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Hops & Change

A hop crisis is looming. But is the modern palate ready for the old-school, hopless, botanical styles of gruit beer?

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The Great Margarita Disaster of 2014 is upon us. People are panicking, dipping into their savings accounts, even, to shell out the 50 cents to a dollar it now costs to purchase a single lime. Some, in desperation, have even resorted to using lemons. But just as one devastating crop shortage is reaching its peak, an even more threatening shortage looms on the horizon. Thanks to the explosive growth of the American craft beer industry, it has been forewarned that a shortage of hops is imminent. Yes, that means your favorite pint of hop-heavy IPA could lighten your wallet even more in the near future.

The craft beer industry may only make up 7% of the total U.S. beer market, but it packs over half of the total U.S. hop harvest into its fan-favorite pale ales, IPAs, double IPAs, and countless other styles. The hop farmers of the Pacific Northwest can’t keep up. To make matters worse, the purchasing of hops is mostly done via futures-based contracts. Bigger companies are already staking their hop claims as far into the future as they can afford, leaving the up-and-comers with a questionably hoppy future. Most brewers seem to agree that if the time comes, they’ll adjust financially to compensate for the increased cost or rework recipes to get more out of less hops. But these aren’t the only options.

Before hops became a ubiquitous ingredient in beer, something often referred to as gruit took their place. While historically the word gruit referred to a number of different things, it can generally be defined in this context as a blend of herbs and other vegetation used in brewing beer. The composition of gruit varied widely from recipe to recipe, containing all sorts of things you’d find in jars in a New-Age homeopathic medicine shop. Yarrow, wild rosemary, laurel, gentian, mugwort, and woodruff pop up here and there, but the most consistent ingredient is Myrica gale, known commonly as sweet gale or bog myrtle. Other, more common household herbs and spices like juniper berry, ginger, caraway, anise, nutmeg, and cinnamon also found their way into these ancient blends.

From the medieval period onward, gruit was popularly used to flavor, bitter, and, in some cases, preserve beer, much like hops do in modern beers. The natural bitterness of the herbs and spices would have been used to effectively balance the sweetness of the sugary mash while adding distinctive and pungent flavors and aromas to the brew. Many of the herbs used, bog myrtle in particular, are also naturally antimicrobial, giving gruit a preservative property against bacterial spoilage. Gruit remained the foremost flavoring component in beer for centuries across Europe, particularly in Germany, Scandinavia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It even hung around as a minority ingredient after hops took over as the major flavoring, bittering, and preserving agent in beer in the 1700s or so, only falling completely out of popularity later in the 19th century.

Every beer historian seems to have their own theory about the rise of hops. Some argue that they became more popular out of simple practicality, as it was widely accepted that hops were more potent preservatives than the herbs used in gruit. As beer began to be exported more frequently, rather than consumed locally, preservation became especially vital. This trend seems to coincide with gruit’s demise.

Others claim it has more to do with the warring religious groups of the time. The Catholic Church held a virtual monopoly on the brewing industry, in Germany in particular, at the time and made a good chunk of tax money off of distributing gruit. Fresh off the heels of Martin Luther’s excommunication, the Protestants began to push back against gruit and advocate for hops.

The Protestants’ hop advocacy had a symbolic component as well as a monetary one. Many of the herbs used in gruit can exhibit psychotropic effects when consumed in large quantities,so gruit beer was commonly thought of as a narcotic-like stimulant and even an aphrodisiac. Hops, on the other hand, contain sedative compounds that can actually decrease sex drive in men with long term use. Because of the Catholic Church’s control of gruit, and these depressive side effects, hops were staunchly opposed, to the point where their use was punishable by law. But a leading theory is that the Protestants took advantage of this connection between the Catholic Church and the wildly psychoactive side effects of gruit as a symbol of the widespread corruption and over-indulgence of the church from which they were breaking away.

Eventually Protestantism became a widely accepted, and in parts of Germany the law of the land was reversed and required that hops be used to produce beer. Herbal and hopless beers were relegated to folk medicine and tall tales as time passed. Take Scottish heather ale, for example. There are more than 50-some variations on the legend of the Pictish brew made from the wild heather that covered their hills. The most popular myth involves the invading Scots tribe killing off all of the people who knew the recipe, save for an old man and his weak-willed son. The old man eventually tricks the Scots into killing his son so that the secret recipe would never be divulged. They clearly thought pretty highly of the stuff, huh?

