Medieval Gruit Beer at Homebrew Con 2019

I presented my first seminar at the 2019 Homebrew Con in Providence, RI, this weekend:

Medieval Gruit Beer Reconstructed: New Theories on Old Beverages.

Gruit as a product changed throughout its history. From a beer additive revered for its fermenting powers, it evolved into a beer with a reputation for powerful headache-causing herbals. The exact nature of gruit was once thought to be lost, but available sources paint an interesting picture of gruit, not just as a handful of brewing herbs, but as a powerful and necessary wort fortifier. Although not all puzzle pieces have been uncovered and gruit’s exact nature can’t yet be described, several theories adequately corroborate known facts.

Poster presentation for the 2019 Homebrew Con:

Presentation Poster Gruit


Last Call! Ale & Mead Tasting at the 54th International Medieval Congress

Sponsored by the Medieval Brewers Guild and AVISTA: The Association Villard de Honnecourt for the Interdisciplinary Study of Medieval Technology, Science, and Art; hosted by the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.

All good things come to an end! At the final tasting at the Medieval Congress, soon-to-be-retired coordinator Stephen Law bid adieu and farewell to the brewers and tasters after organizing, and brewing, for 13 tastings over the past 20-odd years.


Organizer Stephen Law addressing the crowd of eager tasters.

In the words of Stephen Law:

“A variety of medieval-style meads and ales are presented today, including the return of some novel brewing experiments that we have done in the past. The term ‘metheglin’ is used to designate meads that have been flavored with herbs or spices; we have several on the tables today. Traditional meads are the purest form of meads, with nothing used to modify the flavor of the natural honey itself. Pyment is a blend of mead and wine; both a white and a red are again offered this year. Melomels have always been popular (especially here at Kalamazoo); our fruity blends are delightfully refreshing. ‘Sack’ – in current terminology – means strong or very strong mead. Be careful with the sacks, as they sneak up on you. Particularly welcome is a ‘washed comb mead’ made in the traditional manner that bypasses all filtration whatsoever.

Some of the ales in this year’s tasting are ‘vintage ales.’ Notably, the Once-Brewed and the Twice-Brewed ales, have returned for the ‘last call’ (they were made with the hypothetical Saxon method of brewing a super-strong ales). The three unique ‘Hildegard Ales’ were made for this year’s academic presentation (session 101) on Gruit Ales vs Hopped Ales; they are a derivative of her information in the Physica. We also have several experimental ales with mixtures of gruits.

Wacht heil! Drinc heil!


Patiently waiting for the clock to strike 5PM!

While Stephen Law provided the bulk of the beverages, several other brewers contributed as well, including husband and wife team Benjamin and Mary Sullivan (session 101 – Microbial Susceptibility of Hopped and non-Hopped Ales) and I (also in session 101 – Medieval Gruit Ales Revisited).


Mary Sullivan ready to share samples of the fruits of her brewing experiments.

About a dozen members of the Medieval Brewers Guild helped behind the tables, keeping all the pitchers filled, ready for pouring. The Medieval Institute provided the servers, who poured and thus took full legal responsibility. Between all of us, we still had trouble keeping up for a bit! We had an estimated 500 people partake in sampling our medieval offerings.


Medieval Style Ales (a short run-down):

Hildegard’s Mirtelbaum Ale (barley ale with organic myrtle leaves and berries); Hildegard’s Costmary and Fennel Ale (barley ale with costmary & fennel); Hildegard’s Aesh and Oat Ale (60% oats and 40% barley with EU ash tree leaves); Low Country Gruit Ale (oat/wheat/barley ale with bog myrtle, laurel berries, laserwort seeds and resin); Vintage Once-Brewed Saxon (single infusion mash, 11% ABV); Vintage Twice-Brewed Saxon (sparged with wort, 15% ABV); Viking Farmhouse Ale (barley, with yarrow, birch leaves, bilberry & angelica); Dry-hopped Wheat Wine (min. 50% malted wheat, dry hopped for 2 years, 14% ABV) Wormwood and Orange Peel Strong Ale (barley, wormwood, orange blossom sack, and curacao peel – not for pregnant women); Spiced Welsh Braggot (a blend of mead and ale, with galangal, ginger, cloves, pepper and cinnamon, 11% ABV); Hopped vs non-Hopped Experiment (a split batch barley & rye ale; one batch Northern Brewer Hops, other batch bog myrtle, mugwort, elder flower, juniper berries and licorice root).


The stash of mead, ready to be poured.

Meads and Cider:

Traditional Wildflower Sack Mead (24 lbs of honey, 15% ABV); Honey Comb Mead (honey straight from comb, including wax, propolus, pollen and all!); Rose Hips and Heather Metheglyn (24 lbs of honey, 15% ABV); Raspberry Melomel (13% ABV); Mixed Berry Melomel (organic raspberries, blackberries and blueberries; 13% ABV); White Pyment (wildflower sack mead blended 50/50 with Pinot Grigio); Red Pyment (wildflower sack mead blended 50/50 with Merlot); Lime and Ginger Mead (24 lbs of honey, 15% ABV); Hopped Metheglin Sack Mead (hops were used for both ales and meads in the late middle ages, 15% ABV); Spiced Sack Metheglin (Curacao orange peel, ginger); Strong Cyser (50/50 blend of mead and organic apple cider, 12% ABV); Cider / Perry Blend (heritage apple cier 2016, blended with pear concentrate, ca. 6.8% ABV).


