sample the catnip-charged Antoinette and Samquanch, a “sour forest gruit” brewed with Heilshorn’s favored reindeer lichen. “We’ve thrown wild things at people and they’ve been game to stretch their palates,” he says. “I want people who are convinced that they won’t like a gruit to try it. That’s all we can ask.”
Can Gruit Get Its Groove Back?
From Europe’s dominant inebriant to a dusty footnote, gruit has undergone a spectacular fall from grace. Could gruit be ripe for a return to the mainstream? After all, craft brewers love an underdog, bringing nearly extinct styles like Germany’s salty-sour gose and tart Berliner weisse back from the brink.
Gruit’s road to beer-geek redemption might be rockier. For starters, there’s semantics. “It’s a weird, ugly word,” says Buckman’s Connors. Earth Eagle’s Heilshorn echoes that sentiment, adding, “Pretty much everybody that comes in and hears the word gruit will go, ‘What is that?’ ” The style requires deep explanation, which is why you’ll often find small-batch gruits at hands-on brewpubs, such as San Francisco’s Magnolia, Vermont’s Zero Gravity and the Philadelphia area’s Earth Bread + Brewery. Furthermore, tasting gruit may not be enough to clear confusion—for drinkers weaned on imperial IPAs, the comparatively delicate, subdued gruit can be tough to appreciate. “People are sometimes like, ‘Oh, it tastes like dishwater,’ ” Williams says of his Scottish gruits. “Don’t expect it to be a big, bold hoppy beer.”
But does the world need another bold hoppy beer? “The whole hoppy beer scene can be polarizing,” Connors says of his approach. “I get people who come in and say, ‘Hoppy beers are not for me.’ ” And that’s where unconventional breweries like Buckman and Earth Eagle can carve a niche. Sure, Earth Eagle’s Carmalite Rifle, made with melons and bitter horehound, may not appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to someone. Gruits let brewers venture to the far reaches of flavor, moving the spotlight from hops to other worthy members of the plant kingdom.
“For us, it’s about freely applying creative energies to this great thing called beer,” Heilshorn says.