You know you’re a historic beer geek when … well, certainly when you immediately recognise a drawing of the plant bog myrtle on a bottle among the crammed shelves at Utobeer in Borough Market.
The name of the beer, Gageleer, from the Flemish word for the bog myrtle or sweet gale bush, gagel, confirmed what I had guessed from my initial glimpse: this was a Belgian brew flavoured with what was probably the most important plant used in pre-hop ales, Myrica gale, the heavily-scented heathland shrub that grows in wetlands throughout the British Isles, called gagellan in Old English, and also known as piment royale in French, Porst in German and pors in the Scandinavian languages.
I say “probably” the most important pre-hop ale flavouring, but the evidence for what went into ale before the use of hops became almost universal is patchy, scattered and often inconclusive, and modern accounts are not always reliable.
There appears to be a widespread idea today, for example, that the standard recipe for “grout”, “gruit”, “grut” or “grutz”, the name given to the herb mix that went into Continental pre-hop ales, included both sweet gale and a similar-looking (and tasting) plant called marsh rosemary or wild rosemary, Ledum palustre. This is what Stephen Harrod Buhner’s normally magisterial Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers of 1998 says, and he has a recipe for gruit beer that looks to be the same as the one in Old British Beers and How to Make Them from the Durden Park Beer Club, first published in 1976, which uses sweet gale, marsh rosemary and yarrow, Achillea millefolium. But I’m pretty certain this is wrong, and for a number of reasons.
To begin with, the two plants, sweet gale and marsh rosemary, don’t grow, by and large, in the same parts of the world: a map on page 64 of what is by far the best book on the history of herbed beers, Pors och andra humleersättningar och ölkryddor i äldre tider (Bog Myrtle and Other Substitutes for Hops in Former Times), by Nils von Hofsten, published University of Uppsala, 1960, shows gale growing in north-west Europe, including the British Isles, the Low Countries, north-west Germany and Scandinavia and along a narrow strip of the East Baltic coast, while marsh rosemary grows only east of Denmark and the river Elbe. So if you had gale available to put in your ale, you probably didn’t have marsh rosemary growing locally, and vice-versa.
Next, since the two plants have similar flavours, and similar effects, why would you want to use them both? Especially as marsh rosemary’s effects are more violent than gale’s: Nils von Hofsten says Placotomus in 1543 wrote that “he who drinks much of” beer made with marsh rosemary “becomes almost mad”. Von Hofsten also quotes the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus on the plant: “poisonous; gives a frightful headache, even more so than gale.” Some of the names given to marsh rosemary seem to confirm its lesser status: Falscher Porst, “false gale”, and Schweineporst, “pig’s gale” in German, and Finnmark pors in Norwegian, “gale from Finnmark county” (one of the poorest parts of Norway) suggest the plant was regarded much less highly than “true” gale.
John Arnold, the German-American beer historian who wrote Origin and History of Beer and Brewing in 1911 quotes Josef Grewe, author of a book from 1907 called Braugewerbe der Stadt Münster, as saying that
While along the lower Rhine, especially in Cologne, Myrica gale formed the fundamental substance of the gruit, in Westphalia it seems to have been mainly composed of Ledum palustre, Porze, Porsz or Post. According to Grewe, Porze or wild rosemary was used in Westphalia, notably in the county of Tecklenburg, until the end of the 17th century, and seems to have enjoyed a great popularity. Wild rosemary, says the same author, because of its spicy taste and stimulating effect, was highly considered for brewing purposes, and, in fact, it was still generally employed, even after the use of hops had been universally adopted, almost down to the present time.”
But as Von Hofsten says, the tendency in Germany for both gale and marsh rosemary to be called Pors “has caused much confusion”, and there must be some serious doubt whether what Grewe was finding in the records as Porsz was Ledum palustre or Myrica gale, particularly as, according to Von Hofsten’s map, Ledum palustre didn’t grow near Westphalia, while Myrica gale did. Overall. I’m inclined to think that Von Hofsten is right in saying that
In Western Germany and the Netherlands a main ingredient in grut, undoubtedly always present, was the bog myrtle. Further east this plant was replaced by Ledum palustre.
