When I first began imbibing in craft beer, I felt like a woman cheating on her lover. For many years, I had been drenched in the mysteries of méthode champenoise, being a fan of the Champagnes of France and the Cavas of Catalonia. Foggy memory cloaks my affair with these sparkling liquids, muted by gulps of laughter that intensified sensory effervescence on my tongue. For me, these wines were somewhat aphrodisiacal … social lubricants that echoed earthly pleasures, approved of by Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest and Bacchus, Roman god of feasting and frenzy. As weekend companions, they lured me along paths of libertine fantasy into places and experiences long since forgotten.
Human beings are blessed with cravings for variety, and this Beer Fox was only beginning to taste the fruit. Cuisine a la Biére fascinated me, and there were few American cookbooks that featured beer as an enhancement in the recipes. I began to experiment, pouring beer into saucepans of shellfish and bisque. I noticed their color, clarity and head, holding them up to the light to bathe in their eye-candy. I had to delve deeper into their distinctive flavors. Sweetness would start on the lips, move to the palate, and drench the throat, tingling down my spine, ending with tart or bitter notes. As I learned to choose beers that would work well with meats, pâté and desserts, my understanding of spices, hops and yeast expanded.
Hops prove to be a challenge in cooking, particularly in ales with a strong American profile, especially those resiny hops from the Pacific Northwest that peel the skin off the roof of your mouth. When exposed to a hard boil, they have the tendency to blast bitterness into a food, and can actually overwhelm delicate flavors. For die-hard hopheads, however, there is nothing as pleasurable as hops.
Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1178) documented the first use of hops in beer in Physica Sacra, circa 1150 CE, a book she is credited with authoring. It is humorous to think that hops, for a thousand years, were viewed as a big, bad ingredient throughout many parts of Europe, including Scotland, Norway, England, and across the moving borders of Germany. Their opponents believed hops dulled the senses, sedated the drinker and dulled sexual desire. For 400 years, the use of hops in European beer was bitterly fought by medical practitioners, in Church edicts, by government officials, and by royalty.
Observe how cannabis sativa, a close cousin of humulus lupulus, aka hops (in the family of Cannabaceae), and similar herbal plants are viewed today, and you will glimpse into the past, when Gruit was purchased to make beer … and hops were forbidden.
Historians commonly refer to the Reinheitsgebot of 1516, also known as the Bavarian Beer Purity Law, which required hops as a component in beer; but few touch on the design of beer prior to this decree. According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, in his book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, “Gruit ale was the ale of Europe for at least 700 years, much as hopped ale or beer is throughout the world today.”
As in craft beer today, Gruit Ale varied from one producer to the next. Usual ingredients included: sweet gale, (also known as bog myrtle), which added a pungent, spicy flavor and blended well with nutmeg or orange rind; yarrow, a bitter herb; wild rosemary, an herb with a pine profile and hints of mint; juniper berries, with their resinous, citrusy notes; wormwood (also known as mugwort), which displays assertive bitterness; and woodruff, exhibiting the aromas of freshly cut hay. Also used were ginger, caraway seeds, anise seed, cinnamon, and woodsage (also known as germander) with its minty profile.
These herbs and spices were highly intoxicating, particularly when mass quantities of this Gruit Ale were ingested. They often imparted narcotic and psychotropic effects on the mind, while enhancing sexual desire. The makers of Gruit Ale protected their recipes as passionately as they defended their privilege to brew. Licenses for brewing were a status symbol, bestowed by the Church – granted by archbishops and bishops – and came heavily laden with fees and taxes that ensured prestige in the hierarchy of society.
Episcopal Gruit houses were established. All who brewed, whether commercially or within the walls of their own homes, were directed to purchase the gruit for their ale in these dispensaries. In Cologne, Germany, an edict prohibiting hopped beer from Westphalia was signed in 1381 CE, making it illegal to brew with or import “hopped beer” in the region.
So strict were the laws against hops that it was even illegal to grow them in England. It wasn’t until Parliament passed a law in 1554 CE, that the cultivation of hops became legalized. But it took another 150 years before the pendulum swung the other way, making it illegal for brewers to buy herbs for brewing, or for any other reason under pretense.
Brewers in more remote areas – Norway, for example – held on to Gruit production the longest, where it was even accepted as payment for taxes. When was the last time Bud Light was accepted as payment to the IRS?
Enliven your beer bouquet:
Shanti's Spice Box
Gruit Ale? You need the freshness of wormwood
Wormwood Herb Wildcrafted Cut & Sifted - Artemisia absinthium, 1 lb,(Starwest Botanicals)