Gruit Beers

So I’m apparently teaching a class at Pennsic this year.  It’s Monday at 2pm, AS 11; Gruit Beers.

This isn’t so much a teaching class as a round table discussion on various alternatives to hops:

The Hop Staff

The Hop Staff


The yellow part are the preservative lupins of the hop

In the 15th Century we have documentation for common use of Hops in most Beers (1).  We even have some documentation of rare instances as far back as the 9th century (2) where hops were used.  The reason we use hops is because the hop has lupins (the little yellow stuff inside) that has preservative properties along with the bittering agent that stablizes the beer.  Previously however, a variety of different products were used based mostly on availability and the ability to bitter the beer.  As you may have guessed, the staying power of these beers are very short and usually had to be drank quickly before they spoiled.  Here’s a few items I found used in recipes from the past:

Spruce & Balsam (upper left), Alehoof (upper right) Wormwolod (center left), Blatterwort (center), Sage (center right) and Juniper berries (bottom)

Spruce & Balsam (upper left), Alehoof (upper right)
Wormwood (center left), Blatterwort (center), Sage (center right) and Juniper berries (bottom)

Although a new world discovery (3), the use of spruce in beer can be dated back to 1536 where it was originally made into a tea to eliminate scurvy in soldiers who couldn’t get enough vitamin c.  Evidence of pine resin being used in wines (Greek- Resina) have gone back as far as Neolothic times (5).  Wormwood shares the same ancient history (5) as a bittering agent.  Alehoof  (6) had use in early beers deriving from Asia,but having transplanted well to the North American region.  Wormwood has gotten a bad wrap due to an unfortunate incident of a gentle who was a known wife beater, that went out drinking in a French Tavern and more than his fill of wine and a glass of absinthe.  Apparently, he went home in a rage and killed his wife. The French government wasn’t about to destroy their cash crop by declaring wine the culprit, it was easier to blame the absinthe as a psychotropic cause.  Sadly, to this day, the rumor of absinthe and the effects of wormwood being dangerous has prevailed.  In truth, you would die from alcohol poisoning long before you ingested enough of the psychotropic property to have the desired effect (7).  Bladderwort, draws it’s origins as a bittering agent from Germany (8) and was dried and then boiled along with the wort.  Sage was used by Egyptians (9) to flavor beer more as a medicinal aspect than just plain beverage bittering.  Juniper always makes me think of the Midwest, but I discovered that was a completely different type of Juniper.  Juniper berries can trace their use back to beers in Finland called Sahti (10). For more on that subject you should see Lord Otto’s Page.  Over the years Germany found this plant called Hops,

The Hop Staff

The Hop Staff

and because Germany controlled the malt and hop production which was easy to tax, they incited the German Beer Purity Law (11)(12).  Gruit beers slowly diminished over time and have just recently started making a comeback with homebrewers. Fortunately, a brewery near me called Earth Eagle Brewery has revived the Gruit Beer as a mainstream beverage.  I highly recommend you try them out and try the LiBERTE’.

So here’s what I did.  We took 12 lbs of Pale Malt and set it up to make a light colored beer that wouldn’t have much influence on the flavor, but would prove sweet if the bittering agent wasn’t strong enough.

WP_002028 WP_002034 WP_002027

Boom! 12 lbs of malt ground, put into the mash tun with 170 degree water, and given 1 hr to mash.  I estimated a 5 gallon batch would be boiled for 45 min leaving the last 15 minutes to add the bittering agent.  No first hop addition (bittering) was done.  Only the final bittering (herb) was added after I separated out the batches.


Each gallon was then separately boiled for the last 15 min with 1 oz of the bittering herbs (except for the sage which was only 2 Tablespoons for fear of it being overpowering), and finished.WP_002036  After  each boil finished, the gallons were strained out and put into separate 1 gallon containers where they were pitched with US-05 yeast  which does not impart any flavor of it’s own to the beer.  After a week of fermenting, the beers have all stopped and were then packed into bottles.


The results will now be tasted at Pennsic, and hopefully you will join us and try out the experiments.  There will also be a hybrid beer which is Tetnanger Hops and Bee Balm (Burgamont – the same herb used for Earl Grey Tea).  Both the hops and the beebalm harvested from my own garden.  If anyone has any recipes or origins of Bergamont being used in period, I’d greatly appreciate a link.

Bee Balm, also called Burgamont

Bee Balm, also called Burgamont



  1. Uncorking the Past: The quest for wine,beer and other alcoholic beverages, p 139,  Patrick E McGovern, University of California Press, 2009
  2. Barbarians Beverages; a history of beer in ancient Europe, p 114, Max Nelson, Routeledge Publishing 2005
  5. Uncorking the Past: The quest for wine,beer and other alcoholic beverages, p 49,  Patrick E McGovern, University of California Press, 2005

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