Rise of the Gruit

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Gruit…what is it? Well for those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it represents an entire forgotten past of brewing. For thousands of years humans have been brewing with whatever they could get their hands on. Before the 14th-16th century that included an extremely wide variety of spices, herbs, and grains. I’m sure hops were used occasionally but they weren’t the staple ingredient they are in beer today. It wasn’t until the 20th century that we started realizing the preservative properties of hops. After this, it only made sense to use them as a standard in modern day brews.
Thanks to the effort of the homebrew and craft brew brewery community, Gruit has made a come back of sorts. It’s still on the slow rise but I’m sure we’ll see some of the big breweries take on mass production of Gruit at some point (some have fooled around with them but I’ve never seen one stick around for long). I myself stumbled onto Gruits looking into brewing a beer without hops, not knowing that it was already a thing. After a lot of research, I knew one thing was clear: I was diving into less known waters. Due to the wider variety of ingredients and tastes, it was hard to gauge how certain ingredients at certain amounts would taste, as I’d never really dealt with some of them before. Yarrow, sweet gale, mugwort… “what the hell is this stuff?” I thought to myself. Naturally I ended up trying them all on their own, some in teas some just straight. First off, don’t chew mugwort. It’s basically like chewing on woodchips (I’m not really sure what possessed me to do so, as it looks like woodchips...). The only way to really get a feel for what some of these taste like is to just try them yourselves. I found myself at a local whole foods store in the bulk spice and herb isle picking up all kinds of random stuff I’d never heard of. This is also how I found how dead sea salt is not to be eaten…

What to Use in Place of Hops?

preparing sage for use in my gruit
To give you a little bit of an idea of what a Gruit recipe may have used, let’s take the Viking culture as an example. The Vikings may have used a wide variety of ingredients in what was known as grog at that time, but here are some possible ingredients they would have had access to: honey, wheat, barley, local fruits such as lingonberries or cranberries, and whatever herbs they had on hand. Possibly bog myrtle, yarrow, or juniper berries. The idea was to use whatever you could to make a sugary liquid, try to bitter it, and add flavors using herbs and fruits. After reading a few books on the subject it seems most were fermented from a spoon they used repeatedly for brewing which allowed the transfer of the yeast. Probably mostly open fermentation occurred. From this we can modernize the technique, and widen the range of ingredients, leaving room for unlimited possibilities!
Just as an example, listed below are some of the common ingredients I found to be used in Gruit.
  • Sweet Gale (aka Bog Myrtle)
  • Yarrow
  • Marsh Rosemary
  • Mugwort
  • Juniper Berries
  • Wormwood
  • Labrador Tea
  • Heather
  • Spruce Tips
  • Sage
  • Ginger
  • Lemongrass
  • Horehound
  • Lavender
  • Aniseed
The list goes on and on. Just like hops, you would add them at different points during the boil to either get bittering, flavor and/or aroma, although not all of them serve both functions of course. The big difference is some of these herbs can have a psychotropic or stimulant affect if used in a certain way. For instance, wormwood is one of the main ingredients in the original Absinthe which gives it the “trippy” affect. Sweet gale also has a stimulant affect if used at flame out or “dry hopped”. Cultures throughout history made these for medical reasons due to these affects. The trick with this is finding out how much is too much of something. Some of these ingredients such as wormwood or Labrador tea could be fatal if overused. With these things I feel it’s best to use a small amount, or use them in a manner where you aren’t getting any of that extra affect, unless you know for sure what you’re doing. This part took a lot of researching as well.

