Brewing with gruit

My earth-sheltered laundry room would be the best spot for it, I thought, keeping it cool as it worked. But a dry high had just blown in yesterday afternoon, and we might be in for another prolonged cool spell despite what the calendar says, I told myself. So around 11:00 p.m., I finally gave in: fetched it from the laundry room and placed it in the usual spot, in a corner about eight feet behind me where I can hear and smell it while I write. Why go to all the trouble of making it if I can’t be with it during the most exciting stage in its life?

I am talking — as any homebrewer probably will have guessed — about the wort (rhymes with “dirt”): the beer-to-be. The fragrance of its early working blends with the lingering smell from yesterday’s multi-hour boiling to create an odor many times more delicious than freshly baked bread. How had I let four years go by since I last brewed? Poetry and blogging are fine, but they’re no substitute. Even if a batch of beer were to go bad (which almost never happens) it would be worth the trouble and expense just to enjoy a few days inhaling those malty esters and the earthy, spicy fragrance from the giant tea bag of gruit roots floating in the wort.

Actually, my expense this time was minimal: I had all the herbs and malted barley at hand; I simply needed yeast and a fresh bottle of iodine sanitizer solution. Homebrewers who don’t allow themselves the pleasure of branching out beyond hops tend to put a lot more emphasis on getting just the right blend of different malts, but I have some 25 pounds of basic, pale 2-row malt in storage, plus a few odds and ends of other things, and if I want to improve on that, I can always roast a little bit of malt in the oven. The final color and flavor of the beer depend mostly on which roots and herbs I add, and how I add them.

This, for example, will be a yarrow beer, for the simple reason that yarrow is in bloom right now, and we have plenty of it. Yarrow is in the same class as mugwort and hops: an herb that can make a great beer all by itself, possessing the proper antispetic properties, the astringency needed to balance the sweetness of the malt, and just the right aromatic flavors to make it interesting. Some fifteen minutes of labor sufficed to gather all the yarrow I needed for a five- or six-gallon batch of beer. I picked the young inflorescences together with several of the topmost fronds, since the flowers tend to concentrate the flavor and the leaves have more of the bittering properties. I could use them fresh, but all the recipes I’ve developed over the years are based on quantities of the dried herb, and it’s not much trouble to spread them on a screen in a warm room for a week.

There is, of course, the problem of how to get the yarrow in the beer without destroying all the delicate flavonids. “Dry-hopping,” adding the herb directly to the fermenting wort, is one approach, but brings with it a certain risk of contamination. My solution is to make a tea from it the day before, put it in tightly sealed, sanitized jars, refrigerate it overnight, and add it right at the end of boiling to aid in a rapid cooling-down of the wort. I make a gallon and a half to two gallons of tea from one packed pint of yarrow tops.

Yarrow is a relatively minor component of the present aroma, but the figurative odor of its reputation couldn’t be stronger or more interesting. What can you say about a common weed with the widely attested power to heal wounds? And its use as a brewing herb goes way back in northern Europe, especially in Scandavia, where it’s given nicknames that mean “field hops” or “earth hops.” Linnaeus famously declared that beer brewed with yarrow is more intoxicating, which is what originally got me to use it, but really, the use of almost any herb that lacks the strongly sedative quality of hops will tend to produce a pleasanter buzz than you’ll get from a commercial beer.

Also, I toss so many different things into my ales, it’s sort of hard to tell what the active agents are. I tend to wait until all the mashing and sparging is done and the wort is finally blended and boiling to decide what the gruit mix will be. I’ve always found that roasted dandelion roots (or chicory — the taste is nearly identical) provide a nice bass note, so this time I added half an ounce of dandelion at the beginning of the boil, and put another half-ounce in the gruit bag. Then I found I still had some calamus (A.K.A. sweet flag) root on hand, and I decided I wanted its flavor, too. A friend of mine once described calamus as smelling like a health-food store, and I think that’s a good way to put it: there’s a kind of earthy exoticism befitting a member of the arum family that grows in swamps. Calamus is a nice thing to add to any beer, really. It has antimicrobial properties — always an asset in a brewing herb — aids in digestion, prevents flatulence, and is credited with a slew of other wondrous powers by traditional healers from China to India to eastern North America. And as the author A. H. Church put it back in 1879, “Calamus imparts at once an aromatic taste and an agreeable bouquet or odor to the liquid in which it is infused.”

