Sunday, January 13, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Gruit Beer

     Today I’d like to continue my nostalgic bent.  Last week’s post (Pop Rocks) went back to the 1970’s and 80’s, but this one is going back way further, many hundreds of years.
     Currently the overwhelming majority of beer is flavored using hops.  However, for hundreds (thousands?) of years, beer was typically made using herbs as flavoring agents.  These ranged from yarrow, mugwort, ground ivy, horehound, heather, sweet gale, henbane, stinging nettle (!), juniper, caraway, anise, nutmeg, and ginger.  Some of these also have psychotropic or narcotic qualities.  This type of beer is known as gruit, or grut beer.  And to reference another previous post, the Finnish sahti style could also be classified as a specialized, regional grut, since it uses juniper as flavoring.
     Between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, hops began to slowly take over as the flavoring agent of choice.  Germany gave teeth to this with its Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which allowed only water, barley, and hops to be in beer (yeast was grandfathered in when it was discovered).  Some European countries, notably England, lagged a little behind, but by the 1800’s almost all beer was made using hops.
     The reasons for this changeover aren’t conclusively known.  One theory holds that it was related to the Reformation, that Protestants started favoring hops since Catholic monasteries held a monopoly of the gruit herbs.  However, since the 1516 Purity Law predates when Martin Luther nailed up the 95 Theses by a year (and there were earlier pro-hop purity laws from the 15th century), this theory is highly questionable.  Another theory is that it’s related to the Puritans.  It was believed at the time that hops were sedating, in contrast to the gruit herbs, which were thought to be aphrodisiacs.  Finally (and this theory seems to be the most credible), it’s thought that the switch might have been a public health measure, since hops were safer and less volatile than the sometimes poisonous/dangerously psychotropic gruit herbs.
     With the explosion of microbreweries, though, several companies have “kicked it old school,” so to speak, and put out some gruit interpretations.  Williams Brothers of Scotland is one of these, and I’ve tried their Kelpie Seaweed Ale and Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale.  I thought the Kelpie was pretty bad.  Maybe it was partly psychological—let’s face it, seaweed doesn’t seem like a good beer additive.  The Ebulum I also disliked--it had a sweet start, but an unpleasant, stoutish finish.  Since I’m not a fan of stout beers, this was a definite minus.
     I am happy to report one winner—Dr. Fritz Briem’s 13th Century Grut Bier, brewed in conjunction with the Doeman’s Institute and Weihenstephan.  It’s made with bay leaves, ginger, caraway, anise, rosemary, and gentian.  It was delicious.  Very spicy, and reminiscent of the best winter seasonal beers.  Really top notch.
     So even though two out of the three gruts I had were bad (three out of four if you want to include sahti), that one was so excellent that I want to give more varieties a chance.  But, for those looking for a hallucinogenic high or an aphrodisiac lift, I can’t say that I noticed an effect from any of these.

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