Brewing a Gruit

boiling the gruit with sage additions in a hop bag.
After looking into all of this and finding some base recipes, I decided it was time to brew my own. The biggest hurdle was what to brew. With so many options, I needed to decide what ingredients to use. The grain bill wasn’t difficult, but the herbs and spices took me some time. I finally decided on a Sage Gruit. After trying all the herbs/spices I could get my hands on, I picked mugwort as my bittering agent. I almost went with wormwood but it’s very strong, and I didn’t want to overwhelm the bittering aspect. I find sage rather pleasant so it seemed like a good starting point.
With my ingredients chosen, I’m ready to dive into a new brewing territory, and then I realize… how much of this stuff am I even to use? I had tasted all of it, but never used it on a scale larger than a tea cup, and even then how would these flavors hold up after fermentation and aging. After doing a little more research on how much was used in other recipes, I came up with the amount I was going to use. I also decided on just doing a gallon batch with these, as I didn’t want to dump more than that if I had to.
Brew day was here! I decided on a four addition schedule. I went with a 60-minute boil and added my first round of sage . At the 45-minute mark I added my mugwort in a hop bag. At 20 minutes I went head and added my second round of sage. And finally, at boil out I added the last of the sage. In total I used about 1.7 oz of sage, and .60 oz of mugwort during the boil process. I chilled the wort, took a hydrometer reading (1.060), transferred the wort to the carboy, and pitched some S-04 yeast. I tasted the hydrometer sample and it was interesting, in a good way. It was very mild and not aggressive at all. My first thought on it was that it could have used more sage. I figured I’d take a taste once it was done fermenting and see how the flavor held up.
After 2 weeks of pretty active fermenting, I was finally ready to move on. While waiting for it to ferment, I started tinkering with the recipe again, and thought it would be interesting to add some oak flavor to it. I had some Jack Daniel’s oak barrel wood, so I figured why not. I ended up soaking the barrel pieces in some single barrel JD’s to get them ready for secondary. After another reading (FG 1.022) and tasting, I decided it needed more sage flavor. However, the mugwort bittering seemed pretty spot on. I ended up racking the Gruit into secondary, and dry hopped with about another ounce of fresh sage. I also added the JD barrel chips. I didn’t use many, as I wanted the flavor to be subtle. I let the Gruit sit in secondary for about a week, and decided it was time to bottle.
I ended up with 11 and a half bottles worth. I of course just ended up trying the half bottle. I thought it was a bit sour from just coming off the oak, but I knew that would fade with time. I primed the bottles and let it sit for 3 weeks.
Here it was, the day had come to finally try my first home brew Gruit (I was way too excited for this). I cracked a bottle open, which was perfectly carbonated, and took my first taste. The oak had faded quite a bit, but it could probably use another week or two of aging. The sage was very pleasant and not overwhelming, and the mugwort added a nice mild bitterness. I’m interested in seeing how these flavors develop over time, so I continue to try one every few weeks or so. The flavors have slowly started to develop. The oak has faded and now it’s just subtle notes. The sage is the dominant flavor, and the mugwort still holds its mild bitterness. Overall I’m liking it more as it ages. Since then I’ve brewed another 2 Gruits including a lavender grapefruit Gruit, and a Gruit/Braggot type brew. As far as brewing goes, I feel like I’m in foreign territory. Although there is some information out there, there really isn’t a lot of it, considering the available information on beer, meads, wine and ciders. Hopefully with the rise of home brewing, we’ll see this forgotten piece of brewing history take flight once again.