For a summer ale, wild ginger roots are nice, so I added a full ounce of that, and then briefly wrestled with myself: should I use up part of my precious stock of Indian Sarsaparilla root, or save that for my next mugwort or wormwood stout? God, it smelled good! And it would be a new experiment to add it to a yarrow-based beer. So in it went, just half an ounce — a little bit of it goes a long way. Then I tied up the bag and went away and did other things, because brewing with twelve pounds of grain and needing to reduce the volume to three and half gallons to make room for two gallons of cold tea takes a lot of boiling. I didn’t want to add the roots until just ten minutes before the end of the boil, enough to sanitize them and the bag. But as soon as I did, damn! Like Proust’s madeleine, the odor instantly conjured up memories of other brews and other times I’ve been engaged in this arcane and messy game of converting starch to fermentable sugars and finding just the right roots and leaves to give them character. This, I said to myself, is what it’s all about.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

21 Comments


  1. Dave — sounds fantastic. Would love to join you on the porch with a beer when it’s done.

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    1. Sure. Just get here before my brother Mark visits in August. There might not be much left after that.

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  2. I read this with a glass of a big label Canadian beer sweating on the desk nearby. Now I want to pour it down the drain. Although I have read a lot about it, brewing has always seemed mysterious to me. Your post is elucidating, yet at the same time makes it seem even more mysterious. That’s awesome.

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    1. Hugh, it’s not hard to dip your toe in and make a simple malt-extract brew from a kit, though there is a bit of up-front expense, depending on how handy you are and whether you have things like 6-gallon cooking pots, siphon hoses, and large plastic buckets with tightly sealing lids lying around. If you’re interested in pursuing it, I recommend getting used copies of Charlie Papazian’s New Complete Joy of Homebrewing and Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, which give valuable but conflicting advice on virtually every aspect of brewing. Then order a basic beer kit from Seven Bridges and follow the directions they include.

      Also, don’t ever pour beer down the drain! If you do, the beer gods will sour every batch of homebrew you ever make. Remember, yeast died for that beer. The least you can do is drink it.

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  3. Oh, it’s a good thing I don’t live closer. I don’t think I’d be able to resist your beer, and my sleep would go all to hell. I still remember how good what you brought to Montreal was!

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    1. Thanks, Dale. I think that was one of my more successful mugwort stouts, albeit a bit over-carbonated, as I recall.

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  4. When I was emptying out the cellar because of the oil leak a few days back, I found all our home brewing equipment. We used to brew a lot when we lived in Albany, but I think we were not so adventurous as you–it was still better than most store-bought (although I still like St. Peter’s beers a lot.) Yours sound lovely! Perhaps when life is less crowded, we’ll do it again.

    I have a lovely big hop vine out back, but no yarrow this year–it evidently did not like the winter.

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    1. Marly, given your interests, I can definitely see you getting into Medieval and Renaissance-style brewing! I’ve just been refreshing my memory about some of the online sources… though the absolute best information on contemporary northern European farmstead gruit brewing, online or in print, is only available to my knowledge as a series of posts by a guy named Adam Larsen to the hist-brewing listserv, starting here.

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      1. Hey, thanks! Although I refuse to take on one more thing right now, that sounds interesting… Mike did make at least one early beer recipe–I remember a wonderful, spicy “Christmas beer.”

        Cooperstown was once a hops-growing center, and we still have an enclave of the Busch family on the lake.

