Meet vermouth’s beery cousin, gruit


The German Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) initiated by Duke Wilhelm IV in 1516 was a way to restrict the production of inferior beer and restricted beer ingredients to barley, malt, hops, and water (also later yeast once biochemists did their thing). This restriction of ingredients set German brewing on its modern course — one that meandered away from a flavoured and blended Bavarian style called gruit or grut. A gruit is an
herbal recipe that gave beers flavouring, antiseptical, and somewhat narcotic effects.

Through until the end of the 16th century, gruit recipes dominated Europe, both the Continental and British Isles. Gruit recipes differed by local flora and local tastes. Though gruit beers dominated Europe, the Reinheitsgebot created a dissonance between the old and the new, creating eloquence in purity and hops over the common combobulated style of gruit beers. Such concoctions of herbs were still used, however they were given their due in monastic environments and put to use in liqueurs and tonics such like Jägermeister.

It seems the reason for the decline of gruit was that hops proved a better overall ingredient, what with its multifunctional flavour and antiseptic qualities. According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, gruit was primarily a combination of three mildly narcotic herbs: Sweet gale (Myrica Gale), yarrow (Achillea Millefolium), and marsh rosemary (Ledum Palustre) but commercial gruit ales differed and collected recipes include ingredients such as juniper berries, mugwort, woodruff, ginger, caraway seed, aniseed, nutmeg etc. The flavour of this brew may best be likened to something resembling bubbly vermouth.

Often the addition of local herbs and roots had the desired effect of causing heightened intoxication, euphoria and aphrodisiac effects, but often documented as having bad after-effects. Hops were a great substitute, found to be high in estrogenic compounds that were good for easing menopause, insomnia, and urination problems; high doses, however, could lead to an emasculating case of ‘Brewer’s Droop’.


The option to use other herbs over hops makes the dive into the daring all the more exhilarating due to the increased psychotropic effect that some herbs may have when heated or added to alcohol. The warning here is if you want to try this in the bar, to first consult a botanist. For those who are daring, perhaps it would be wise to consult ‘Sacred & Healing Herbal Beers’, by Stephen Harrod Buhner for advice on recipes. The new wave of craft brewing is taking all styles into consideration and from time to time we see a gruit recipe raise its head. Why should we restrict ourselves to just hops?

Here’s some great gruits…

Red Duck the Gruitest

A modern-day take on the gruit style. Sharp citrus, watermelon and granny smith apple conjures riesling flavours coupled with a warhead lolly. Whilst initially obscure, by the end I felt like I’d ploughed a spring meadow with my face, ending up with a mix of flower and herbs stuck in my teeth. Hold the reins, I’m on the hunt for more of this style.

New Belgium Brewing: Gruit “Lips of Faith” Series

Uses horehound, bog myrtle, yarrow, wormwood and elderflowers… all ingredients you would be familiar with if you spent time working at a renaissance fair. If, likewise, you didn’t spend your summers here, then it tastes a bit minty with the expected flamed orange, and white pepper notes that tend to flare up whenever I taste absinthe.

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