Gruit in pre-16th Century European Ale
Madoc Arundel, CSH, CLM, CS
While hops appears as an ingredient in nearly all beers and ales in modern times, this was not always the case. Hops has been known as an edible plant as far back as the days of the Roman Empire, and is mentioned in herbals written by Pliny and Martialus. Evidence from monasteries on the European continent show that it was used as an additive in beer as early as the 9th century; however it was not popular until centuries later. Prior to the rise in popularity of hops, malt beverages were flavored by mixtures of herbs and/or spices commonly referred to as gruit. Gruit, from the German grüte or the Dutch groot (both meaning herb), is a term commonly applied to those blends.
By the early 16th century, a distinction between beer and ale was common in that beer was a fermented malt made with hops while ale was without hops.
Ale is made of malte and water; and they the which do put any other thynge to ale than is rehersed, except yest, barme, or goddesgood, doth sophysticat there ale. Ale for an Englysshe man is a naturall drinke. Ale muste have these properties, it muste be fresshe and cleare, it muste not be ropy, nor smoky, nor it must have no wefte nor tayle. Ale shulde not be dronke under .v. dayes olde …. Barly malte maketh better ale than Oten malte or any other corne doth … Beere is made of malte, of hoppes, and water; it is a naturall drynke for a Doche man, and nowe of late dayes it is moche used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men.1
Herbs provided two benefits to ale. The flavor of steeped or boiled herbs enhanced and provided an offset to the inherently sweet flavor of malt. Additionally, several types of herb have contrabacterial or antiseptic qualities that slowed the souring of the ale. “...the early beers of the Middle Ages in Britain used a complex blend of herbs and spices called gruit to help balance some of the sweet malt notes with the often sour or wild yeast flavors and aromas.”2
Other spices could create an extraordinary variety of flavors in beer, but they lacked hops' preservative abilities, and so could only mask, rather than retard, spoilage. It was the suspicion that spices were a deceit, intended to hide the taste of bad ale, as much as simple conservatism which probably kept hops from being adopted for so long.3
Gruit could literally be any combination of herbs or spices. In most cases, the gruit was a conglomeration of plants that were commonly available by foraging in the local area. Because ale was such a large part of the daily diet of the time for both high and low born, the selected herbs were largely chosen for the flavors they could impart or for the perceived medicinal or spiritual benefits they were purported to promote.
Depending on the region they were in, the gruit mixture would vary. Often it would be different from city to city. Nevertheless, the most often used plants were sweet gale (Myrica gale), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), heather (Calluna vulgaris), sage (Salvia officinalis), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), bog myrtle (Myrica gale), juniper berries, nettles, ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), coriander, etc... There's a common thread here. All these herbs have bittering agents, much like hops, which makes them more or less reliably antiseptic.4
Gruits were not limited to a single locale, being used in brewing all across the continent. However, we do see differences based on regional flora and climate.
Gruitbier was brewed both on the Continent and on the British Isles. Gruit (or herbs) is what most medieval brewers used to flavor their beers with before hops became a universal beer flavoring agent starting around the 15th century. Gruit was used either as a single type of herb or as a mix. The medieval pre-hops brewers used just about any herb to flavor their brews. Perhaps the most common of these were yarrow, bog myrtle (also known as sweet gale), juniper, rosemary, mugwort, and woodruff. Because most of these medieval herbal hops-substitutes add a slight bitter-sweetness to the brew, the taste of Gruitbier can probably best be described as faintly resembling Vermouth.5
Most of the documentation I have been able to locate comes from the low countries and from the British Isles, however there are references to use of herbal additives from Germany, France, and Norway as well. One of the earliest references dates from the late 10th century:
The first reference to the gruit of Bommel dates from the year 999. In that year, Emporer Otto III of Germany granted the St. Martin's Church in Utrecht the right to impose taxes, mint their own coins and 'negocium... fermentatae cervisiae, quod vulgo grutt nuncupator' – sell brewed beer, commonly known as gruit. Later documents clarify what is being implied here. A tax was imposed on one of the then standard ingredients of beer, rather than upon the brewing process itself... The sale and distribution of the herb mixture was thus monopolized by the sovereign. Naturally, this only made sense if the gruit was considered to be an essential ingredient in beer.6
Prior to the emergence of brewing as a commercial enterprise and the formation of guilds to capitalize on a professional level, the brewing of ale largely occurred in one of two venues: monasteries and the home. Home brewing at the time was not like home brewing today, where ale is made in small batches with sanitary practices designed to extend the life of the beverage. Home brewers of the day made ale in large quantities. Because ale did not stay fresh for more than a week or two, the excess ale (that which was not drunk by the members of the household) would be sold off to neighbors or to ale houses.7 These households would have gotten their herbs either from gardens on their own property or from forage in the surrounding areas. The ruling class at the time quickly grasped the economic benefits of controlling access to the sources of forage. Access to forage on public lands became heavily regulated, narrowing the opportunities for private brewers.
