Most beers you know and love today have four primary ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast. That’s due in large part to the centuries-old German beer purity law, or reinheitsgebot, which demanded beer be made using exclusively these ingredients and set the standard for today’s brews.
But beer is an ancient beverage — historians believe its story stretches back to 5th millennium BC in Iran and went on to be enjoyed by the likes of Egyptian pharaohs and the Greek philosophers. However, if Socrates or Tutankhamun ever enjoyed a pint in their days, the beer was likely missing one of those four critical ingredients: the hop.
In today’s hop-hungry climate of India pale ales (and hazy IPAs, New England IPAs, milkshake IPAs, et cetera), it seems impossible that beer could exist without hops. The fact is that many other natural ingredients can serve as substitutes for the bittering, aromatic, and flavoring characteristics of hops. Today, if a beer relies on other herbs to fill the “hops” role, the beverage is classified as a gruit.
Gruit is the German word for herb. Instead of depending on hops, these brews use exotic additives like bog myrtle, horehound, elderflowers, and yarrow to offset the sweetness of the malts and create a more complex beverage.
Thanks to the creativity of modern breweries, you don’t have to travel back to the Middle Ages to find a gruit (though if you can, please let us in on your time travel technology). You can try them right now, but you will have to do some detective work.
“Authentic” gruits can be tough to find in the mainstream marketplace. That’s because some laws require hops be present for a product to be sold as beer. Not having the “beer” title would limit distribution and sales channels for some breweries. To illustrate how rare gruits are in the current marketplace, there are currently 32,576 American IPAs listed on the Beer Advocate database and only 273 gruits.
But don’t despair — this list will help you get started on the path toward discovering modern versions of the ancient ale. Start your gruit journey here:
Best Gruit Beer
Historic Ale Series by Williams Brothers Brewing Co.
Scotland’s Williams Brothers Brewing Co. has a Historic Ale Series in which brewers attempt to recreate traditional Scottish beers using what’s described as a “token” amount of hops. These beers include Alba, a Scots Pine Ale with sprigs of sprite and pine, meant to be consumed at room temperature. Williams Brothers also brews Fraoch, a heather ale that can be traced back to 2000 BC.
Kvasir by Dogfish Head
Dogfish Head may be famous for its 60 Minute IPA, but it is also home to the Ancient Ale series. For these brews, a bio-molecular archaeologist is enlisted to help recreate beers from remnants found in antique vessels. Kvasir’s recipe hails from Denmark and includes lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, honey, and birch syrup. Kvasir hasn’t been on the release schedule for the last few years, but Dogfish Head is known to regularly resurrect (excavate?) its beers, so keep an eye out.
Lips of Faith Series Gruit by New Belgium Brewing Company
Like Kvasir, New Belgium’s Gruit hasn’t been released for a few years, but if you have one stuck back, recent reports on Untappd show that this beer is still drinking well despite “best buy” dates going back to 2015. Gruit features horehound, wormwood, and elderflowers.
How to Make Gruit
If you’re a homebrewer, you can make your own gruit. For inspiration, pick up the book Gardening for the Homebrewer: Grow and Process Plants for Making Beer, Wine, Gruit, Cider, Perry, and More by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon. It’s an excellent primer to using traditional ingredients in your beers, and incorporating herbs you can tend yourself.
Regardless of whether you’ve tracked down a gruit from an international brewery, a brewpub down the street, or brewed your own, be sure to raise a glass to the forgotten beverage on International Gruit Day, celebrated every year on February 1.
Want to learn more about German beers while tracking down these gruits? Check out the Oktoberfest episode of The Manual podcast for more info.