Hopless Beers

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.

Brewing a Saison

I recently brewed a Saison, it was the first beer I’ve brewed using all grain (no malt extract) and also my first attempt with the Brew In A Bag method of brewing all grain.

Let me start by saying it wasn’t a complete disaster because I did make beer, and I think it will taste pretty good. Of course I did do a few things wrong.

First off, I didn’t start with nearly enough water. The link above says you need to start by adding all of the water. All of the strike water, all water for any infusions, and all of the sparge water. Since I’ve never brewed all grain before I didn’t really know what this meant and, like an idiot, I didn’t really research it to find out. Because of this I ended up having a pretty poor efficiency (~50%) in my mash and when all was said and done I had about 3.5 gallons of boiled wort instead of the 5 I was planning for. I ended up adding 2.5 gallons of water back to my wort and adding some corn sugar to beef up the gravity.

I should have had a gravity of around 1.060 but instead ended with 1.045 after adding the corn sugar.

The other problem I ran into was burning a hole in my bag. I was using a large wire strainer to keep the bottom of the bag off the bottom of the kettle but some got around the strainer and melted. So that was fantastic. Fortunately I didn’t lose too much grain out of this hole, but the bag was shot after that. I wasn’t able to detect any burn/melted polyester flavor in the wort so I guess it’s not so bad. I’m considering just converting a cooler into a mash tun, but if I were to Brew in a Bag again, I would make a bag out of cotton fabric.

Now, about the beer: I brewed a Saison. Saison is an old style of farmhouse beer from the area of Northern France/Southern Belgium. It was brewed in the spring as a beverage for the seasonal farm workers during the summer (hence the name). I based my recipe on a Belgian Saison from Brasserie Blaugies called Saison d’Epeautre. The grain bill calls for 33% Spelt (Epeautre), many saisons use adjunct grains since the farm was basically making beer out of what it had on hand.

A few months back I had a bottle of Bam Biere from Jolly Pumpkin Brewery and I harvested the yeast from the bottom of the bottle and fed and cared for it. I used that yeast to ferment my saison. It worked pretty quickly and added some great sourish and spice notes to the beer (based on tasting at bottling). I’m pretty excited for this beer to be ready in a few weeks or so.

As far as All Grain Brewing goes it wasn’t too bad even with my mistakes. I’m not sure if I’m going to bother with brewing in a bag again or not though.

Glowing review of our Sage Ale

The guys over at “There’s a Year in My Beer” blog have written up an extremely complimentary review of our Sage Ale.

The beer was incredible. There was no hops in it. The sage did all the work that hops usually does, bittering and aroming. It was really crisp, with ace carbonation. The sage was incredibly pungent and delicious – it made the beer into a different beast than anything I’ve ever tried.

Quality-wise, it was very much on par with the only other sage beer I’ve ever had, Stillwater’s Cellar Door.

Thanks, Michael for the awesome review and very nice compliments. We’ll definitely be giving you some more beer to review for your excellent blog!

Cherry Wine

Last month I finally got around to making wine from the cherries we picked last summer from the cherry trees growing on the grounds of nearby St. Francis Seminary. I had them stored in the freezer and I set them out to thaw for a few days last month. We has picked a little more than 20 pounds which should be enough for a decent 3 gallon batch of wine.

After the cherries had thawed they released a lot of their juice, freezing the fruit helps break the cell walls and causes the juice to flow. I took a gravity reading if the juice and it was 1.050 pretty sweet considering it didn’t tase terribly sweet. I chaptalized with about 4 cups of white sugar and also added about a gallon and a half of water. Tossed in some pectic enzyme and pitched Montrachet yeast the next morning. The starting gravity was 1.087.

Three weeks later I pressed the cherries and transferred the wine to a 3 gallon carboy. Gravity at pressing was 1.002, I expect to to go down to around 0.995 before it finishes.

I didn’t press the cherries too terribly hard, I didn’t want to damage any of the pits and add excessive tannin to the wine. I also saved the pressed cherries and put them back into the freezer with the intent of adding them to a future beer.

The wine at pressing was decent, though pretty tart, I’m not sure this will be too great if I leave it dry.

Feral Wit

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):

DunkelWeizen + Cucumber Ginger Weizen


  • 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.

Fermentation Resurgence?

I saw this article the other day and found it rather interesting.

Most of us still let others do the fermenting for us—we buy our bread, our beer, our bratwurst—but Kelly is obviously one of a growing group of home-based bacteria wranglers who are willing and eager to dive into the unseen world of microbes and do the fermenting themselves.

“Well, you know, I really had an interest in getting back to more real, traditional foods,” Kelly says about her path to fermentation. “And that kind of led me on the journey to finding more local, natural, organic foods. And from there I just kind of kept learning and decided I wanted to maybe make my own yogurt, and then I discovered kefir, which is like yogurt on steroids.” That eventually led Kelly to the impressive array of fermented foods in front of us.

“This is what people have done for thousands of years,” she says with a true believer’s passion. “This is how they preserved their food. In that same way it also helped them stay healthy and, you know, all this beneficial bacteria that are in these foods, the body needs that, and we’ve pretty much eliminated that from our modern diet.”

There seems to be a renewed interest in home fermentation, especially in the home brewing realm but it’s not limited to that. Katz’s book Wild Fermentation is a pretty good resource if you can get past his weirdness.

Elderberry Wine

Last year my friend and fellow wine maker Steve gave us about 25 pounds of elderberries. We took them home and threw them in the freezer. This past winter we had to make room in the freezer so it was time to make Elderberry wine.

Elderberries are a big pain in the butt to process. Tons of them grow on these very thin stems that you don’t really want to have in your fermentor. So you have to destem them, actually freezing the berries and stems first helps in this process. However it still took two evenings of destemming to get through them all. Additionally the edlerberries are a deep reddish purple and they like to stain things.

Elderberries have very little sugar of their own so making wine from them is pretty much impossible without chaptalizing. I added around 10 pounds of sugar as well as water to bring my volume to 5.5 gallons. The starting gravity was 1.102 and I pitched Premier Cuvee yeast.

After about a week of fermentation I pressed the wine gently to remove the berries and transferred it to a secondary it was nearly done fermenting by then and had a good flavor. Most recipes for elderberry wine say to sweeten it but I think this could make a pretty decent dry wine after a few years of aging.

1 cup of corn sugar in 5 gallons of wort or must

I brewed up some wheat beer but its gravity ended up being lower than I wished. I have a lot of corn sugar for priming so I figured I’d add some to up the gravity a bit. I didn’t want to bother with adding a cup, stirring it in an remeasuing the gravity until I hit the level I wanted, that’s annoying. So what other option do I have? SCIENCE.

So I had to figure out how much adding one cup of corn sugar to 5 gallons of wort would increase the gravity by. By using highly accurate unverified random sources around the internet I found out that adding 1 Lb of corn sugar to one gallon of water would increase the gravity from 1.000 to 1.037. This means that adding 1 Lb of corn sugar to 5 gallons would raise the gravity by 0.0074.

I also found on the internet that one cup of corn sugar weighs 4.65 ounces. That means that 1 Lb of corn sugar comes out to around 3.44 cups.

With these wonderful figures I have determined that adding 1 cup of corn sugar to 5 gallons of water (or wort or must) will raise the gravity by 0.00215. Adding 5 cups of corn sugar to 5 gallons will raise the gravity by 0.01075 which is what I did with my wort.

Mute Dog Sage Ale

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.