In Conclusion

finished sage gruit
If things go right, I may be opening a brewery sometime next year, and will be focusing on Gruit as a part of that. I really want there to be more information and more brews out there for the beer community to try, and if I have to, I’ll be the one to do it! All I can say is it’s been a rewarding experience to learn, and continue to learn, about the lost art of brewing Gruit. For anyone interested in getting into brewing Gruits, I highly recommend you do as much research as possible. I also suggest once you find an herb/spice you like, if it’s doable for you, then grow it yourself! There is limited information out there, but there are some websites and books that really helped me out. ( https://denardbrewing.com/blog/post/gruit-mead/ http://www.gruitale.com/rec_modern_gruit.htm https://yearofgruit.wordpress.com/, and the book Sacred and Herbal Healing beers: The secrets of ancient fermentation
After that, it’s all trial and error. So to all the current brewers and future brewers of Gruit out there: good luck and brew on!
the Vikings also used a lot of alehoof. it's common in many backyards, so it's a perfect candidate for a homebrewer to try out!
I've long been bored by hops, overwhelmed by the hop bomb craze in America. It boggles my mind that the homebrew community has been so slow to explore gruit, given the tantalizingly vague references in the current literature, and the experimental, adventurous, mad scientist-nature of the homebrew community as a whole. (One ingredient for bittering, seriously?). Not to diminish the ridiculous capabilities of the hop, but really, let's cast off the shackles of reinheitsgebot dogma and embrace some too-long forgotten alternatives. For Science!
Very interesting...I have a one gallon carboy that I might have to put to use. This sounds like an awesome concept that once I do some research I can pick some herbs in the woods and make beer!...uh I mean gruit. Thanks for the article!
I had some left over from a bottle I've had for a bit now. I of course drank the whiskey after I they were done soaking.
Hey if you put garbage in, you get garbage out.... But seriously, you only need an ounce or two for soaking oak chips. I will say that the bourbon generally tastes like an oakey mess afterwards, and isn't all that great for drinking straight...last time I used the "spent" bourbon to add a little oak character to a 1 gal batch of one-off wild fermented cider.
Gruits can be a lot of fun, with all the research and reading involved, and trying to source out all the herbs you may need (no everyone has a back yard full of appropriate greenery). I've done a couple over the years, and they've always turned out good, if not a little "interesting" (read: don't expect them to taste like the beer you're used to...not necessarily bad, but definitely different!)
After starting research on Mumme ( Moo-muh) last year, & gruit herbs, spices & medicinal plants, my 6 gallons of Mumme is finally looking like it's done fermenting. The recipe is in Recipes/ingredients, back about page 3 atm. When I mixed all the herbs, spices & plants, they smelled like some kind of herbal incense. Very interesting, to say the least. And tasting the 1/2 gallon of tea & made with them in a 1/2 gallon of boiling spring water for 30 minutes, it looked like regular tea, tasted like it smelled, with anise seed slightly dominant. But it gave me a body & head buzz, albeit lightly! Didn't expect that, since I swapped the pennyroyal, hyssop, etc that were free wild subs for spearmint, & other spices/herbs...I just used the regular ones. Back then, part of the reason for some of these crazy wild plants was that the church began controlling the herbs & spices legally. You had to buy'em from them.
They are very interesting to use, & not at all what I expected. After several months of research, that is. Be careful what you put in your body! KNOW what you're using, how much, what parts, & how to treat it. I found that many herbs, the wild ones particularly, are safer if made into a tea, then the whole thing added to the fermenting beer in primary. In the case of the English all-gruit version of Mumme, dating back to 1695, 4 days after primary fermentation starts. It's about done fermenting now, & I'll do a 1st FG test on it. Can't wait to try it! It was said to be sweet, dark, & strong as six horses, coach & all! So don't be afraid to try these ancient ancestors of beer. But DO be careful!
Just FYI, there are some historical inaccuracies in this article. I don't say this to discount the article, it's still great, but the real history of gruit is very interesting as well.
Basically, no one really knows what constituted gruit. The recipe was owned and controlled by a small handful of government agents throughout Europe. They kept the recipe secret so they could maintain a monopoly on the supply as a means of taxing each and every beer producer in Europe. Brewers could attempt to reverse engineer the gruit recipe, but the highest quality by far was the gruit controlled by the governments. This was how beer was taxed for hundreds of years.
When brewers started to realize they could substitute hops for gruit in beer and skirt the taxation, the same governments moved very quickly to monopolize the production and sale of hops as well to maintain their tax revenues. And THAT is what the Reinheitsgebot and similar laws throughout Europe were really about. They didn't care about "purity," they cared about making it illegal for brewers to put anything but hops in beer because they had a monopoly on the sale of hops!
Anyway, gruit recipes are all therefore an educated guess at best. The actual recipe was very much a secret that was never made public.
Thanks for the info. This is just what I got from a few books on the historical aspect of it but of course I'm no historian.
Even though the government of the time took the tax money & made the laws, it was the church that was directly involved with growing & selling the gruits, according to my research. That's another reason our ancestors came to The new World. Taxation without representation...besides being unfairly taxed on everything. The government didn't own the recipes literally, the families brewing them kept them secret for centuries. They'd just have a copy for tax purposes. I read that as well. Rather briefly mentioned, I dare say.
Thanks for the info and links! I've been looking to substitute other things for hops for a while now! This may be a dumb question, but for juniper berries does it matter if they are fresh or dried? And if so what are the differences? I don't ever recall seeing fresh juniper berries in my entire life!
I've only seen the fresh once but wasn't brewing at that time. Although it would be optimal to get them fresh dried would work as well. I've had to use dried fruit for a lot of stuff that just doesn't grow in the US so have to get it shipped dried from other countries. If your using a recipe that has fresh juniper berries you'd want to use less dried berries dried fruit by weight would have more sugar.
