Real Fermenting: Gruit Ale

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Gruit Ale

I will start with the recipe for a gruit ale, which is very easy to make and quite delicious. The glass of gruit ale in front of me is a great golden color, with a delicate bitterness and citrusy aroma. It is not hoppy, because it has no hops. Gruit ale sounds weird, and it is unusual, but it should not be restricted to the history books. It represents what all beer was a thousand years ago, and what it should be still. After the recipe, we can discuss the different herbs used in beer making and the current orthodoxy of hop-only beers.

Last bottle of gruit ale, bottle-conditioned for seven weeks



1 tbsp dried mugwort
1 tbsp dried yarrow
1 tbsp dried St John's wort
1 gallon water
1lb unhopped Malt Syrup (this or any light to amber malt extract would work)
1 packet ale yeast


This particular gruit ale is pretty much the version in Strong Waters , by Scott Mansfield. I started by making a tea out of dried yarrow, St John's wort and mugwort. Using 1 quart of the water, I boiled the herbs for 30 minutes in a regular covered 2.5-quart pot. Scott recommends putting the herbs into a nylon bag, but as I didn't fancy boiling a plastic bag for half an hour, I used a couple of reusable cotton teabags.  This brings out their bitterness. Once, the 30 minutes is up, I removed the pan from the heat and the teabags from the water, and stirred in the malt extract until it was dissolved. I poured this into my primary fermenter along with the remaining (room temperature) water. This helped to cool the wort down quickly. As soon as the wort was cooled to room temperature, I added the yeast. I was using Safale US-05 Dry Yeast, but any ale yeast would work. I have taken to whisking the yeast into my wort, to make sure it gets nicely spread around the liquid, and that the wort is properly saturated with oxygen (more of a problem with all boiled worts or musts). Then I got the lid firmly on and put on the airlock. I use a 6 gallon primary fermenter even for these gallon sized brews, so I don't have to worry about bubbling over.

In about a week, the airlock had stopped bubbling, showing me that fermentation had stopped (or slowed down a lot). I carefully siphoned the beer into my excellent 1L bottles and added 1 teaspoon of regular sugar to each bottle. As the sugar dissolves, carbon dioxide is released, which has the result of flushing the oxygen from the ullage (airspace in the top of the bottle). If you leave the bottle open for a minute or so, and then carefully cap or cork the bottles, you can reduce the chances of your brew suffering from too much oxygen in the conditioning stage.

I put the bottles away in a cool, dark place and patiently waited three weeks before drinking. When I first sampled it at three weeks, as per Scott's suggestion, the bitterness was a little overwhelming. After 7 weeks (today), the beer is a delight to drink. A light citrusy aroma, good bitterness, extremely crisp mouthfeel, medium to low carbonation, great light golden color. I can't wait to experiment more with this gruit and the thousands of other possible herb combinations.

Pouring the gruit ale


The Gruit

Gruit refers to the mix of herbs used for bittering and aroma in beer. In this case, those herbs are St John's Wort, Mugwort and Yarrow. Hops can be a gruit. In most beer brewing processes, the hops for bittering the beer are added at the beginning or early in the boil. Then, aroma hops are added. These can be the same variety of hops, but boiling them drives off aromatics and brings out the bitterness. They can also be different hop varieties, obviously, and there is a fine art to choosing hops. It is something I really want to get good at, especially because the actual practicing is so delicious. But imagine you went to a flower show, and everyone was just making arrangements with varieties of roses. Beautiful, fragrant arrangements. I'm sure I could live a full life in this rose-only world, but I would be curious about marigolds, lilies, tulips. The point is, even if hops were chosen to dominate the beer word because they were the best possible herb for a gruit (they weren't), we might still like the others. I have a favorite variety of beer (American Pale Ale), but I still drink IPAs, stouts, lagers, ambers, wheats and anything else I can get my hands on. So I made a gruit ale, because I was curious mostly and I found it to be delicious. Later, I learned much more about the benefits and costs of hops versus other gruit.

Herbs, by
Medicinal herbs

A quick word on sourcing the herbs. By preference, you would pick and dry the herbs yourself. Then you would know exactly how fresh they were. Second choice would be buying them at a local herb store. We're pretty lucky to have the excellent Cay's Health Foods here in Bakersfield, so I rode over there on my trusty (pedal powered) steed. For the amount needed for this recipe, it probably cost around 25 to 30 cents. But I bought enough for several batches, because it was quite a ride for a quarter's worth of herbs. Third, you could probably find these herbs in good health food superstores, as they are commonly used for medicinal purposes. Finally, you could order them online, but then you don't get to sniff them before you buy.


