I’m very interested in Gruits, or beers that are brewed with herbs that aren’t hops. Hops are actually a rather recent addition to beer as an ingredient. (Please note: the following history lesson is mostly hearsay.) You may have heard of the Reinheitsgebot or German/Bavarian Beer Purity law limiting the ingredients of beer to water, barley, and hops (yeast was not yet understood as an ingredient).
Before the widespread acceptance of this ridiculous law, beer was brewed with a lot of different herbs. There was a system of Gruit houses that were controlled by the Catholic Church, they were a monopoly that controlled the distribution of herb mixtures for making ale (called Gruit) and the Beer Purity law was partly a Lutheran rebellion against the Catholic Gruit. Gruit was a proprietary mixture of herbs but common herbs in the mixture were Yarrow, Sweet Gale (aka Bog Myrtle), Marsh (or Wild) Rosemary, and Mugwort. Though other herbs such as Heather, Juniper, and Sage were also common.
In today’s terminology Gruit is a sort of generic term for a beer made without hops. I’ve been interested in what sort of brews I could make with the variety of herbs and plants that are growing in my yard.
I decided to brew a wheat beer with my wild yeast strain. I’ve decided to label my wild yeast beers under the name Feral, and for this beer I sort of wanted to brew a Belgian Style Wit, even though it turned out to be somewhat almost completely off style.
It had been a little while since I brewed and some of my ingredients had been misplaced so I ended up brewing this “Wit” with 4 pounds of wheat malt extract and a half pound of roasted barley that I had left over from a previous beer. So not exactly the traditional Wit grain bill. I also had a bunch of ‘aged’ cascade hops from my hop vine (yes, I know it’s really a bine, but no one knows what a bine is) I had ‘aged’ them by baking them at the lowest temp my oven would allow (170F) for like 10 hours. So I used those. So wrong hops, wrong grain bill except for the base wheat malt, how is this a Wit again? Oh, I added a half oz of orange peel and crushed coriander seeds at the end of the boil and left them in the primary for the fermentation.
After the boil I took a gravity reading and it was pretty low (1.02 something) so I beefed it up to 1.033 with the addition of some corn sugar. I tossed in the remains of my original wild yeast from the jar I had first cultivated it in, including the dessicated remains of the grapes the yeast originally rode in on.
It fermented slowly in my effing freezing house (avg temp 55F) for a couple of months and fermented down to 1.007 leaving a residual alcohol of about 3.5% ABV.
The taste is really good, very smooth, if that makes any sense. The orange and coriander are there but not quite enough to really identify the specific spices. It has a nice hop bitterness and a good wheat malt flavor. The color is a nice red/amber with a big foamy head.
The bottle label (if I ever get around to printing some):
- 2 cans (6.6 Lbs) Liquid Wheat Malt Extract
- 1 Lb Crystal Malt 60°L
- 1 Lb Belgian Aromatic Malt
- 3/4 oz Tettnang Hop pellets for bittering (60 min)
- 1/4 oz Tettnang Hop Pellets for aroma (15 min)
- 1/2 tsp Irish Moss for clarity? (because I have a lot) (15 min)
- Fermentis Dry Wheat Yeast
Mash with the Crystal and Belgian Malts with a protein rest at 120F for 30 minutes, and saccarification rests at 150F and 158F for 10 or so minutes each.
Sparge the grains and add the liquid malt extract to the wort. Bring to a boil and add the bittering hops. Boil for 45 minutes and add the aroma hops and the irish moss. Boil for a further 15 minutes. Cool the wort and pour it into your fermentor. Top up to 5 gallons (if necessary). Once the wort is at the proper temperature pitch the rehydrated yeast. I pitched this batch at 80F, a little high but still safe.
As an experiment, once the beer was fermenting away farily decently I drew off 1 gallon of it into a seperate fermentor that also had added to it about 1 Lb of skinned and pulverized cucumber and about a half oz of grated ginger root. We’ll see how that turns out.
Update: The cucumber fermented batch went sour on me, after a week it smelled like pickelweizen so I dumped it.
As I experiment further with weird styles of beer and search for the boundaries of what can be considered beer I’ve become very interested in beers that don’t use hops. Mostly this is derived from my own personal dislike of the taste of hops in general, I do not care for IPAs or even PAs for the most part. So after doing some research on the internet I came across the Gruit Ale website. Gruit is what beer was before the widespread use of hops. Gruits are spiced and bittered with a wide variety of herbs (sometimes including hops).
On the Gruit Ale site I found a few recipes for brewing Sage Ale. I used the first recipe (a modern recipe) and slightly modified it during my brewing process:
- 4 gallons water (for the boil)
- 4 pounds Light DME
- 4 pounds Brown Sugar
- 4 ounces culinary sage from my garden
- 1 ounce of licorice root (from Northern Brewer)
- 1 packet of Fermentis Safbrew WB-06 Wheat Yeast
I brought the water to a boil and added the licorice and 2oz of the sage and boiled for 30 minutes. I then added the DME and brown sugar and boiled for another 30 minutes.
Then I cooled the wort added the other 2oz of sage. I had about 3.5 gallons of beer, I checked the gravity, it was 1.110! At this point I decided to add water to push it to a 5 gallon batch. This lowered the SG to 1.072 still pretty high but not insane (for beer) this gravity will yield a brew of around 8% ABV.
I pitched the yeast and fermented it in my cool basement it actually took quite a while for this to finish fermenting, maybe around a month or so.
I mixed up the conventional amount of priming sugar for bottling though I think either by this point my house was just too cold or the yeast was suffering from alcohol poisoning (probably both) as I didn’t get too much carbonation from my bottle conditioning. There is some and the beer doesn’t seem to suffer for the low amount of carbonation.
Notes on some changes to the Gruit Ale recipe: You’ll notice I used one less ounce of licorice, that’s because like an idiot I didn’t bring the recipe with me to the store and didn’t realize it called for 2 oz, oh well. The next time I brew this I’ll be using 2 oz. Also the use of the wheat yeast was slightly unintentional as I thought I had a packet of US-05 but I did not. I’m sure by now you can tell my brewing process is highly sophisticated and well organized. I’m actually pleased with the results from using the wheat yeast and will use it for future batches, the fruity esters imparted by the yeast work well with this already weird beer.