Here is Owl Meat with a Midnight Sun report on hops, gruit and the history of beer ingredients:
Some like it hot. I like it hotter.
I am a flavor ninja. I like my Thai food spicy enough to make muscle men cry. I like Scotch so peaty that it reminds me of lawn fertilizer.
For beer I'll take the hoppiest you've got. It's not about extremes; it's more about adventure. That's not to say I don't have a gentle side. A basket of puppies, blueberry scones, and a gentle summer rain can be sublime.
Hops, hops, hops. Ever wonder what beer would be like without hops? Probably boring. One evil hop-less path is to add nasty artificial flavors to get Mike's Hard Lemonade and other gut-busting fauxenbraus.
The ancient non-hops path is gruit ale, a millennia-old hop-less brew. It was brewed with herbs said to be stimulants, aphrodisiacs, narcotics, and hallucinogens. Bazinga! ...
Herbs used in gruit ale included sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, horehound, and heather. Other herbs included henbenon, juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg, cinnamon, and hops.
Exact formulae are not known, as brewers, even small-time ones, kept their recipes secret. According to Wikipedia:
The exclusive use of gruit was gradually phased out in favor of the use of hops alone in a slow sweep across Europe occurring between the 11th century (in the south and east of the Holy Roman Empire) and the late 16th century (Great Britain). In 16th century Britain, a distinction was made between ale, which was unhopped, and beer, brought by Dutch merchants, which was hopped.
Here is an excellent Web site that explores gruit topics and recipes.
In Germany, there was not just a trend toward hops-only brews. The Bavarian Purity Law, mandating that the only ingredients in beer production could be water, barley, and hops became law in 1516. I used to think that it was quality control legislation (yay), but maybe it was behavior control legislation (boo).
There is a lot of speculation about why this came to be. One theory is that hops preserve beer and increase trade. That is true, but so do other herbs. Another idea is that gruit was too stimulating physically and sexually and governments and the Church preferred the sedating effects of hops. Hops is a chill-out herb, but so are other herbs in gruit.
The idea that beer with hops suppresses carnal urges is absurd. Many a time have I worn the hops goggles. For whatever reason, medieval gruit was a monster, said to be mega-intoxicating and hallucinogenic. It sounds like berserker fuel, Red Bull times crack plus shrooms.
Here is a podcast with Stephen Buhner who wrote Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. He links the control of psychotropic beer ingredients with the Catholic Church. My favorite quote is, "The Catholic Church before 1100 was pretty cool." A huge amount of brewing at that time seems to have been done by monks. His premise is that prudes ruin every organization over time. I can't disagree. He also mentions beer anthropologists. Fascinating.
Herbal additives, including hops, seem to have three functions: preserving, flavoring, and mood enhancement.
I love herbal alcoholic concoctions from gin to akvavit to my own experiments with herb infused vodkas.
I would love to try some gruit ale, but I can't find it locally. There is a place in Arlington called American Flatbread that is reported to have seasonal homemade gruit ales, but none are on the current drink menu.
Ironically, the Midnight Sun Brewery bottles a gruit ... in Alaska. Paging Sarah Palin ...
Perhaps some home brewers have experimented with gruit. If you have any first-hand experience in brewing or quaffing gruit, please share it with us.
I believe that there is a new gruit world out there for brewers to rediscover. I predict that gruit will make a comeback in weird and wonderful ways soon. Until then, try to party like it's 999 and get yer gruit on!
(Top image courtesy of Getty Images. At bottom, Evolution Craft Brewing Co.Owner Tommy Knorr holds pelletized hops at left, and barley grains on the right. Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna.)