Today, hops are king. They make up one of the 4 key ingredients (water, malted barley, yeast and hops) of what we consider beer. There are over 120 hop varieties in use today and the list is growing constanty. Hops can create flavors ranging from stuff you wouldn’t probably wouldn’t eat like grass to fruity flavors like grapefruit and pineapple. They balance out the sweetness of the grain and even help preserve the beer.
But it wasn’t always this way.
For over 500 years, beer was made with gruit. Gruit (German for herb) was a mixture of herbs including some you have probably heard of and some that you haven’t. Commonly sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, horehound and heather were used but other herbs including black henbane, juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg, cinnamon could be used by the individual gruit maker to differentiate his beer. The exact recipe was a secret kept by the grutier much like Coca-Cola does today. The herbs could even have additional intoxicating effects beyond the alcohol. Yarrow in particular was known for its effects with one herbalist naming it galentara or “Causing Madness”.
Gruit was so important, monasteries began to tax and regulate the production and sale of the mixtures. It became a chief source of revenue for the monasteries and the church and aggressively protected monopoly. In Germany, hopped beers were prohibited from being manufactured or even imported into areas controlled by the Archbishop of Cologne. Eventually, the prohibition gave way and gruit was outlawed instead. In 1268 King Louis IX of France declaired only malt and hops may be used for beer-making. The Germans followed this up in 1487 with the Reinheitsgebot, more widely known as the German Purity Law, which stated that only water, barley and hops could be used in the production of beer.
Today there are very few unhopped beers but you can still find them. Dogfish Head makes a beer that is not technically gruit but does not have hops called Sahtea which is based on an early Finnish beer. New Belgium makes a beer simply called Gruit that is based on a Scottish style.
Feel like drinking like drinking beer from 1000 years ago? Check out this recipe from Gruitale.com
Modern Gruit Recipe (gruitale.com)