Whichever explanation is true, we all know how the story ends: people love hops and, for many, the thought of beer without them is troubling. So is gruit a viable option as a replacement if the looming hop shortage really does occur? A handful of adventurous modern-day gruit brewers would certainly say so. While no one is readying their gruit recipes specifically for a hop apocalypse, several brewers have attempted to recreate these ancient herbal ales out of sheer curiosity. “I’d been a fan of history and mythology books since boyhood, and always wondered about the mysterious ambrosia consumed by the Norse gods, the ancient Picts, and others,” says Will Meyers, whose Cambridge Brewing Company has produced several hopless beers, including a bog myrtle, wild rosemary, and yarrow ale called Weekapaug Gruit. “I know I can never taste exactly what they tasted, but I love creating what I call ‘contemporary interpretations,’” says Meyers.

The biggest roadblock to these centuries-old flavors taking a bite out of the hop market, however, may just be the modern palate. The bright floral and fruity flavors of hops are well integrated into the flavor wheel of a modern consumer. The challengingly earthy, vegetal, and incense notes of gruit are not. “Getting people to embrace bitterness, sourness, or unusual herbal flavors takes time, education, and considerable effort,” says Meyers. Just like it took time for the people of the 1700s to move past their familiar gruit flavors and grow accustomed to the sharp bitterness of the hop flower, it’ll take time for a taste of these herbal notes to return. We’re witnessing a similar change with the modern beer drinkers’ slow and steady development of a taste for the sour and funk of wild fermentation. If it can happen with wild yeasts, why not wild herbs? However hard it may prove to be, though, it can’t be as bad as getting people to substitute limes for lemons in their margaritas.

Recommendations

Finding gruit beer and other hopless beers on the shelves these days is not necessarily an easy feat but several popular examples exist and the list of readily available options is growing. Here’s a few that you should be able to hunt down to get a taste of the unique qualities of these herbal ingredients.

13th Century Grut Bier, Professor Fritz Briem
Germany. 4.6% alcohol by volume, $7 for 16.9 ounces.

The Professor Fritz Briem line of beers provides some of the most authentic recreations of lost beer styles and this gruit style ale is no exception. Bay leaf, ginger, caraway, anise, rosemary, and gentian combine to gives this exceedingly pale beer an intensely earthy, citrus-heavy, white-flower flavor profile balanced with savory herbal notes from the bay leaf and rosemary.

Fraoch, Williams Brothers
Scotland. 5%, $6 for 16.9 ounces.

This recreation of the long-lost heather ales of Scotland demonstrates how herbal ingredients can play a subdued role in the flavor profile of a beer. Bog myrtle and heather are utilized here to keep the underlying maltiness in check, resulting in an easy-drinking caramel-forward ale with a floral finish.

Nuova Mattina, Birrificio del Ducato
Italy. 5.8%, $12 for 375 milliliters.

Italian brewers love to utilize spices and herbs to create interesting, borderline savory flavor profiles in their beers. While Nuova Mattina isn’t based on a gruit ale and does contain hops, the inventive blend of herbs and spices are the focus. Ginger, green peppercorn, coriander, and chamomile work with a saison base to give a sharply spicy, deeply vegetal, and pleasantly toasty beer.

Gageleer, De Proefbrouwerij
Belgium. 7.5%, $5 for 330 milliliters.

If you really want to get a sense of what sweet gale/bog myrtle tastes like, this is the beer you want to taste. A green, honeyed, dried flowers nose leads into a delicate flavor profile with pepper, savory herbs, and a biscuit backbone. It’s a hard taste to place if you, like me, didn’t grow up picking gale in the bog.

Alba Scots Pine Ale, Williams Brothers
Scotland, 7.5%, $4 for 12 ounces.

Another Scottish recreation, the Alba Scots uses both pine and spruce twigs to flavor a yeasty, malt-forward ale. There are fresh berries on the nose followed by an intense aroma of sticky pine sap and a resinous palate with some berry jam and caramel underneath. Since the pine and spruce is more sap and resin forward than fresh pine needles, a small amount of hops is used to balance the malt.

Posca Rustica, Brasserie Dupont
Belgium. 8%, $12 for 750 milliliters.

Dupont brewed this beer from an archaeological recreation in an attempt to re-create pre-Roman Empire Belgian ale. It is constructed with a dozen or so spices including bog myrtle and sweet woodruff. Dry and citrusy like its Saison Dupont cousin, Posca Rustica replaces the floral hops of the standard saison with peppery vegetal and medicinal herbal notes.

Source photo by Allan Harris via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Wikimedia Commons.

Frank is a Biomedical Engineering major at Drexel University with a serious interest in the world of craft beer. When he’s not studying how to engineer solutions to human disease and injury, he can be found visiting breweries and bottle shops expanding his knowledge of brewing techniques, beer styles, and history.

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