Gale warning

gageleerYou 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.

22 thoughts on “Gale warning

  1. The gruit question has always intrigued me and it has often led me to the regulatory aspect. When I think of the work by Professor Unger, I wonder if gruit was whatever was required locally. What I mean is, given brewing in the middle ages was notorious and highly taxed, if the local laird (or the Dutch equivalent) told you to brew with the blend of herbs he handed you in return for the required fee, I think that you would brew with that blend. Further, given the sort of trade in dried ingredients a show like “Tales From The Green Valley” indicates were not that uncommon, a blend of local and distant might not in itself be unexpected.

    That being said, I appreciate seeking the exact blend is a mug’s game but am comforted by the effort one local eastern Ontario brewer takes every winter to make its Bog Water with bog myrtle so I have at least a hint of what ale might have been like before hops.

    1. You’re right, of course, Alan, in seeing the gruit question as fundamentally a financial one, in that selling the gruit was a way for the local powers to raise cash. In Britain (or at last England – I don’t know about Scotland) another way was found to raise money from brewers, via the fiction of fines for “breaking the assize”, so because ale flavourings before hops were never regulated in England, we know far, far less about them. Thre’s definitely a book to be written in English on gruit flavourings, but as it would need someone familiar with medieval Dutch, medieval German, and probably medieval Czech and French, and with time enough to spend looking at ancient records across Northern Europe, who also understands ancient brewing methods, biology and the psycho-physiological effects of different plants on the human body, it’s a big ask. What little I’ve been able to discover, though, suggests plant use was pretty localised: the Dutch, for example, used viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), which British brewers never seem to have used.

  2. I am currently trying to track down formulations for Welsh pre-hopped beers and I haven’t seen any references to gale yet; I have, however, seen rowan, true ginger, and true cinnamon.

    And honey. Lots of honey. So *something* must have been bittering it…

    1. As you’ve probably discovered, Edmund, the Welsh were very fond of honey-beer, which they called IIRC bragawd, braggot in English valuing it halfway between mead and ordinary ale. What they flavoured their ales with is pretty much anybody’s guess from a number of candidates, but I’d bet on alehoof, otherwise caled ground ivy, Glecoma Hederacea, which both flavours and clears the ale.

  3. Impressive as Buhner’s book may be to many respects, this is not the only historical bit where he’s off the mark. His explaining the switch from gruit to hops as a protestant crackdown on feisty catholic tradition just does not hold to chronological check.
    The Reformation is usually sourced back to 1517 and Luther’s ’95 Theses’, which is quite optimistic as it really started a few years later.
    Yet looking for beer purity laws imposing the use of hops across the Roman Germanic Empire, there’s quite a few of them preceding Luther’s 95 Theses by up to a century and a half.
    The most notorious of them all indeed is the Reinheitsgebot, which dates back to 1516, i.e. the year before Luther’s 95 theses, and was first edicted in a part of Germany that never veered from catholicism anyway.
    The reason behind imposing the hop, beside its innocuity, is more probably the general move among German princes at the time to undemine the Catholic Chruch’s influence on their lands. Switching to hops meant killing off the gruit business, which often was in the hands of the Church.

    1. Mmm, well, Mr Buhner certainly has an agenda to follow, and doesn’t let the facts get in the way – he’s wildly wrong on the attitides and beliefs of modern evolutionary biologists, too, and builds up a thesis based on an utter misunderstanding of what evolutionists actually say. But his is still a fabulous piece of scholarship on the role of herbs and plants in brewing.

  4. That’s interesting – I’d heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism before as guys who dress up in armour and bash each other with medieval weapons. I didn’t realise they did booze too, though I suppose I might need a quart or two of strong ale before I’d do something like that!

  5. I recently brewed an Ale with Sweet Gale. It was a bit tough to pin down the exact quantity to use, because I was worrying about balancing the Herbs/Malt taste. 2 oz. per 6 Gals was a good choice finally. 1 oz for 60 min, 1 for 30 min. It give a great aroma, and balanced bitterness and taste very great. So, for those who wanna try, it’s a good guess, this quantity for an Ale of about 5.8% abv.

    1. Just the information I was looking for, having finally – after years of brewing herbal beers in the US – actually obtained some good-quality Myrica gale from an herbalist in Scotland. Thank you Ealusceop and Google.

      Martyn, couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Buhner. I decided a long time ago that “gruit” would mean whatever unhopped herbal blend I felt like using. Fortunately, beer is remarkably forgiving to wild, somewhat clueless experimentation.

  6. A number of years ago while in the west of Ireland I ran across a beer called Red Biddy, brewed by the Biddy Early Brewery:

    Only years later did I learn it was brewed with bog myrtle in place of the flavor addition. I remember it being rather tasty, but then again I was young and my pallet was rather unrefined. Anyway, if you end up in Co. Claire and run into it on tap give it a try. I had it at O’briens Pub in Ballyvaughan (which I don’t believe exists any more.)

  7. Good evening

    I am hoping to make a viking style beer
    we are invited to a viking festival
    and i think it would be nice to make an authentic brew

    Manny thanks Piet

    1. Vikings apparently used to wind themselves up into berserker-style battle furies by consuming too much sweet gale – so don’t overdo it …

  8. I love Gruit- Or Grut as I sometimes like to call it. I’ve made five or six batches of it. I used a few sweet gale nutlets in my brew today. I hope it turns out, it also used the last of this years hop harvest.

    If anyone lives in the Lake Superior region, this plant, grows like crazy all over the place. One of the lakes where I ice fish is ringed by it. You could harvest enough for twenty batches of beer and not even make a dent in what is there. It also grows up in The Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I harvested some of it and some juniper berries near there for a great beer last fall.

    Brew a Gruit, you won’t regret it.

    -åke larson

    1. I am in the Twin Cities region but will be running a race on the superior hiking trail later this May. This comment is 3 years too late but I am gearing up to brew a grut and harvesting wild, natural ingredients would be excellent

  9. About 40 years ago, one of the good ladies in the village, on the edge of the North York Moors, made Gale Beer for the village carnival!
    Not as a flavouring for beer, but more like ginger beer.
    Ingredients were: water, sugar, gale & yeast. That’s all.
    Time for another brew & never mind what it ( allegedly ) does to my brain.

    1. My aunt, who lived on a farm on the edge of the North York Moors, made a mild gale beer every year to send into the hay, or harvest, fields on hot summer days. It was a great thirst quencher, she said.
      I can see in my mind’s eye a very large earthenware container with a piece of toast floating on the top of the concoction. The smell was aromatic but I don’t recall the taste, being too young to be given even a mildly alcoholic drink.

      1. Excellent memory, Margaret – what sort of year, or decade, woulkd that have been? The toast, I feel fairly certain, would have carried the yeast to make the beer ferment.

  10. I suggest viking-style berserk beer was made from Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) which in the Russian-language literature is also called bog myrtle. Andromedotoxin in this plant excites the central nervous system, and then depresses it. Leatherleaf is for sure poisonous plant, do not try to use it in your recepies.

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