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What is a gruit, and where can you find one?

Gruit, the beer made without hops that you need to try

Beer snifter chalice glass
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Most beers you know and love today have four primary ingredients: water, barley, hops, and yeast. That’s largely due to the centuries-old German beer purity law, or reinheitsgebot, which demanded that beer be made exclusively using 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, as well as milkshake IPAs, and others), 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.

Elderflower flower plant
Philip Halling / Wikimedia Commons

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 to 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 380 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

Here are a couple of gruit beers you must try so you can say you did.

Top of beer head foam
Hafermilch Aufschaeumen / Pixabay

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 2,000 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 resurrect (excavate?) its beers regularly, so keep an eye out.

How to make gruit

Gose beers

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 brew your own, be sure to raise a glass to the forgotten beverage on International Gruit Day, celebrated every year on February 1.

What to serve with gruit beer

Flight of beers with cheeses
Pittsburgh Ale Trail / Flickr

Now, don’t get us wrong, gruit beer is just fine on its own, but you can take your gruit experience to the next level if you pair it with some amazing food. Because gruit has a more herbal flavor, it tends to pair well with roasted meats like venison, especially if those meats are cooked with complementary aromatic herbs like rosemary and thyme. Gruit beers also go nicely with washed-rind cheeses like an Italian taleggio or something similar.

The best advice for pairing food with gruit beer is to check the label, since there’s a wide variety of herbs used in gruits, no two are ever quite the same, so checking the label will allow you to decide the best food to serve with the beer.

Lee Heidel
Lee Heidel is the managing editor of Brew/Drink/Run, a website and podcast that promotes brewing your own beer, consuming the…
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