The author is wrong when he says that the preservative quality of hops wasn't realized until the 19th century and is ignorant of brewing history. Think of the German Purity Law of 1516, stating beer could only be brewed with grain, hops, and water. And centuries leading up to this law, there was a major push for hops and only hops to be used, for many other reasons than just their preserving qualities.
Check out a juniper tree sometime. Those dusty blue things about 1/8-1/4" across are fresh berries. I've never thought about it, but they always seem to be there. Smash them and they smell like gin.
Yet another bit to learn about herbs is the difference between the flavors and uses of fresh and dried. Often, drying brings out what we think of as the herb's flavor. Try chewing a peppermint leaf, and chewing some dried peppermint, and you will get it quickly. The flavor sharpens as the sappy parts fade out. For contrast, nibble on fresh chives or scallions or scapes, then sample the dried. Peppermint is generally used dry, scallions fresh because we value different parts of the flavor.
Yes yes yes... Finally! The Gruitmeister was indeed the person who you had to get your brew by to make it legal. In fact, without gruimeister approval your ale was doomed to be thrown away as HE was considered to be the standard and indeed the "license" by which your brew was accepted. I believe that it was law at the time that no ale would be brewed for commercial consumption without the Gruimeister providing spices and seasoning to the brew by which you had toiled over for it to be considered as acceptable, as he would provide such, the magic ingredients that would render your brew consumable...
If you haven't, you might check out the book : "The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened". It has a large list of recipes from 1600's England - a lot of metheglins, ales and ciders that use local herbs that might be able to transfer over to a gruit.
Mountain Town Brewing Co out of Mt Pleasant MI has been making some great gruits quite steadily. Just did an event with them and had probably 8 different types of gruit on tap, pretty good stuff.
I've been experimenting with herbs and Gruit for several years, mainly using yarrow, mugwort, sweet gale, and marsh rosemary. Mine always comes out with a slightly cidery/sour taste, but very refreshing when I use the herbs in moderation. I usually only drink a bottle at a time, but on the occasions when I've drunk two-three, there is a very different kind of sensation. I've also used yarrow in a porter and it gave a wonderful earthy depth to it. I think my next step is to make about 10 gallons using a single herb for the bittering and then split the batch and dry "hop" each with a different primary herb so that I can do better isolating the flavors. I'd appreciate any suggestions or observations any of you have. Finally, if you want to step out of beer orthodoxy, I highly recommend Sacred and herbal Healing Beers (https://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Herbal-Healing-Beers-Fermentation/dp/0937381667) by Buhner. Interesting and entertaining read.
Fresh juniper berries (and the berries from eastern red cedar) aren't available from stores, though they are really easy to find once you learn what they are. They are very commonly used in landscaping and you or someone you know may have them growing in your yard. I like to crush them before using personally. I usually harvest them ripe and dry them for later use though. I'm about to make a pale ale with juniper and grapefruit zest, though I still plan on bitter that one with hops. It would be fun to try it again without hops.
Thanks for this article! Sage ale was my first gruit too, and it went over pretty well. I'd like to try again some time. We actually have a commercially available gruit here in MI (Mountain Town Brewing) and they even bottled their peach version as a summer beer this year. I've brewed several now, but still feel like I have no idea how to best make them. I'd love to make 5-10 gallon of wort and split that into 1 gallon batches all treated a bit differently and do a big tasting. There was an episode on Basic Brewing where someone did something very similar to that within the past year maybe. I've yet to find an herb other than hops that gives you as clean of bitter as hops that doesn't linger forever. Wormwood was the most intense that I've used. It would be great for more note sharing on how to make these well, perhaps you've started something! I have a lavender/yarrow/elder flower braggot going now, but I used 1/2oz hops for bittering just to give it to keep the bittering clean. Going to keg that this week.
Earth Eagle Brewing in Portsmouth, NH has been brewing Gruits consistently for a while now. When I saw this article, I immediately thought of them. They make really good gruits, in general. They have made some pretty crazy ones. I haven't liked every one, but most of them.
At any given time, they probably have 2 or 3 on tap.
PS. I'm not affiliated with them, just a fan.
I've made two gruits already and neither turned out very good. I didn't try sage so this recipe idea is going to give me fresh direction!
You might want to contact Gruut brewery in Gent, Belgium. A very nice lady has been brewing gruit or gruut for many years now. She might give you some tips.
I'm not ignoring to brewing history( although funny of you to make the assumption) I'm just getting info from the books and sources I used along the way. I'm no historian. But it is true that we didn't know what made hops a preservative until 19th century.
Your right that there is nothing like the bitter flavor of hops. I use mugwort in a lot of mine for the bittering agent but it imparts a earty flavor.
I've been making technically gruit. Started out with sodas root beer etc. Started using malt for a sugar source, add some ale yeast... all roads lead to Rome.
Anyway not to gyrate, but as a casual observer, it seems that beer is cruising for a shake up. It didn't take much research into the why's and how's of beer making to realize that several key constraints that had lead to beer as we know were changed. A) Refrigeration, just about every recipe I've read is built around storage from the boiling to the hops. B) Laws that consolidated brewing into a few commercial entities, have been repealed.
Anyway it makes sense that removing those two constraints you will see a greater variety of brews, and exploration of techniques that were previously not viable.
However, in the previous prohibition I think one generation went a little overboard in banning sassafras, maybe they were tired of drinking that and elected some leaders were gonna by golly never gonna drink that again. IMO that would be a fabulous gruit, New World an' all.
I love this sort of research! Thank you for sharing this. You have gotten me to reexamine mugwort, which I weed vigorously because of its allergenic pollen. (It's a Sysiphean task--no fear of actually eradicating it, fortunately.) It's such an extremely useful plant, medicinal, flavorful. If nothing else, it makes an excellent tinder. The pollen problem can be handled by cutting the plants about halfway up when they start blooming.
I'm a newcomer here. The only brewing I have done so far is apple cider as a first step toward vinegar, and I wouldn't be surprised to find even that is illegal where I live. Deliberately fermenting grapes is illegal in Japan without a license.