Many happy conference attendees, trying one, or two, or several!

Conference Review: REARC 2018

The 8th annual Reconstructive and Experimental Archaeology Conference hosted by EXARC drew speakers and participants from many parts of the world. The REARC conference was once again hosted by Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, from October 18th to the 20th. Friday was reserved for the presentation of papers, by students and researchers alike, demonstrating the wealth of information and practical skills available within the EXARC community. Saturday was filled with numerous demonstrations in which the conference attendees could participate and museum visitors could watch and learn.


My presentation Of Boyling and Seething (Photo S. Stull).

The presented papers ranged from practical recreations like bird bone flute making and weaving reed beads to duplicate pottery impressions, to the use of recreated objects, such as determining if Ötzi’s tools were for hunting or for warfare, and the function of experimental archaeology within different types of classrooms. Some researchers presented a follow up on previous papers, like Neil Peterson with his ongoing Viking bead furnace project. Some might look for resources not yet found – the joy of Caitlin Gaffney after finding a possible source for a reproduction medieval knife to carve her bone flutes was absolutely contagious. And some were looking to network: David Spence asked for additional projects for his Experimental Archaeology in High School and left with numerous contacts and suggestions. Each and every paper had some unique view, some unusual bit of information – as the practical aspects of experimental archaeology requires a more interdisciplinary approach than traditional academics, conferences like REARC are essential. You just never know from what discipline, from which subject, the answer to the question you did not even realize you had could come from. I personally was amazed to find that the gist of my paper, to not take words at their literal modern definition, was independently repeated in another paper – to have my initial interpretation validated via an independent source right then and there.


Bill Schindler, experimental archaeologist and co-host of the National Geographic show The Great Human Race. I enjoyed our conversation over a craft beer at the hotel, and even taught him a thing or two about historic mead brewing.

The keynote speaker for this year was Bill Schindler, an experimental archaeologist with Washington College and part of the Eastern Shore Food Labs. His quite engaging presentation on Fusion: ancestral diets, modern culinary techniques, and experimental archaeology was well received, and left the audience with a number of questions to think on. This paper was perfect for our younger generation, our students, as they are now growing up in an environment which might be more hostile to them than they would surmise, and where their chosen area of research, experimental archaeology, could help shed light on where to go from here. The connection between human biology and our diet, and the impact industrialization has had on our health to the point where humans, and our pets, can be both obese and malnourished, is not only fascinating from an academic point of view, but pertinent to the survival of our species.


This years’ demonstrations were two part: the practice of throwing atlatl and observing and shooting early bows, combined with the technique of smelting tin and casting bronze and making Viking era glass beads. Unfortunately, while the weather was absolutely gorgeous on Friday, by the time Saturday came around it had changed to intermittent drizzle and rain. But that did not stop us from having a go at each of the stations, and appreciate the added value of tent coverings at the metallurgy and flamework areas. While I would have loved to try Ötzi’s replica bow as initially intended, Manuel Lizarralde did not feel comfortable to have it out in soaking rain as it was not yet waterproof. I did get to shoot a fire hardened black locust Native American self bow, weatherproofed with bear grease, and even hit the target center. Conference host Tim Messner enjoyed the primitive tattoo kit and extant stone tools the Native American interpreter brought to share – and almost talked him into a tattoo demo on the spot.


Fergus Milton, with help from David Spence, melting bronze to do a lost-wax mold casting later in the afternoon

At the station near the Blacksmith area we enjoyed Fergus Milton’s bronze casting demonstrations – with help on the bellows by David Spence – using a small furnace constructed on site from local clay, and aerated with a primitive leather-bag bellows. He began the day by smelting the bronze and preparing two molds, and poured the molds mid-afternoon. Several museum guests returned specifically to witness the casting, after stopping by periodically to keep an eye on the proceedings.


Making a glass Viking bead while Neil works the bellows (Photo by S. Stull).

At the same time Neil Peterson had his coal-fed bead furnace up and running for conference attendees to try their hand at making a Viking glass bead. His station was in continuous use throughout the day and many of the attendees left with a precious homemade bead in their pocket. Surprisingly, participants often had more trouble with the coordination required to operate the bellows effectively, than they had creating a simple bead.


To cap off this wonderful experience, the resident founders at Williamsburg had invited Fergus Milton for a special bronze casting demonstration Sunday morning at their shop. To experience the prehistoric process, so closely followed by the much more refined methods of the 18th century Geddy Foundry, was an appropriate ending to an otherwise perfect immersive weekend of reconstructive and experimental archaeology. We are ready to come back for more next year!


All photos credited to Susan Verberg, unless otherwise stated.

For details on the presented papers:

Reprinted at: