Hops vs. Gruit

Stumbled across this article the other day and wanted to share it with you. Mostly because I found it to be educational in terms of beer production but also because I think it speaks to the American ideal when it comes to good beer – create something flavorful that people will find unique and enjoyable.


The article centers on the practice of using various plants in lieu of hops to create a beer style called Gruit. Technically, using hops in the United States is mandatory if you're going to call your creation "beer". But that wasn't always the case before hop varietals were discovered to be so convenient and tasty in beer production.

For you history nuts, this tale of the ale can be found within the context of the Protestant Reformation, but in truth the phasing out of gruit began centuries earlier in Germany. The bottom line however was that slowly hops were everntually favored over gruit blends and botanicals. That result can be seen as political, taste driven or simply as convenient given that hops have the added ability to keep beer fresh longer and aid in reducing spoilage…and anti-skunky beer effect if you will.


Regardless, there's a small but growing movement these days towards gruit ale. And although it may be hard to find it sounds like an adventure worth taking.


Brewers only began using hops regularly 700 or so years ago, when they discovered that the thumb-size cones of resinous leaves would help keep beer fresher longer. Before that, beers were flavored with dozens of different herbs and spices—medicinal, symbolic or just plain potent. In 1699, diarist John Evelyn wrote that a dose of borage would "cheer the hard student." Henbane, once a popular addition, is hallucinogenic, and in some doses, lethal. Hops, a sedative related to cannabis, would have seemed tame by comparison—one reason, some argue, that promoting temperance through hopped beer was a Protestant cause; Martin Luther drank it at Worms.

"Is this reactionary?" Mr. Hunt asked. "Yes. All the beers in this country use just one species of plant: hops. What if there were a hundred species? Where could this go?" Working in the gruit style, brewers like Mr. Hunt can blend flavors untasted for centuries and also tell stories untold until now. MateVeza's Morpho uses floral hibiscus and minty bay leaf to transport drinkers to the South American jungle; Cambridge Brewing Company's Weekapaug Gruit, made with locally plucked bog myrtle, says there is more to Massachusetts swamps than cranberries. While other beers use hops trucked in from time zones away, Moonlight's Working for Tips thinks local: Its redwood twigs come from a tree in the brewery's front yard.

These beers take some explaining—one reason they can be hard to find. "It's easier to do in a brewpub, when you can interact with people about it," said Dave McLean, owner of San Francisco's Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery. Take a beer like his sweet gale–, yarrow– and wild rosemary–flavored Weekapaug Gruit (like the brewer at Cambridge, Mr. McLean is a fan of the band Phish, and the song Weekapaug Groove): It's unique, but not aggressively so. When introducing unfamiliar flavors, a delicate touch is best. Revolution needn't shout. Mr. Hunt jokes about "roasted-chicken gruits," too heavy on the rosemary. "My intention is to make a delicious beverage. I don't want a beer to taste like a Christmas tree," he said—even if, one day, he might brew a gruit made with one.