Monday, January 19, 2009

Talking Head: Just gruit!

Posted By on Mon, Jan 19, 2009 at 9:48 PM

click to enlarge THE BEST THING ABOUT THE MIDDLE AGES: Gruit ales
  • THE BEST THING ABOUT THE MIDDLE AGES: Gruit ales

With the high cost and limited availability of hops over the past year, brewers have shown an increased interest in returning to early beer recipes for an alternative source to bitter and spice their beers. Prior to the extensive use of hops, European brewers typically used a mixture of plants and herbs called gruit, or grut. The core ingredients in gruit were sweet gale, yarrow and marsh rosemary, each of which contributed desirable characteristics, such as flavoring, bittering and preservatives. Brewers added other herbs, spices and plants, including juniper berries, caraway seeds, anise, ginger and nutmeg to create individual flavor profiles.

The primary herbs used in gruit also had another characteristic: They were noted intoxicants, inducing euphoria and stimulating the libido. Hops, on the other hand, were known to be more soporific than stimulating, decreasing sexual desire and leading to sleep.

According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, who literally wrote the book on brewing with herbs, Protestant objections to the "undesirable" effects of gruit ales, along with discontent over Catholic control of the brewing trades, hastened the demise of gruit as a brewing ingredient.

The use of hops in beer was common well before the Reformation, however, and it's likely that Protestant temperance movements and religious reform were only contributing factors to the decline of traditional gruit. Certainly the simplicity of brewing with hops and its extraordinary compatibility with malt had something to with the change. Still, it's worth giving these contemporary versions of herbal and spiced beers a try if you're needing a boost in the Love Department. At the least, they'll challenge your notions of what beer is "supposed" to taste like.

Fraoch Heather Ale (Williams Brothers Brewing Company, Alloa, Scotland, UK, 5.0% ABV) — For your next Braveheart party, break out this ale brewed with sweet gale and heather flowers. It's claimed to be one of the world's oldest beer styles, dating to 2,000 B.C. An intoxicatingly sweet floral-and-grass aroma wafts from this hazy, golden-yellow ale that smells for all the world like a meadow after a rain. The taste can't quite match the promise of the nose, but the fruity notes of pale malt, honey, and apple are pleasantly complex. Drying herbal and floral elements emerge in the finish, with some yeasty tang as well. Bitterness is very low, and the semi-slick mouthfeel provides a substantial body for its light color and flavor profile. Fraoch is smooth, aromatic, and soothing and would pair nicely with fresh foods like salads, fruit and cheese. Its character is similar to a saison but fruitier and without the yeast complexity.

13th Century Grut Bier (Brauerei Weihenstephan, Freising, Germany, 4.6% ABV) — Apparently the folks at Weihenstephan are cocky enough to thumb their noses at the German Purity Law of 1516. Like many laws designed to regulate alcohol, the Reinheitsgebot has outlived its usefulness. Weihenstephan has gone back to the ancient herbal recipes of the 13th century, throwing ginger, anise, bay leaves, caraway, rosemary and more into this light, sparkling beer made with a portion of wheat malt. Like the Fraoch, Grut Bier has a thick, sweet aroma of flowers, herbs and spices. Honeysuckle, cardamom, clove, and lemongrass intermingle with yeasty, bread-like malts.

The taste is a bit odd, with very pale, powdery malts carrying a somewhat chaotic mix of nectar, pollen, lemony-tart yeast, and a hint of apple and pear. Your appreciation for the taste may revolve around your tolerance for the licorice notes of anise, which are quite evident in the finish, along with an edgy bite of mint and caraway. The herbs aren't particularly bitter, but the beer's quite spicy and dry in the finish. It has a thin body typical of a wheat beer, and is fairly spritzy and light. If you like spicy tart wheat beers such as Berliner Weisse Bier and Gose, you may find Grut to be a refreshing change from the insipid wheats typically found in the United States.

Old Odense Ale (Nørrebro Bryghus, Copenhagen, Denmark, 7.5% ABV) — Another interesting ancient beer from Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head founder and president, this time as a guest brewer for Danish craft brewery Nørrebro Bryghus. The ingredients were plucked from a 15th-century recipe for gruit brewed in the town of Odense. They include pale and dark barley malt, oats, blacktorn berries, wood sage, hyssop, anise, woodruff, fir branches and bark, and smoked syrup in the form of maple syrup from Calagione's father's farm in Massachusetts.

Old Odense is a sour ale made using spontaneous fermentation. The natural yeasts contribute a tart, fruity bite, along with an earthy funk. The complex aroma of sour berries, wet malt, fruity pipe tobacco and spices tells you right away that this one's going to be different. The taste is sour-sweet, with notes of maple, green apple, pineapple, lemon and evergreen. Old Odense has a puckering finish, although it's not as vinegary as some of the Belgian lambics it most closely resembles. Some brandy-like fruity alcohol pushes through as it warms. The raw, cider-like body is somewhat flinty and thin. I'm not a big fan of sour beers and the tartness of Old Odense wears me out after awhile, but it's a fascinating beer. If you are into Lambics it's defintely worth sampling. As a limited edition beer, it probably won't be available for long.

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