Mugwort, or Common Wormwood (not the wormwood of absinthe fame), has been used to expel parasites from one's body; used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to get a baby out of breech position in utero; and used as a cure for fatigue. Apparently, Roman soldiers would put mugwort in their sandals to keep their feet fresh (feeling, not smelling). In Japan, it has been boiled and the tea drunken as a remedy for colds. In much larger doses than present in this recipe, it can be used for herbal abortions, as it causes uterine contractions. I am pretty sure that this gruit ale is safe for women who are pregnant, or who think they may be, but it is still alcoholic, which is not excellent for babies. Right? So probably don't drink a bunch of it.

Mugwort - Early Season, by
Mugwort is invasive. Pick it and brew it!


Used therapeutically by Neanderthals and birds, Yarrow has also been long used medicinally by homo sapiens. It is a tonic and a stimulant, and most importantly for our purposes, a pleasing aromatic. It has been used to treat headaches (how useful for an alcoholic beverage!). Again, the amounts of active herbal ingredients present in this beer may not be sufficient to generate any of these effects. I hope someone who knows about this kind of dosing will read this and kindly let us know in the comments. Inquiring minds demand to know!
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) side, by
Yarrow flowers

St John's Wort

St John's Wort is probably the most well-known of these three herbs. In fact, likely what most people know about it is its use as an anti-depressant. To attest to that I will just put this one quote here, from the Cochrane Report metastudy on St John's Wort: "The available evidence suggests that the hypericum [St John's Wort] extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants." It is commonly prescribed in Europe for mild depression.

Hypericum pyramidatum GREAT ST. JOHN'S WORT, by
Wonderful shot of St John's Wort in bloom


Compare these benefits to hops' effect. From Identification of a potent phytoestrogen in hops (Humulus lupulus L.) and beer: "We have identified a potent phytoestrogen in hops, 8-prenylnaringenin, which has an activity greater than other established plant estrogens" and "The presence of 8-prenylnaringenin in hops may provide an explanation for the accounts of menstrual disturbances in female hop workers." Many people today are looking to limit the phytoestrogens from their diets (reducing soy intake for example).

Hops cause drowsiness. Hops pickers have reported sedation during harvest, and hops flowers have been added to pillows for relief of nervous conditions (from Hops aren't all bad, but we should be aware of and critical of what we put into our body. The ethanol is still the worst thing for us in the beer, I am extremely confident of that.

Hops, by
Hops in the nighttime

Each of the effects detailed above come from my own limited reading. I would love to hear more from anyone who has a useful reference or experience for us.

So why are only hops used today in the gigantic majority of beer brewing? Well, there is a fascinating historical story to be told involving churches and the economics of growing herbs in the middle ages (see this for a decent summary). Nowadays, herbs are freely available to us without putting money into the hands of the Catholic Church, and yet we persist in only drinking hopped beers. Our choices in the beverage aisle of the grocery superstore are artificial. We can't choose from the full range of beers, we can scarcely choose any local beverages, we struggle to find anything not brewed in giant vats by Anheuser-Bush InBev or SABMiller. These companies brew by market research, advertising, cheap adjuncts and homogeneity. Their beer is a commodity, like coal, or gold. Each unit sold, to them, is indistinguishable from the next.

My philosophy, and I want to go into this more later, is that, if you like beer, you owe it to yourself to brew it and understand it. It's a rich and rewarding and simple and cheap alternative to a six pack of Coors Lite.


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  2. Woah, it helps the uterus renew and release? I'll have to see what I can do about getting you some gruit ale. Or... brew your own! It's totally easy. You can mix the herbs to your own medicinal desires! And let us know what's in your gruit.

  3. You don't use barley/grains in the wort?

    1. I didn't in this case, as I was demonstrating the simplest example. But I am planning on brewing a gruit saison in the new year which will have some specialty grains. And you absolutely could. I think this particular gruit lends itself to a lighter body, but you could experiment with more or less of the mix/different herbs, if you wanted to go darker.

    2. I came across this post by searching "gruit saison recipe".
      This will be my 4th no-hop beer. Did you ever do yours? Do you have a link?

    3. Rob, yes. Check out the much more recent series which you'll find at the top of the blog feed.

    4. Awesome, thanks! I've been working away from hops for the last year, and am always looking for others' experiences with this sort of experimentation.

  4. Great information thank you so much.
    Is there anywhere of which you know of that sell gruit beer/ale

    1. There are definitely some craft brewers who are making gruit or gruit-inspired ales with some hops. New Belgian had one, but maybe that was a limited release.