Just “gruit”…

I generally brew for myself. I don’t brew for competitions (although I have, of course, entered beers in local and regional competitions); I don’t brew for friends or relatives (although I frequently share with them); and I don’t brew to impress people. I brew for me, for my tastes; for my edification, sometimes.

Today I make an exception. This beer is for my Uncle Bob. Not that he will ever drink it, or even consider doing so. Uncle Bob, my godfather, is a great guy, a funny, friendly guy, one of those that almost every family has – he would do anything for anyone, has a heart of gold, loves his kids, grand-kids, nephews and nieces, etc. When it comes to beer, though, he’s a little narrow-minded. Drinks stuff out of silver cans with mountains on ‘em. And he always laughs at my home brew, scoffing, “What did you use, tree roots and bark?” That has become a standard, almost clichéd comment at every family gathering. Sometimes he will grab my brew out of my hand and sip it, pretend to choke or spit it out, and roll his eyes. And rinse his mouth out with the contents of his very cold can.

Well, Bob, this time I did brew with roots and bark. Among other things.

I got reading Stephen Buhner’s fascinating book, Sacred And Herbal Healing Beers, after looking online for some info about ancient and medieval brewing spices. I knew that hops were a relatively new addition to brewing, and that prior to hops, brewers used a multitude of different plant ingredients to flavor their brews. Buhner has cataloged, explained and traced the history of those ingredients, and the book is truly masterful.

That reading led me to design a sort of medieval “gruit” beer, using no hops at all and several different herbs and spices instead. I confess I was not brave enough to make a full batch of this experiment, but that’s one of the beauties of home brewing. I can make a small batch to try out an idea, and if the result isn’t up to par, I have not wasted a whole batch.

I intended to make a vaguely Belgian-style amber ale as the base for the herbs. So, I poured out a bottle of a boring (somewhat stale) amber ale brewed last fall, into a series of shot glasses. To each I added a small pinch of the herbs I was thinking of using, let them steep for a while, then taste-tested the effects. In the end I selected seven flavors I found intriguing, and combined them in one larger glass. I strained out the herbs and found the resulting mix quite interesting. So that’s what I used in the batch I brewed.

Ambiorix
3 gallons, all-grain with herbs and honey.

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. Weyermann Abbey Malt
  • 1/2 lb. amber malt
  • 1/4 lb. Special B malt
  • 1/4 lb. dark Munich malt
  • 1/4 lb. 160°L crystal
  • 9 oz. Cara-amber malt
  • 1-1/2 lbs. Cara-hell malt
  • 12 oz. Cara-belge malt
  • 1 oz. peated malt
  • 8 oz. honey
  • 10 grams “gruit blend” (includes sweet gale, wormwood, woodruff, sweet basil, chamomile, dried ginger root)
  • 300 ml. gentian root extract
  • Belgian Saison Yeast Blend (White Labs WLP568)
  • 1/2 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure:
Crush the grains. Heat 10 quarts water to 154°F. Mash in grains, hold 60 minutes at 154°F. Heat another 6 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff, sparge. Collect 14 quarts sweet wort, add honey. Bring to boil, boil 30 minutes. Add gruit blend (in a fine mesh bag), boil another 30 minutes (60 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized primary fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Add yeast and gentian extract, seal and ferment 8 – 10 days at room temperature. Transfer to secondary, age 14 – 20 days at 55 – 60 °F. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition 15 – 20 days at 50°F.

OG: 1050
IBU: not applicable!

A note on the grains:
A little bit of a “kitchen sink” grain bill here, with an emphasis on caramelized malts, seeking to get a sweeter finish to balance the bitterness of the herbal ingredients. Suspecting that medieval brewers would almost always have dried their malts over a fire, I added the peated malt to give just a hint of smokiness.

A note on the herbs:
Some of the herbs used are reputed to be toxic or at least hallucinogenic – particularly the wormwood. Recent studies have shown that many of the claims were exaggerated; still it is best to consider very carefully when experimenting with medicinal plants. All these herbs are available in good spice sections or through your home brew supplier. Feel free to consult your physician, pharmacist or shaman if you have concerns about the herbs used.
I opted to make a tea by soaking the mesh bag in boiling water after removing it from the wort, and I jarred the tea to save for bottling, in case the herbal character is not enough at that point. The gentian root extract is probably the most bitter of all, and, yes, it is the herbal flavor in Moxie (my favorite soft drink).

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