Beer Without Hops: History of Gruit Ales

Beer Without Hops: History of Gruit Ales
November 21, 2019 Levi Olmstead

As all brewmasters know, hops are a primary ingredient in beer. But did you know that this wasn’t always the case?

In the Middle Ages (around 1500), beer without hops was a very real thing – and beer could be made with a variety of different ingredients. One that was specifically popular in that time was gruit.

What is Gruit?

Gruit is a strongly flavored blend of herbs that uses botanicals including sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, ground ivy, horehound, Calluna heather, and more to brew beer as an alternative to hops. The term comes from Europe, popular in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany areas.

In the Middle Ages, gruit was a mandatory ingredient in beer, and many ales lacked hops altogether.

Why Did Brewers Stop Using Gruit?

In the early 1500s when gruit was most popular, a series of regulations called Reinheitsgebot, translating literally to “purity order”, was adopted in the Holy Roman Empire, including Germany and Bavaria. 

These regulations limited the ingredients brewers could use to make beer and ruled that beer may only contain water, barley, and hops (yeast was added later when fermentation was discovered.)

Hops vs. Gruit Beer

Gruit ale’s are much stronger than beer made with hops, causing narcotic, aphrodisiacal, and psychotropic effects. While this led to its recreational use popularity, it also led to its downfall.

Hops is an anaphradesiacal herb – meaning it lowers sexual drive. This is offset by the alcohol in beer. However, gruit doesn’t react this way and instead includes chemicals known as alkaloids.

Alkaloids are known to cause a chemical reaction with receptors in the brain similar to that of THC found in Marijuana and Absinthe. Many times gruit and absinthe share common ingredients such as wormwood and exhibit similar effects.

Resurgence of Beer Made Without Hops

With the rise of craft beer’s popularity in the 2000s, hop-less beer and specifically gruit beer began to make a comeback.

Many independent craft breweries are looking to find new and innovative flavors with their beer lineup and are turning to hop-less beer ingredients to bring in beer fans.

There is even an International Gruit Day that is aimed at spreading the popularity of gruit beer back into society.

Popular Gruit Beers

While there isn’t the selection of gruit ales are there are to beer made with hops, there is still a wide variety for craft beer lovers to seek out:

1. Williams Brothers Brewing Co.

The Williams Brothers Brewery Co. is one of the leaders in the craft brewery industry to jump on the gruit revival bandwagon. They’ve released an entire line-up of 5 different gruit beers known as their History Ale series.

2. Dogfish Head

Known for their popular IPAs, Dogfish Head has also released a popular gruit beer series. It’s called their Ancient Ale series and specifically includes a gruit beer called Kvasir. Currently not available, Dogfish has a history of rotating older beers back into their lineup, so keep an eye out for its revival.

3. New Belgium

Another well-known brand, New Belgium has previously released a popular gruit beer called New Belgium Gruit. Also currently not available, it has a cult-like following with people buying the beer in bulk when it was last available in 2015, and people are still reporting drinking (and enjoying) it.

Make Your Own Beer Without Hops

While many craft-beer enthusiasts might gaff at the idea of a beer without hops, gruit beer is an entirely new experience for beer lovers to experience.

For homebrewers, All About Beer and Honest Food both have simple homebrewing recipes for beginners looking to make their own gruit beer.

Additional resources for homebrewing:

How to Use a Hydrometer

How to Use a Refractometer

– Best Conical Fermentors for Homebrewing

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