“...a gruit house was situated in the city or village in question. Anyone who wanted to brew beer was obliged to obtain their gruit from these houses.”8
Local authorities quickly understood that there was money to be made here and they came up with "gruytrecht", i.e. only certain families were allowed to make gruit (the herbal mixture) and all brewers had to buy it from them. This is how the family of van Brugghe-van der Aa, became exceptionally wealthy. This building shows exactly how they spent that money. It's also how they acquired the name of lords of Gruuthuse, which literally means the house of gruit. The most memorable family member was Lodewijk van Gruuthuse (ca. 1422-1492), a top diplomat, one of the most influential courtiers of the court of the dukes of Burgundy and a Knight of the Golden Fleece as of 1461.9
Monasteries, with their large tracts of land, would have been better equipped to harvest herbs from their own properties, and would therefore have a leg up on the average brewing household in gruit production.
Though many monastery and burgher breweries, even private households, were given the brew right, not everybody was given the privilege to pick gruit on public lands. Thus, the quality of a brewer's beer in those days depended on access to gruit. Initially, the crown reserved that privilege initially only for its own estates. Later, the gruit right was more and more delegated to local authorities, mostly secular lords and the church, who doled it out, often corruptly and for a fee, to the unwashed masses. The term gruit, therefore, eventually came to mean not only the herbs brewers used in their beers but also the taxes they had to pay to their overlords for the picking privilege.10
The use and composition of these spices was a highly controlled industry, and the state had an interest in maintaining the status quo. Gruit was a particular blend of herbs and spices sold under state control for brewing beer. The blend usually included sweet gale (Myrica gale), sage (salvia), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), pine (pinus) resin, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and broom (Cytisus) in varying quantities.11
When hopped beer was introduced, it was considered a separate beverage from ale, and was regulated separately. Originally, the London brewers guild made only ale, and there was a separate organization for beer-makers. Thus Tudor-era regulations prohibiting the use of hops in ale do not indicate, as is occasionally said, that hops were outlawed in England, but rather that laws were passed to maintain the distinction between ale and beer.12
As stated above, the possible combinations of herbs in gruit are endless. However, many modern scholars postulate that the most common herbs in use in most regions were sweet gale (bog myrtle), yarrow, and rosemary. In one recipe from the start of the 14th century, small amounts of sweet gale, marsh rosemary, and yarrow were used. In another recipe from the end of the 14th century, we see the list include cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and white pepper.13
In 1985, pieces of Neolithic-age pottery were discovered on the island of Rhum off the coast of Scotland. The pottery contained residue of a fermented beverage apparently containing heather, meadowsweet, and royal fern.14
Buhner relates the legend of a Pictish brewer held against his life to surrender the secret of brewing heather ale. The Pict allowed his son to be murdered and himself to be executed rather than give up the secret.15 Buhner goes on to state, however, that heather ale was brewed in Scotland well into the 20th century.
...in the fifteenth century, there was a beer called Koit from the old Welsh and Breton coit, a heather beer. In Denmark and Norway, brewing with heather was also common... In fact, though heather meads and ales have been traditionally ascribed to only the historical area of Scotland, it appears that they were in common production throughout Europe, the Scandinavian countries, and all of the United Kingdom.16
Sage was another common plant applied in brewing, albeit more common in wines and meads. “Sage was added to ill-smelling wine, to restore its original bouquet. Sage wine was a favorite of Henry III, and his son, Edward I.”17 Sage, from the Latin salveo, meaning roughly “good health”, was an important herb in any household garden.
