Tag Archives: herb beers

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging
Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

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The nettle and the damage done

Another benefit of being a member of the Zythographer’s Union is that occasionally nice brewers send me beer through the post (and, since I don’t live in Maryland, I don’t have to be registered to receive it.) The only hitch is that Parcelfarce are a cretinous collection of cack-handed clowns, which means that when the package finally arrives, it won’t necessarily be in the state it was when it left the brewery. Surprise was absent, therefore, when I picked up a parcel that Hall and Woodhouse, owners of the Badger brewery, had sent me via Britain’s least-favourite delivery company and heard the sound of broken glass from inside.

Happily Parcelfarce had led itself down badly and smashed only one bottle, and the half-pint glass that accompanied the beers, while in the three attempts it made to deliver the package to me the spilt beer had dried out. Even more happily, the two bottles of Stinger, H&W’s new organic brew made, in part, with nettles (can you get unorganic nettles?), a beer that I haven’t been able to find in my neck of Middlesex, were still intact.

Humanity has been good for nettles, so it’s unkind of them to repay us by stinging so painfully. The plants need soils rich in phosphates, and, as Richard Mabey wrote in his marvellous Flora Britannica, “Human settlements provide phosphates in abundance, in cattle-pens, middens, bonfire sites, refuse dumps and churchyards.” Even long-abandoned human habitations continue to have nettles growing around them when there might not be any other nettles for miles, according to Mabey: “The wooded sites of Romano-British villages on the Grovely Ridge near Salisbury are still dense with nettles subsisting on the remains of an occupation that ended 1,600 years ago.”

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Celebrity Big Brewer

What do the following people have in common: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef and TV presenter; Helena Bonham Carter, Oscar-nominated film actress; Lord Brocket, failed insurance fraudster and I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here contestant; and Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of the television programme Location, Location, Location?

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