May 14, 2010
I just can’t get on board the ultra-hoppy beer bandwagon. Lately brewers have been vying to create the world’s bitterest beer, and it seems that every microbrewery has put forth an IPA (India Pale Ale) that scores high on the IBU (International Bittering Unit) scale.
Hops are the flowers that give beer its bitter taste, and have been used since the Middle Ages as a flavoring and preservative—extra hops were added to British beers exported to the warm climate of India. I don’t mind hops in moderation, but I prefer when I can also taste the other flavors in a beer. (I should point out here that I am not in any way claiming to be a beer connoisseur. I enjoy a pint now and then, but my interest is casual.)
Hop wimp that I am, I was eager to try gruit ale when I saw it on the menu of American Flatbread, a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont (with other locations in Oregon, Virginia and Vermont) that serves house-brewed beer. Described as a “Medieval herbal brew—no hops,” it had a light, slightly floral flavor—still recognizably ale, but unlike any I’d ever had. That was two or three years ago; since then I’ve ordered gruit every time I’ve gone back, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else.
Apparently, that wasn’t always the case. Long before Budweiser crowned itself the “king of beers,” gruit reigned in Europe—though, since it was often brewed by women, or alewives, it might more aptly be called the queen. Brewers, both commercial and small-scale, used all kinds of other herbs and botanicals, which varied from place to place. Then, for some reason or combination of reasons, beer made with hops came into favor by the 18th century, eventually overshadowing gruit to the point it nearly disappeared.
According to herbalist and author Stephen Harrod Buhner (in an article posted on gruitale.com), the primary gruit herbs were yarrow, sweet gale and marsh rosemary, though other flavorings, including cinnamon, nutmeg and caraway seed, were also popular. Some of these herbs had stimulant effects, which produced a highly intoxicating beverage that was thought to be an aphrodisiac and, according to Buhner, eventually led to their replacement with hops. I’m not sure whether any of those were in the gruit I tasted, though I can say that it was not highly intoxicating (and I am a lightweight). It didn’t make me feel sleepy, though, which beer sometimes does.
Hops, on the other hand, have traditionally been used as a sedative and were thought to reduce sexual desire and male potency. They contain phytoestrogens, the naturally occurring compounds that are molecularly similar to human estrogen and are found in soy, nuts and other foods. Although there has been speculation that over-consumption of phytoestrogens (especially from soy additives in processed food) could lead to health problems, there hasn’t been enough research to determine the effects of phytoestrogens on humans. It’s a complicated topic that will have to wait for a future post.
In the meantime, if you’re a home brewer (or would like to become one) and are interested in trying gruit, gruitale.com links to a handful of recipes.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.