Saturday, October 11, 2014

#34 Unhopped Ales: Gruit and Leann Fraoch - Recipes

Recipe     -     Brewday     -     Tasting

While I'm on the subject of local ingredients--blackberries, hops, more blackberries, more hops, apples and pears--let's just add another to the list: wormwood.  My friend Kristin has a small herb garden and last spring at a beerfest we decided to find a way to incorporate her herbs into a beer.  These days beers are just spiced with hops, but I remembered reading somewhere that wormwood--the headline ingredient in absinthe once thought to cause hallucinations--was once used as a bittering agent in a concoction known as gruit, back before everybody was addicted to lupulin.  Even though we're trying to brew with one of the most bitter herbs known to man, at least there's a precedent.  Of all my crazy experiments, this is one of them.

Gruit dates back to the dark ages and is the forerunner of modern beer.  An unhopped ale, it was spiced with a mixture of herbs (also known as gruit) that provided bitterness, flavor and acts as a preservative.  Myrica gale, yarrow, march rosemary, juniper, wormwood, mugwort, heather, horehound, and others found their way into the brew.  The exact composition of these blends was a closely held secret, often safeguarded by feudal lords and church officials, and varying from region to region and from era to era, so there is no canonical recipe to consult.

I've been researching this beer off and on for the last five months trying to learn as much as I can about the ingredients, their flavors, side effects, historical recipes, and ancient brewing practices.  Homebrew forums had little to say--or at least little positive to say--about gruit.  Many recipes I found dated all the way back to the Great Hop Shortage of 2008 when homebrewers found it impossible to obtain the hop varieties for many of their favorite recipes  Some tried their hand at gruit... and quickly found it a fool's errand.  After striking out, my next stop was the Brew Your Own archives for a good executive summary.  I also found the relatively authoritative Gruit Ale site had a nice overview of the history of gruit, as well as a quick round up of relevant herbs and some basic recipes.  It is well focused, but lacked the depth to make me comfortable compiling my own recipe.  I found that the source with the most detail on the herbs was Stephen Harrod Buhner's Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers.  He devoted sections to each of the primary gruit herbs, providing historical and social context to their use, and providing recipes that used each.  However Buhner is clearly an herbalist, not a brewer, as the brewing details often make little sense.  I also picked up Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing, though that turned out to be more of a showcase of crazy recipes.  It was inspiring to see the breadth of beers I have yet to brew, but the section on gruit added nothing new.

In the end I decided to brew two different recipes from two distinct traditions.  The first is a classic gruit generally following the recipes outlined in Buhner and Mosher.  Those recipes call for an even mix of yarrow, myrica gale, and marsh rosemary.  Myrica gale and marsh rosemary are distinct herbs, but are close relatives and have similar flavors and psychoactive properties.  Beer historian Martyn Cornell claims that it is unlikely both were regularly used in the same recipe, with myrica gale being the favorite when available, so I used it exclusively in this recipe.  Until I've brewed with these recipes I won't make my own observations, so go ahead and check out the resources above if you're interested: Gruit Ale for a quick brewing-focused overview and Buhner's book for a more thorough treatment.

Amt            Name                              Time
1 oz           Yarrow                            15 min
1 oz           Myrica Gale                       15 min
.25 oz         Wormwood                          15 min
.5 oz          Yarrow                            Dry hop (7 days)
.5 oz          Myrica Gale                       Dry hop (7 days)
.25 oz         Wormwood                          Dry hop (7 days)

As I mentioned earlier, I found the variety of beer in Radical Brewing is inspiring and one of the beers it inspired me to brew is an ancient Scottish heather ale, or Leann Fraoch in Scottish.  Before the Edward I of England drew and quartered William Wallace, before the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne, and in all likelihood well before Hadrian built his wall , the Pictish tribes used heather to flavor their brews.  If you've ever read the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, this is the beer he's talking about.  Martyn Cornell again has an interesting post on the origins of this brewing tradition.

For my interpretation, I want to work in wormwood somewhere, as that ingredient is the reason we are brewing these beers in the first place.  Most recipes I found, including the one from Mosher and one from BYO include a small amount of hops for bittering, but that is almost certainly anachronistic.  Hops don't grow well in the northern latitudes like Scotland.  Instead I'll use the wormwood with a bit of myrica gale for bittering, then load up on heather for flavor and aroma.

Amt            Name                              Time
.25 oz         Wormwood                          15 min
.25 oz         Myrica Gale                       15 min
4 oz           Heather                           0 min
2 oz           Heather                           Dry hop (7 days)
.5 oz          Myrica Gale                       Dry hop (7 days)

So now that we have the spices out of the way, what about the rest of the beer?  Well before coke-fired malting and the advent of pale malt, most malt was darker in color, usually faintly smokey from the wood-fired kilns, and inconsistently modified.  I certainly don't have any malt like that, but for a rough approximation I built the grist on a blend of pale malt and brown malt.  I then added some rauch malt for just a touch of smoke and some crystal and chocolate malts to round out the recipe.  Back then beers were all mixed fermentation with a blend of yeast strains, plus brett and bacteria.  I'm not ready to through all those sorts of variables into the mix, nor risk infecting my equipment, so I'll just stick to the Irish ale yeast I have on hand.

