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The beer of the Middle Ages

500 years of the German Purity Law, family-owned breweries and lots of tradition – beer has for what feels like an eternity (in the vast majority of cases) been brewed from the same ingredients: hops, malt, yeast and water. Sure, as far as we’re concerned, the history of beer begins properly, more or less, with the German Purity Law. But before that, beer production was dominated by quite different modalities: the beer of the Middle Ages was refined with herbs. What for lovers of upmarket beers brewed in the now-traditional manner sounds like a rather unpleasant tea with an alcohol content is nowadays experiencing a veritable renaissance in the vibrant craft beer scene: gruit beer.

The basic essentials

“Gruit” describes a mixture of herbs whose composition depended on the region involved and the preferences of the brewer concerned. Numerous variations were possible, thanks to the diversity of herbs available, since yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves, aniseed, caraway, juniper, wormwood, and many others could be used. Creativity was given free rein. The main aromatics, however, were two very particular shrubs that nowadays are not so commonly encountered: wild rosemary and sweet gale. They were also seen as synonymous with gruit beer, since they constituted the basis for the herbal beer, and were thus a major influence on its taste. Both of them can still be found today in Northern Europe, North America and quite generally in areas near the coast with high precipitation rates. Wild rosemary, also known as marsh rosemary, contains an essential oil (ledum oil), which has a highly intoxicating effect, and was therefore allowed to be used only in minimal doses. Occasionally, too, other “dangerous” constituents, like fly agaric, belladonna, or datura were added, which were known for their hallucinogenic effect. Herbal tea? No way! Mediaeval beer was a pretty potent potion! The only problem (apart from the risk of being poisoned) was the short shelf-life, which is why special herbs were sometimes added. Ash leaves, for example, were used to improve the beer’s shelf-life with their bitter substances, which had an antibacterial effect. 

Not just old, but really old

The oldest records we have indicate that gruit was being used back in 974 CE; archaeological finds even confirm that gale was already being used for brewing beer at the time of Christ’s birth. The gruit was collected and processed by a separate guild (the “gruiters”) and sold to the breweries. Right into the 13th century, this mode of brewing continued to dominate, until finally hops came along and in 1516, the enactment of the German Purity Law rendered further experimentation superfluous. Hops were quickly adopted due primarily to their longer shelf-life and the lower costs, since gruit beer was more expensive and spoiled so quickly that it was not suitable for exporting. Taste-related aspects probably played a significant role as well.

Gruit beer in Münster

In the north of Europe, particularly, gruit beer was extremely popular. There, too, more details and regional idiosyncrasies have come down to us – in the city of Münster, for example: the gruit was produced and sold there in the “Gruthaus” by the “Grutherr”, the city’s highest-ranking tax official. Anyone wanting to brew beer had to use gruit, and this was only available from the “Gruthaus”. The monopoly thus created meant that for centuries the beer was subject to indirect taxation. The precise mixture was a closely-kept secret, since it protected the valuable monopoly. A present-day craft brewery in Münster, however, has done the requisite research and is meanwhile successfully producing beer in the ancient traditional way. You will find more information on taste, production and ingredients on the website of Gruthaus Münster. If we’ve whetted your appetite, you can order it there as well.

I also find the linguistic background fascinating – where exactly does the word “gruit” come from? After all, there’s a whole family of cognate words. Following some initial research I found out that the word stem probably comes from Northern Europe. Do our readers include any etymologists or other experts in this field? I would really appreciate it if anyone can provide some feedback on this!

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