So – one or the other, but not both.
What were the “stimulating effects” of these two plants when used in ale? Marsh rosemary is said to increase the effect of alcohol and, in large doses, causes headache, vertigo, restlessness, delirium and frenzy. Gale or bog myrtle is scarcely less powerful: Viking warriors, according to some authorities, consumed large quantities of bog myrtle to bring on hallucinations and, literally, drive themselves berserk before battle. However, Celtic herbalists apparently used bog myrtle to treat depression because consuming it calmed the stressed and brought on a good mood.
In Britain gale ale appears in scattered references. one of the few medieval written accounts of gale or bog myrtle and brewing is in a note from the city records of Norwich in March 1471, when the “common ale brewers of this citi”, were ordered by the mayor and council not to brew “nowther with hoppes nor gawle [gale] nor noon other thing … upon peyne of grevous punysshment,” evidently as part of an attempt to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer.
The Tudor cleric William Turner in his book A New Herball, published in 1551, says of bog myrtle that “it is tried by experience that it is good to be put into beare both by me and by diverse other in Summersetshyre.” However, John Gerard in his book The Herball or General History of Plants, published in 1597 was more wary: he wrote that the fruit of bog myrtle “is troublesome to the brain; being put into beere or aile while it is in boiling, it maketh the same heady, fit to make a man quickly drunk.” What Gerard called the “fruit” are actually the waxy nut cones, which form in the autumn: either the leaves, or the nut cones, or both, are used in brewing gale ale.
John Lightfoot’s Flora Scotia, written in 1777, said that “In Uist and others of the Western Isles, and in Glenald and other places of the Highland continent” [that is, mainland Scotland], gale, “sweet willow or Dutch myrtle” is “sometimes used instead of hops for brewing beer.” The leaves were also used to make a tea that was given to children to get rid of worms.
In Yorkshire gale ale, leafy branches of bog myrtle were added to the hot wort, according to Maude Grieve, writing in 1931: Richard Mabey’s marvellous Flora Britannica, published in 1988, suggests home-brewers in the North Yorks Moors area still make gale ale the same way.
Calderbrook, near Littleborough in Lancashire, close to the border with Yorkshire has a pub, the Gale Inn, supposedly named for the plant’s use in brewing, though it apparently no longer grows on the moors in the area, and the pub is probably named after the nearby Gale Fell. There are at least three places in England named for bog myrtle or gale: Gailey, Staffordshire, “grove overgrown with bog myrtle”; Galsworthy, Devon, “bank or slope with bog myrtle”; and Galton, Dorset, “homestead where bog myrtle grows”.
Gageleer, brewed by the De Proefbrouwerij in Lochristi-Hijfte, Belgium, looks just like a slightly cloudy Belgian pale ale, 7.5 per cent abv, blonde/pale amber in colour and with a big, dense white head. The nose immediately suggests ginger, or, to be more precise, galingale. the Chinese spice that isn’t quite ginger, and the flavour follows through with more galingale, hints of cinnamon, herby and woody notes, a liquorice bitterness in the finish – it’s a lovely, warming, complex beer, the sweetness countered by the herbiness, and it makes, I can reveal, a great accompaniment to roast chicken.
I didn’t feel any urge to go Viking-style berserk after drinking gale beer, but I did feel a desire to try again the Williams Brother’s Fraoch Ale, which although named after and made with heather, also contains bog myrtle or gale. After drinking Gageleer, the gale notes in Fraoch Ale become obvious: I’d almost say it tastes more of the gale than the heather.
I’d certainly urge anyone curious as to what pre-hop ales tasted like to try to find a bottle of Gageleer, and if any British brewers feel like recreating this taste from the past, I’d urge them to do so: I’m certain gale ale would find an eager market, albeit niche.