The word gruit seems to have, and have had, many meanings. Firstly the medieval beer itself, the ingredient necessary to make this beer; the monopoly to produce and sell this ingredient, and lastly the modern herbal craft ale made without hops. As the word ale was not in use in continental Europe in the middle Ages, medieval gruit beer is traditionally called a beer, in contrast to modern gruit ale, which is unhopped and thus an ale.
Where did gruit occur?
Medieval gruit was brewed in the medieval Low Countries of Flanders (Belgium), the Netherlands and western Germany between the 10th to the 15th century. With the import of the new hopped beer from northern Germany at the beginning of the 14th century, the Holland brewers rapidly changed over to brewing with hops; the southern Netherlands held on to the traditional way of brewing to a greater or lesser degree up until the end of the 15th century.
The right of gruit
The right to produce and sell gruit first came into the hands of the church and land owners through imperial donations in the 10th century. By the 12th and 13th century they also leased or sold this right, not only to individuals but also to cities. Due to the 13th century invention of urbanization, which created brewing as an occupation, villages and cities had leverage to acquire this right to then tax brewing for sale. When this right fell into the hands of the cities – the proceeds often were used for public works, and to fund local war efforts – the purchases and sales of the product gruit were collected in detailed accounts of the local administrative chambers, of which several survived.
What was in gruit
At first gruit was a combination of a grain product and preserving herbs. In order to keep gruit beer longer it was brewed with a relative high level of alcohol, and a valid theory is the wort was strengthened by adding a syrup-like grain extract, the gruit, and that the added herbs are not to flavor and preserve the beer, but to preserve this extract during storage. It is not yet clear if this grain extract was similar to modern malt extract, giving the fermentation a sugar-boost, or perhaps similar to Propper Starter, a concentrated malt and yeast nutrient.
In addition to this grain product generally also a combination of herbs was used, plus refined resin which also has a preserving effect. The herbs most often mentioned were either bog myrtle (Myrica gale) or marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre), laserkruid (Laserpitium siler) and laurel berries (Laurus nobilis). Possibly hops was also used, especially in the transitional period from gruit ale to hopped beer. Only the accounts of Cologne mentioned the use of anise (Pimpinella anisum), juniper (Juniperus communis) and caraway (Carvum carvi), although this seems to be due to trouble sourcing several of the traditional gruit ingredients and thus the gruit houses experimenting with alternatives. And if you are wondering what the neighbors thought of this experimentation, we know it right from the horse’s mouth: “so is the gruit from Neuss much better than the gruit from Cologne”! As far as the historic sources show other herbs such as sage (Salvia officinalis) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) are most likely based on speculations from outdated research as there appears to be no mention of either in primary sources related to gruit.
An outdated technology
The first written records of the use of hops were found in 9th century Germany and by the 12th century northern Germany had hop gardens specifically for the use in brewing. Gruit beer and hopped beer were brewed side by side for centuries throughout western Europe. It took some time to fine-tune the production and use of hops, and not until the 13th century did German hopped beer become as durable as we know today. Beer brewed with hops and the right technique stays good for much longer. But hopped beer also had another big advantage in a country of many wars and grain shortages: it needed much less grain to make a drinkable beer that kept well. The bishop of Utrecht complained in 1374 about the “Novus modus fermentandi cerviciam” (the new way to brew beer), which declined his income from gruit so very much. Not only the use of hops was new, but also the way beer with hops was brewed. Where before it was enough to steep malted and crushed grains with hot water, to then filter off the wort to let it ferment; brewing with hops needed an extra step. The hops needs to be cooked extensively with (part of) the wort, separate from the grain solids, to release its preservative components; and thus the new way of brewing came about.
In 13th century northern Germany the use of hops became standardized, resulting in the first beer suitable for export and trade. This trade to other countries exposed other parts of Europe with hopped beer, and for instance Holland (the northern part of the Netherlands) changed over quickly to the import and later brewing of hopped beer for trade. Likely this process was delayed in the southern Low Countries because the local churches and governments benefited from gruit and not from the trade of hops or hopped beer. And thus complained the city of Zwolle to the bishop Frederik of Blankenheim of his intention to renew their gruitrecht: “hoppenbyer, dat men gemeenlike drynket in onssen lande, daer onse gruyten … seer mede afgegaen, ende vernyelt syn.” (hopped beer which one generally drinks in our land, did our gruit … much decline, and make broken).
At first production and trade of hopped beer was prohibited entirely. When that did not prove possible hopped beer became taxed as well, at first even under the same name as gruit. Count Willem III, in a dispute between hop brewers and the local sheriff, judged “Dat zoe wie voorwaerd meer die grute te Leiden housen zel, die zel houden beyde hoppe ende gruyte” (That those who run the gruit house in Leiden, shall tax both hops and gruit). When hops had completely replaced gruit, the method of taxation also adjusted: the levy on an ingredient evolved into a general sales tax.
Gruit as a herbal medicinal beer
The transition to hops made the grain aspect of gruit superfluous and this technique in connection with gruit disappeared from living memory. Gruit beer as a medicinal herbal beer was remembered for longer. Included in Eenen Nyeuwen Coock Boeck from 1511 as one of the many healthy recipes for “den wech der ghesondheyt” (the road to good health) is a recipe Om Gruyt, ende Gruytbier te maken (To make Gruit, and Gruit beer), the only known recipe for gruit beer:
To make gruit and gruit beer. Take against one pot (half a gallon of malt) a laurel berry, and also much resin, and some oat bran, and two seeds of bog myrtle. And make this beer only of barley malt, and set it with yeast.
Born from the necessity for a better quality beer, and the genesis of sales tax which made many organizations and families rich; after the introduction of hopped beer this previously ubiquitous medieval ale quickly disappeared from the table. Barely mentioned in the 16th century, by the 17th century the practical knowledge of gruit had disappeared. Renewed interest in patriotic history in the 19th and 20th century, including in gruit, resulted in many theories; the most wild being duckweed, for which brewers had pay gruitgeld to have it and other pond scum removed from their brewing water!
With the recent interest in historical beers the interest in gruit ale has also rekindled. In this respect, most attention is paid to making an herbal ale, with the idea of gruit / herb being in contrast to our modern hopped beer. But there is more to gruit that just a handful of herbs and the unique history of this medieval Low Country beer certainly deserves its own spotlight.
The Seminar “Medieval gruit beer reconstructed: New Theories about Old Beverages” was presented at the 2019 Homebrew Con in Providence, RI. If you have a current AHA membership, you can download the powerpoint pdf and an audiofile of the seminar here: https://www.homebrewersassociation.org/seminar/medieval-gruit-ales-reconstructed-new-theories-about-old-beverages/
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