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  5. Wish I could join you for a beer when this is ready to drink, Dave; it sounds delicious. I haven’t brewed in years, and I’d never thought of adding local in-season herbs to the brew; what a grand idea.

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    1. You’d be welcome, of course. Brewing with local botanicals doesn’t end with herbs, either: woody plants such as oak, juniper, spruce and fir can make great hop-substitutes or adjuncts, too. I’ve barely begun to explore the possibilities.

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  6. Dave,
    I marvel at your interest and prowess in many interesting things. You are, indeed, a man of many parts. A Renaissance man. (I had an uncle who used to cut my hair—carefully shaping it to hide the flat side of my head. He brewed his own wine from cane (“basi”, we called it); planted his own herbs, gathered medicinal ones which he used on us when we’d scrape our legs, sprain an ankle, cut a finger, etc.; he painted; drew his own architectural designs; cooked meals from vegetables and seafood he’d catch himself on trips to the sea—a good trip from the eastern farm to the western sea, starting at dawn to sundown; he built us toys; carved things on the trunks of dead trees; wrote with the loveliest cursive penmanship I’ve ever seen, and won’t see anymore with the curse of the typewriter, ambidextrously, too …the lot.). He died early, though, a single man. No progeny that I know of.

    I grew up in the city, and promptly narrowed down my interests to books, writing, painting. Hectoring lazy university kids I call “perezosos”. Sometimes, I neglect to eat the expensive sushi house gourmet, which I fancy I could prepare but am too lazy to even start a wee step. Culinary arts, I call them. In retirement, I do a mean scrambled egg or an unruptured sunny-side-up for breakfast and pray my wife would cook me something for lunch and dinner. (She hastens to do these afraid I’d burn something down.) Morning thoughts. Limbering, too, on your porch.

    Despite my seniority, Monsieur, I’d call you UNCLE. Mon oncle. (:–p)

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    1. Albert, I assure you, I live most of the time in my head as well. Your uncle sounds like a much more well-rounded guy than me!

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  7. Awesome, and also fascinating. Tragic how frequently I’ve come across the term “small beer” without having the slightest idea what it really means, or precisely why it was healthier than drinking water.

    Does your brew travel well? like, by intercontinental post?

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    1. Geez, I don’t know. I guess people mail beer all the time, but the idea intimidates me. Also, it means I’d have to give up some of my limited stock of reusable bottles…

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  8. My friend you are an alchemist. Like that doyenne of cookery writers Elizabeth David, whose recipes for making bread are almost as good as eating the stuff, your description of making beer leaves me reeling with sensory overload. Like many others who have left comments on this post, I too would like to keep company with you on your porch and take in the sights and sounds with a glass of one of your botanic brews in hand. But in the absence of the experience itself, the reading is a pretty fine substitute.

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    1. I’m glad. Actually I’d take a course in beer-tasting if I planned to write about its taste and smell more often — describing smells is hard. As for being an alchemist, doesn’t that imply mastery of the arts of distillation? I assure you I am not not making moonshine! (Mostly because I don’t like whiskey, or any hard liquor.)

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  9. the absolute best information on contemporary northern European farmstead gruit brewing, online or in print, is only available to my knowledge as a series of posts by a guy named Adam Larsen to the hist-brewing listserv,

    “Adam Larsen” was a fake, a spoofer and a troll, nothing the person claiming to be Adam Larson claimed that I could check ever turned out to be true, and I wouldn’t believe a word he wrote.

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  10. Yeah – when I kept pushing him for scans/photocopies of the books he claimed he and/or his friends had with all these old recipes in, he quietly vanished. None – not one – of his references checked out. No person called Adam Larsen ever seems to have lived in the Faroes.

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    1. Well, thanks for letting me know — and for being such a skeptical and methodical researcher. Brewing history is so beset with myths, and it’s partly enthusiasts like me who are to blame for spreading inaccurate information. But it sure doesn’t help to have fantasy writers making sh*t up out of whole cloth.

      Reply

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