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Gruits afternoon!

IF YOU caught my last column, the Barstool Traveler, I discussed German beers and their history.

Hops played an important role in the development of German beers and the Purity Laws that limited beers ingredients to water, barley and hops set the stage for modern beer.

Hops have only been around as a primary beer ingredient for since the 9th century when their aromatic, flavor components and antibacterial properties became desirable.

But barley based beer has been around since at least 3400 B.C.E. and is other forms since around 7000 B.C.E. What of the beers that existed during that 8000 years before hops was introduced?

Let’s reach back into time and talk about the great neglected beer style we now call Gruits.

Gruit is a blanket term to cover both the mix of flavorful spices used to brew these early beers and to refer to the beers themselves. Gruit beers are the ultimate local brews. The blend of spices varied from place to place depending largely on what was available in a given geographical area.

The blend could include many of the spices you might have in your pantry, rosemary, anise, and sage but might include lesser known but aromatic botanicals such as heather and yarrow.

Certainly they included additions that the casual beer drinker might consider strange; juniper and spruce leaves, oak bark or oak galls. There were styles or spice mixes that were consistently used regionally but anything that imparts flavor or adds to the nose of a beer could be used.

Despite the potential for variety, gruits are a hard sell these days. The modern palate is geared to hops being part of beer.

But, there is a lot of love in in gruits. They can have complex flavors that you don’t often see in “regular” beers.

So you might be wondering where you could find a gruit to try. The pickings are slim, but it’s possible if you’re up for a challenge.

Dogfish Head Brewing has a line they call the Ancient Ales series. These are beers brewed with the help of Dr. Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist with a passion for beer. He scourers archeological sites looking for bottles and vessels to test for the tell tale markers that they once held beer. Using residue found in those containers he concocts a close representation of what those beers contained.

The brewers at Dogfish Head then take those ingredients and make them into something the modern drinker with enjoy. The closest the brewery gets to a true gruit is Sah’tea. Sah’Tea a take on a Finnish beer, brewed with juniper berries foraged from the Finnish countryside as main flavoring element.

There are some liberties taken with Sah’Tea and the other ancient ales though. All the ancient ales include some hops. This isn’t an outrageous affront to gruit drinkers as wild hops were probably part of the brewing process even before they were fully introduced to the brewing process.

In fact a gruit without hops is extremely difficult to find in the U.S., This speaks to hops preservative qualities as much as it does to their flavor.

One gruit available locally and including minim, and wild harvested at that, hops is 13th Century Grut Bier brewed at the German brewery, Weihenstephan under the name Professor Fritz Briem Ancient Ales.

This light bodied, and at 4.6% ABV low alcohol beer is brewed using anise, rosemary, bay leaves, caraway and the above mentioned wild hops.

Grut Bier (grut is an alternative spelling of gruit) smells a little sour but the taste is strong on rosemary and anise. Oddly, despite being brewed in Germany the recipe is Scottish.

If you do want a true gruit, make friends with a home brewer. The lack of hops and the grocery store accessibility of most gruit brewing ingredients make them popular in some home brewing circles. The desire to get back to “original” beer can make for some exciting but flavorful experiments.

Many home brewers grow their own ingredients leading to the publication of several books including The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stuart and Gardening for the Home Brewer by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon.

These days there is an international day for just about anything, and gruits are no different. February 1 has been dubbed International Gruit Day by a group of brewers interested in reintroducing gruits.

Take their advice and give one a try.