Batch Size (fermenter): 7.50 gal
Estimated ABV: 6.5 %
Estimated OG: 1.068 SG
Estimated FG: 1.019 SG
Estimated Color: 22.6 SRM
Estimated IBU: 0.0 IBUs
Brewhouse Efficiency: 65.00 %
Boil Time: 60 Minutes

Amt            Name                                     %/IBU
16 lbs         Pale Malt (2 Row) US (2.0 SRM)           72.7 %
3 lbs          Brown Malt (65.0 SRM)                    13.6 %
1 lbs 8.0 oz   Smoked Malt (3.0 SRM)                    6.8 %
1 lbs          Caramel/Crystal Malt - 40L (40.0 SRM)    4.5 %
8.0 oz         Chocolate Malt (350.0 SRM)               2.3 %
1.0 pkg        Irish Ale Yeast (Wyeast Labs #1084)      -

Mash Schedule: Single Infusion @154F, No Mash Out, Batch Sparge x2
Total Grain Weight: 22 lbs
Estimated Cost: $32.40
If you actually made it to the end of all that, you'll notice I dodged a very important question: what does it actually taste like?  And that's because I have no idea.  I've done some looking and while I haven't yet tried these beers, I found several that are distributed in the United States.  If you're curious, maybe you can find one yourself.

Fraoch - Williams Bros Brewing, Alloa, Scotland
Gruit - New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, CO
Weekapaug Gruit - Cambridge Brewing Company, Cambridge, MA
Heather Ale - Cambridge Brewing Company, Cambridge, MA
Posca Rustica - Brasserie Dupont, Tourpes, Belgium


  1. Wait did these taste like? Would you/did you brew them again?

    1. Hey, sorry for the delay. But thanks for the question! Without hops, there was nothing to hold the lacto in check, and it tasted a little infected--not quite sour, but a touch of acidity that clashed with the darker malts, especially the brown. I was too disappointed to feel like spending all that time bottling it so it's still sitting in the carboy ha. I should probably check on it at some point, I'll let you know if I do.

      If I were to do this again, I would keep the bittering hops, and just use the herbs for flavor and aroma. It would taste less strange and you could keep the preservative effects. Then if you experiment a few times and get comfortable with your ingredients you can look into replacing the bittering addition. Getting a feel for all these ingredients takes time and would be really cool, but I decided I have enough other ingredients and techniques to learn for the moment.

  2. Hey there, I'd really love to know how this is tasting now! I'm planning my own gruit soon and all feedback and research like this is very useful.

    One or two notes -
    - I wouldn't be so sure the sour you're tasting *is* from lacto: yeast will acidify a brew, and hops don't just act as a preservative, they act to very effectively *mask* certain flavours. I personally believe this was one reason for their popularity in brewing from the renaissance onwards. Without the strong bitterness and heat the hops bring to the palate, other natural yeasty and herby flavours come through.

    - Marsh rosemary isn't a close relative of myrica. One's a rhododendron, the other's a type of bay. They have very different properties.

    - I doubt Martyn Cornell's suggestion that Marsh rosemary wouldn't have been used when Myrica gale could be found - it's as if he thinks trade wouldn't have happened. It's certainly true that marsh rosemary can have some potent effects - headaches, possibly even hallucinations (google 'rhododendron honey greek army' for an interesting read) but if this is true, then that's not sufficient reason to argue that medievals would have steered clear of it. These were the same folks who were including stuff like henbane in their brews (check out Buhner on THAT for another fun read!)
    Anyway, basically, it's an area that needs more research: because all the information we get is incomplete and sometimes inconsistent.

    Anyway, my main interest is in maximising the flavour of the gruit herbs in a pleasant and drinkable way. I think (as I noted on that post I linked) one way to do that is to give the brew a strong clean bitterness; hops could serve, but other herbs could also - wormwood would do it, or horehound, or possibly pennyroyal.

    Final question: do you think the myrica gale on its own could be a potent flavouring/bittering ingredient if used in sufficient quantities?

    1. Hey Tim, I'm curious how this is tasting as well, still haven't touched it ha. I've been a little busy with the new brewery and haven't had time to bottle it (or apparently check the blog, sorry). A couple responses to your comments:

      -Lacto vs sacch acidification: You're definitely right about the hops masking the acidity, or at least changing how it's perceived. I guess when I eventually bottle (or dump) it I'll find out.

      -Point taken on myrica gale and marsh roesemary. Sounds like you've done some research. I would love to read more about this, but priorities have shifted and I won't have time to go back to the main post and clean things up. Thanks for adding your notes to help any other readers who come across this!

      -As for the myrica gale ... probably? Add enough and you can probably find the potency you're looking for. I honestly don't remember what it smelled like at this point. I would consider doing some strong single-herb batches and blending them together post-fermentation to play with the herb concentrations and blends if you have time.

      Sorry for the unhelpful note. I'm really no expert on gruit; this was my first experiment and I didn't even follow through on the tasting. I hope yours turned out well, I'll read through your thread you posted to find out!


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