I post this with some trepidation, since we brewers have strong opinions about our beverages. This is also most interesting to the permie inhabitants of the frozen north.
I have strayed a long way from the early efforts making specific styles of beer from malted grain and precise recipes. Some of this has been by necessity, since I have a spouse with celiac or gluten intolerance, so barley is out. This led me to explore a variety of alternatives, but what I want to focus on in this post are some alternatives to the hops. These should work with any grain base; I happen to use sorghum and birch syrup, but barley malt might be even tastier.
One successful experiment for bittering has been the use of a mixture of herbs or gruits that date back far into European history. Gruit-based ale was the only form of the beverage for almost 700 years. The gruits, which were proprietary, were under the control of monopolies aligned with and taxed by the Catholic Church, and the transition to hops was led by groups aligned with the Lutheran church following the schism. In Bruhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers the prevailing view was described as follows:
“It is important to keep in mind the properties of gruit ale: it is highly intoxicating-narcotic, aphrodisiacal and psychotropic, when consumed in sufficient quantity. Gruit ale stimulates the mind, creates euphoria and enhances sexual drive. The hopped ale that took its place is quite different. Its effects are sedating and anaphrodesiacal. In other words, it puts the drinker to sleep and. . . . . “
So the general drift is that gruit ale caused that wild Catholic decadence in the view of the Lutherans that later outlawed the gruit recipe. I can’t report any of the remarkable effects described above but it does make an interesting beverage. A microbrewer could use this as quite a marketing campaign.
The gruit is a mixture of common northern herbs. This includes myrica gale. I use mostly the female leaves and mature seed pods that are highly aromatic. The plant is dioecious and easily distinguished by mid to late summer. There are countless acres of this growing wild on our local swampy river sections. As with all of these herbs used for hop replacement, they are best fresh or frozen to retain their heavenly aroma. The yarrow Archillea millefolium needs to be used fresh or frozen to preserve the bittering and is harvested as flowers and leaves. And the final local herb is Rhododendron groenlandicum (bog Labrador tea, formerly Ledum groenlandicum or Ledum latifolium). In the north, this is a common plant in swampy, black spruce forests. This is a substitution for the related European Ledum palustre. Labrador tea must not be confused with the bog rosemary that looks similar but contains Andromeda toxin. There were likely other herbs added as well.
I use about 2 ounces of each herb for 5 gallons of wort. Reducing the myrica gale may be needed if the amount of seed pods is high. The gruit was added to the last 20 minutes of the boiling of the wort before cooling, filtering and pitching.
Most beer drinkers have found this an interesting and enjoyable brew. A few have objected to the taste. It provides a view of another age, and has become a yearly tradition with the ritual of collecting the herbs from three diverse habitats. If you can find a copy of Buhner’s book, I highly recommend it. It documents the long history of women as the primary keeper of the sacred brews!
Wow, thanks for this. It's been a couple of years since I've brewed any of my own beer but this has piqued my interest enough that I'm going to dust of (and thoroughly disinfect, of course) the old brewing kit and give it a go.
"Instead of Pay It Forward I prefer Plant It Forward" ~Howard Story / "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools." ~John Muir