Chances are that you’ve heard a thing or two about the German Beer Purity Law. Dating back to 1516, this legislation declares that the only ingredients permissible for brewing beer are water, barley and hops. While one of the original intentions for this ruling was to reserve more noble grains for bread making, hops also have antiseptic qualities, so they helped to preserve the beer and also potentially keep away some of those scary sounding medieval diseases.
At the same time, female hop flowers (humulus lupulus) have resins that lend a bitter taste to beer and essential oils that give rise to aromas such as citrus and pine. They’re not for everyone—just seeing the word IPA on a bottle makes some people queasy. Still, there is hop(e).
Believe it or not, brewers only began using hops on a regular basis about 700 years ago, thanks to a German nun named Hildegard von Bingen. Before that, there was gruit: a concoction of herbs and spices brewed with absolutely no hops.
According to gruitale.com, the magical powers of gruit are numerous, as the beverage “stimulates the mind, creates euphoria and enhances sexual drive.” Health claims aside, the main ingredients used in brewing gruit were yarrow (achillea millefolium), sweet gale (myrica gale) and marsh rosemary (ledum palustre). While these herbs seem harmless enough, Odd Norland, author of Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, notes that “Yarrow is in no way innocent when mixed with ale. [Botanist Carl] Linnaeus called the plant galentara, [or] ‘causing madness.’”
Other than these three key items, brewers could mix in some add-ons like juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, anise, nutmegor cinnamon. It sounds a bit like a holiday tea, but if fermented long enough, things could get interesting (and potent).
So despite the seeming tsunami of craft brewers nowadays who dare to go up, up and away on the international bittering units (IBU) scale, it’s worth noting that non-hopped brews once held a solid place inside the homes and bellies of consumers. In today’s world, a handful of breweries are looking to this not-so-distant past for inspiration, like San Francisco-based MateVeza’s limited-release Morpho gruit, made with hibiscus, bay leaf and the South American shrub of the holly family: yerba mate.
In the spirit of other home brewed beverages such as kombucha, it could be time to turn back the clock and get your gruit on. Just gather together some herbs and water from your local bog (or health food store), bring to a boil and prepare for a time traveling adventure.