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May 18, 2010

Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays: Hops vs. gruit

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).

Evolution Craft Brewing Co.Owner Tommy Knorr holds pelletized   hops at left, and barley grains on the right. 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.)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 2:07 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Owl Meat's Tipsy Tuesdays


OMG and Sam,

There's at least one German-made gruit that is--or at least was--available in central Maryland: or ; I believe it is/was distributed locally by Legends Limited, but when I called them they had about one case of 500-ml bottles left in inventory. You may find it at the usual ()we have every beer" suspects--Max's, Wells, Wine Source, Perfect Pour, etc. And by the way, it's utterly delicious--especially in summer heat!

I thought your link to berserker was going to be about Silent Bob's cousin.

Don't know who Silent Bob's cousin is. I just love the word berserker.

ADMIV, I knew you would have some gruit dish. I am an absolute moron when it comes to beer knowledge, but this topic really excited me.

Sounds magical, but is gruit really the name you want to market this as? How about elfbeer?

Silent Bob's cousin:

NOTE: Link is not exactly safe for work

Mugwort was used as a flavoring agent before hops were more readily available. The plant is not a big fan of cold and rainy, as my garden will attest to.. poor thing is about half the size it should be this time of year. It's barely covering the frame and not nearly as bushy as it was last year.

"NOTE: Link is not exactly safe for work"

The only office in which that link would ever be safe is Kevin Smith's office. Or maybe the George Carlin estate's.

Owl Meat Gruit,

I liked your berserker link better.

berserk = bear-shirt

Never knew that. Always learn a lot from your posts.

Bear Sark, first, then to bear shirt as the language evolution goes.

I bought some Braggot the other day from Carpe Vinium in Old EC.
If the bottle label is to be believed, was a blend of beer and meade. I think that was put on there to make it more palatable for sale - it was more like a dank meade flavor than much else, a musty yet sweet flavor. Not a hint of beer, and the hop flavor was muddled, at best.

Not something I would go out of my way for again, but had to try it nonetheless.

Gruit? I'm into it.

Just find me a place that stocks it, I'm bout it. No such luck at the above listed places last time I checked, ADMIV. But that was a few months ago.

and the Great Gruit search begins. I think that if some small brewer in the tri-state area (pick any three states) came out with one, it would spark interest. Your move Dogfish Head.

For word nerds ... Cutty Sark comes from the same source as berserk. As I recall, the Scottish word sark comes from the Norse serk and cutty means short. Cutty sark is a short shirt but it implies the type of upper body garment worn by prostitutes in Scotland. Not sure if the ship or the Scotch came first.


Please, folks. At the risk of more off-topic drift.... the word is "mead," not "meade." Anyone using the word "meade" is doing the same thing as "Ye Olde Village Pubbe" and trying to get their wares into a Rennfest.

And, yes, I'm aware of a very popular (well, relatively speaking) product that has "MEADE" on its label. Guess what? It's a white grape wine with honey added, not a true mead. Maybe that's why they can't or won't use "mead" on their label, so they can't be accused of false labeling?

Huzzah! ADMIV

Kind of like the serf and terf I had yesterday.

In this case, it's valid. It was that exact way on the bottle I was referring to.

Do you care to expound on whisky vs whiskey? I'd dyinge to knowe.

Whiskey is Ireland and U.S.; whisky is Scotland and everywhere else.

You're not the curmudgeon I was asking, but thanks!

Thanks for that Wolfman serenade. Now that crappy song is drilling through my brian.

I just hope you don't have any culinary designs on those puppies, OMG.

I just hope you don't have any culinary designs on those puppies, OMG.

Mmm... Puppy chow ... mein ... nom nom nom.

Even my brain isn't bent enough to think of a basket of puppies as food.

There are actually a number of Gruit style beers made in the US. Unfortunately (I guess), very few are available in our market.

I had Rob from Brewer's Art over for drinks the other night.
He mentioned - aside from the Res in the Can being canned as we, type - that Brewer's thought about making some Gruit, but they didn't think it would sell, so they put the kibosh on it.

Take the kibosh off!




I have a great name for it too ... something Owl something. Berserker Owl Gruit!

berserk could wery wel mean without shirt, and fortified with a strong mead/braket/gruit spiced with strong herbs, the vikings and celts among other germanic tribes whent naked or skyclad to war/figth without fear.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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