What Is Gruit In Beer?

Gruit is an ancient beer additive that was used to flavor and preserve beers before the widespread use of hops. Brewers used various herbs, spices, and plants collectively known as gruit to flavor and preserve their beers. This tradition is upheld by craft brewers who use gruit on its own or alongside hops for more complex flavors.  Keep reading to explore the origins, flavors, and uses of gruit and how it differs from hops in modern brewing.

Why Was Gruit Added to Beers?

Gruit was added to beers for both practical and flavorful reasons. Historically, it served as a preservative, extending the shelf life of beer before the antibacterial properties of hops were discovered. Additionally, gruit provides unique flavors and medicinal benefits, depending on the herbs used. These herbs could impart bitter, sweet, spicy, or aromatic notes, creating complex and varied profiles that were tailored to local tastes and available ingredients.

What Does Gruit Taste Like?

The taste of gruit can vary widely based on its composition. Common herbs used in gruit include yarrow, sweet gale, heather, and rosemary. Each herb contributes its distinctive flavor:

  • Yarrow: Bitter, somewhat floral, with a hint of spiciness.
  • Sweet Gale: Aromatic, slightly bitter, with a resinous quality.
  • Heather: Floral, slightly sweet, with a hint of earthiness.
  • Rosemary: Strongly aromatic, with piney and peppery notes.

Combining these and other herbs creates a complex and often unpredictable flavor profile, ranging from herbal and earthy to floral and spicy.

What Is the Difference Between Gruit and Hops?

Gruit and hops serve similar purposes in beer but differ significantly in flavor and historical use. Hops, which became dominant in brewing around the 11th century, provide a consistent bitterness and preservative quality due to their high alpha acid content. They also add floral, citrus, and pine notes to beer.

In contrast, gruit is a blend of various herbs and spices, offering a broader and less predictable range of flavors. While hops deliver a standard bitterness, gruit can introduce sweet, bitter, spicy, or floral notes depending on the herbs used. Additionally, gruit has a historical significance, reflecting local traditions and available resources before hops took over brewing.

What Is Gruit Made Of?

Gruit can be made from a combination of herbs or just one specific herb. Common ingredients include:

  • Yarrow
  • Sweet gale
  • Heather 
  • Juniper berries
  • Mugwort
  • Dandelion
  • Wild rosemary

These herbs are chosen for their flavor and preservative properties. Brewers would often use what was locally available, resulting in a wide variety of gruit recipes. For example, dandelion can add a mildly bitter, earthy taste, while juniper berries contribute a resinous, slightly sweet flavor.

What Types of Beers Use Gruit?

While hops dominate modern brewing, some craft brewers and traditionalists still experiment with gruit to create unique and historical beer styles. Beers that may use gruit include:

  • Traditional gruit ales: These are brewed using historical recipes and methods, aiming to recreate the flavors of ancient beers.
  • Herbal beers: Some modern craft beers incorporate gruit alongside or instead of hops to offer distinctive, herbal flavor profiles.
  • Seasonal or specialty brews: Brewers might create limited-edition gruit beers for special occasions or festivals, highlighting the unique tastes of different herbs. Diebolt Brewery, for example, recently tapped a saison brewed with dandelion petals as part of a special event to encourage growing pollinator plants. No hops were used, just the petals, honey malt, and farmhouse saison yeast. 

Herbal Beers vs Gruit Beers

Not all herbal beers are gruit beers. Many of them contain both hops and herbs and spices. This is quite popular among craft brewers, who are alchemical geniuses (mostly according to themselves). 

For EXAMPLE, at Diebolt, we like to give our beers a little production value by infusing them with flavors found in the area to which we are paying tribute (that one’s for you, grammar sticklers). Our Vladislav Mexican Chocolate is aged with chili peppers, cacao nibs, and cinnamon; and our Algerian Biere de Garde, Figgy Noir, incorporates North African curry to add an earthy warmness to the sugared golden fig flavors. 

Raise Your Glass to the History of Gruit

Gruit is a fascinating and flavorful aspect of brewing history. Its varied and complex profiles provide an alternative to the more uniform bitterness of hops. Whether you’re a beer historian, a craft beer enthusiast, or just curious, exploring gruit beers can be a delightful journey into the rich history of brewing traditions. If you’re in Denver, stop by our brewery on Mariposa to try one of our fancy herb-infused creations, or ask your favorite dive if they’ve got us on tap. If they don’t, they should, so give us a call to remedy that.

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Heather Kleinman

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