Today, most beers contain hops. But once upon a time during the Middle Ages, a blend of herbs was responsible for a brew’s bitterness and flavor. Discover all there is to know about gruit beer and its differences from hoppy beer.
The essentials of gruit beer
Nowadays, beer is unimaginable without hops. They provide bitterness, which tends to counteract the sweetness beer malt brings to a brew. Additionally, they help create different beer flavors. There is even a specific hoppy beer style, which showcases unique flavors (Dulye, 2018).
However, it was not always like this. Before the enforcement of the beer purity law, gruit was mandatory in beer (Sparhawk, 2018). It imparted flavor and served as a preservative (Carter, 2017).
Traditionally, three herbs were at the heart of gruit beer: bog myrtle, yarrow, and wild rosemary (Sparhawk, 2018). Wormwood, nettle, lemon balm, lavender, and sage were popular additional ingredients, depending on location and seasonal availability (Carter, 2017).
In time, gruit was exchanged for hops, as they were cheaper and preserved beer better. People also favored them because their bitterness was more pleasing than that of gruit. Some connoisseurs suggest religious authorities promoted the use of hops over gruit due to the latter’s narcotic, aphrodisiac, and even psychotropic effects (Walsh, 2020).
Gruit beer’s return
Craft breweries have been at the forefront of beer trends for years. Thanks to them, you have gotten to know fruit beer or come to wonder, ‘what is hard seltzer?’
Likewise, they have spearheaded love affairs with forgotten brew styles, such as gruit beer. (See also: Beer Flavors). It seems experimentation is the main driver for current craft brewers (Beau’s, 2018).
Today, you can find American gruit brews, such as De Garde’s Fleur Desay or Scratch’s Spring Tonic. There are also leading examples among imported beer, like German Dutch Solo Gruit Vibrations, from Freigeist + Kissmeyer, or Belgian Cervesia, from Brasserie Dupont (Carter, 2017).
Nevertheless, authentic gruit beer with no hops can be difficult to find. As laws dictate beer can only be sold as such if it contains hops, modern gruit brews either have to include them to some capacity, or need to be marketed as something different than beer (Heidel, 2018).
Gruit beer versus hoppy beer
Plainly put, the main difference for consumers between gruit beer and hoppy beer lies in the taste, more specifically regarding sweetness. Gruit makes brews notably sweeter. It also carries a spicy feel (Atlas Obscura, n.d.).
Other than that, there is little in common between brews made with gruit instead of hops. As the blend of herbs usually varies between brewers, a single flavor profile is arguably impossible.
But one thing gruit beer shares with hoppy beer is how well it pairs with food. This has to do with the fact that the bitter element that the herbs and hops bring is known to act as a digestive (Saveur Biere, n.d.).
As you can see, this beer style represents brewers’ and consumers’ desire to look back and enjoy enticing formulas from days of old.