Alecost, or costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), was the favorite herb of medieval brewers before the introduction of hops. Its leaves were added to wort at the end of the brewing process in order to clarify, flavor, and preserve beer, and to add body and improve the beer’s head. During the Middle Ages, alecost was a well-known aromatic herb and was among those strewn on floors to animate rooms with a spicy, sweet scent. The minty aroma of alecost was likely sought after by brewers to add a complex bouquet to their beer. As a medicinal herb, alecost was used by medieval people to treat intermittent fever and chest pains. These medicinal functions may also have been imparted to alecost beer.18
“A law of one German tribe, the Alemanii, set a contribution of beer to be made annually to a temple, so the drink may have had a religious function among the Germans.”19
“Brewers' guilds, like most others, had religious origins.”20
“According to Linneaus, it [yarrow] was used by the people of Lima in Dalecarnia, instead of hops, when they brewed for weddings.”21
“They were made for sacred ceremony, for attaining non-ordinary states of reality, for communicating with the ancestors, as potent nutrient foods, and for healing.”22
Some of these herbs had religious connotations that survived the switch from pre-Christian to Christian practices. Sweet flag or calamus, for instance, provided both a mildly euphorogenic gruit ingredient (the roots) and a popular, aromatic floor covering for churches on festive occasions (the rush-like leaves). Tansy was sacred to the Virgin, and angelica--as its name suggests--evoked the power of the archangel, St. Michael.23
I will not delve into the transition from gruit to hops across the continent, except to say that it was a combined effort by both commercial brewers (battling the high cost of a cornered market) and church reformers (battling the pagan histories surrounding herbal medicine) who slowly pushed back against legislation or church edicts preventing the spread of hops in brewing. Suffice to say that the transition was slow, taking several centuries, because of both deep-rooted traditions of the common folk and the profitability to both the mesne lords and the church.
The final question remains – in what quantities were gruit herbs used? Renfrow publishes one example from a 1577 recipe for Charwort where 9 gallons of wort has a handful of wheat flour added with just ½ ounce of orris root and an eighth of an ounce of powdered bay laurel berries, or less than half an ounce of herbs in a typical 5-gallon batch. “Finallie when she setteth hir drinke together, she addeth to her brackwoort or charwoort halfe an ounce of arras and half a quarterne of an ounce of baiberries finelie powdered, and then putteth the same into hir woort with an handful of wheate floure, she proceedeth in such usuall order as common bruing requireth.”24 She further lists a recipe for braggot from the year 1594 that produces a 63-gallon batch (one hoggeshead) with just an ounce each of clove, nutmeg, licorice, and coriander with 3 ounces each of cinnamon, ginger, and grains of paradise, a half-ounce of pepper and an ounce and a half of grains of paradise.25 Given the typical volumes produced by the average home brewer in modern times, this would amount to a collective poultice of just 1.2 ounces of total spice for a 5-gallon batch.
By contrast, Buhner publishes several recipes using sage and other milder herbs where it seems great quantities are used almost to the same level as the malt. In one recipe for Broom Ale from 1695, he cites three handfuls of broom tops in just 14 quarts of ale... and this on top of 11 ounces of other cooking herbs in the same recipe.26
Given the disparity, one can only conclude that several factors lead to the development of recipes containing gruit. The first would likely be the availability of the ingredients used. Obviously, if the chosen herbs are difficult to get in large quantities, they will be used in smaller quantities in brewing.27 The second is likely expense. While many herbs and some spices are available for foraging across Europe, others had to be imported from the middle and far east, and would have been expensive and likely available to the common brewer only in very small quantities.28 The third determinate, and by far (in my humble opinion) the most important would be the flavor imparted by the selected volume. Just as the modern home brewer and craft brewer will temper a recipe to their preferred taste, the medieval cottage brewer would have done the same.29 Milder herbs would have had to be used in greater quantity to make as big an impression in the finished ale. Likewise, fresh herbs could be used in smaller quantities than dried herbs, based on the higher levels of essential oils bearing the character of the herb to the beverage.
Finally, there is the “mortality factor.” Many of the plants available to the medieval brewer were valuable in their ritualistic sense for their psychtropic properties. Wormwood, mandrake, nightshade, jimson, and others all have properties that induce mild hallucinogenic effects when used in small quantities, but are patently fatal if used in larger quantities. While some of these may have been used for either religious purposes or simply as an escape from the drudgery of daily life, it certainly would have been known to practitioners of the brewing arts what the fatality level would be, and they would have striven to stay well below that level.30
1Boorde (1542), folio Gii-iii
5German Beer Institute
6Kistemaker, pg 14
7Bennett, pg. 29-30
8Kistemaker, pg 17
10German Beer Institute
13Harrison, pg. 21-23
14Wickham-Jones, pg. 128
15Buhner, pg. 30
16Buhner, pg. 26
17McLean, pg. 254
19Unger, pg. 22
20Ibid, pg. 217
21Nordland, pg. 220
22Buhner, pg. 4
24Renfrow, pg. 4-5
25Ibid, pg 6
26Buhner, pg. 204
29Unger, pg. 100
30Buhner, pg. 208
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