Gruit ales, or simply Gruits, are an ancient brew. They were brewed all over the European continent (and beyond) between 700 and 1700 AD. During that period brewers used many types of Gruit herbs for flavorings and bittering agents. The typical Gruit herbs, the three most used of the bunch are Yarrow (flowers and stems), Marsh or Wild Rosemary, and Myrica or Sweet Gale.
The exclusive use of Gruit herbs in Europe started to change around 1100AD when it was learned that hops were a very good antiseptic, meaning that they retarded the growth of bacteria and preserved the ale longer then the herbs did. Gruits received their walking papers in 1516 when Bavarian brewers adopted the tenets of the Reinheidsgebot. Remember also that there was no refrigeration in those days and a batch of brew would last only so long with just alcohol and the herbs or hops to prevent spoilage. Because of this bacteria problem the brews of that era were stronger in alcohol and bitterer then today’s beers.
The other very significant difference between hops and Gruit herbs is that the hops have a sedative value to them (they make you sleepy) and the Gruit herbs have psychoactive properties that wake you up. That is why we’ve heard the tales of bawdy partying for days on end (wait, that’s what the Falcons do, never mind). Gruit ales were made from a many recipes that were proprietary to the brewer, sort of like the secret recipe for Coca Cola, hence we don’t have allot of ancient formulas to make our modern Gruits by. I have had good results using just about any European recipes and substituting the herbs for the hops.
The way you use the herbs is different than the normal hop type schedule. The herbs are first put in the mash, then in the boil at certain times, then in the primary fermenter. Putting non-sanitized herbs into fresh cool wort seems like it would contaminate the brew but it hasn’t for me yet. Think of it as dry herbing. I’ve personally made 11 Gruit Ales and most were good and a couple were a mite overbearing -- especially the one I made with Wormwood. That one is still aging with the hope of mellowing the extreme bitterness of the Wormwood, not likely to happen soon. So be careful with those weird herbs they can be very bitter. Remember, you can always add more, but you can never take away.
There are a few references where you can read about Gruits and other ancient brews and the best I’ve found is a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner called Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation..
Here is a recipe for one of the better Gruits I’ve made:
Pog Mo Thoin Gruit Ale III
Batch Size: 6.5 gals
Original Gravity: 1.060
Final Gravity: 1.015
Alc by Vol: 5.9%
75% 12 lbs Pale Malt (2-row)
12.5% 2 lbs Caramel-pils
12.5% 2 lbs Melanoidin Malt
- Add to mash: (Tossed in loose, no bag)
- 56.7gm Yarrow
- 56.7gm Marsh Rosemary
- 2gm Myrica Gale
- Add to boil: (Used in grain/hop bags)
- 28.4gm Yarrow, 60 mins
- 28.4gm Marsh Rosemary, 60 mins
- 2.0gm Myrica Gale, 60 mins.
- 1.5 units Whirlfloc or Irish Moss, 20 mins
- Add to primary frementer: (Used in grain/hop bags)
- 28.4gm Yarrow
- 28.4gm Marsh Rosemary
- 2.0gm Myrica Gale
Wyeast 1056 American Ale/Chico (2/3 of a gal starter)
Single Infusion at 149f for 90 minutes
Fermented at 68°F
This Gruit came out a medium dark amber/yellow and had an herb-like flavor that mellowed with time -- in this case it aged for about 5 months in a keg and was good, refreshing, and stimulating. Try your hand at one of these ancient and important beers.