Medieval Gruit Beer: Separating Facts from Fiction

The current interest, even fascination, of modern beer drinkers with alternative beer styles, or just a plain good story, has proven to be profitable grounds for recreating historic brews. And with historic beer going mainstream, the recreation of lost beers, including gruit beer, has caught the eye of experimental brewers everywhere. The mystery of gruit beer, thought unlikely to ever be solved, opened the gates to unbridled creativity and resulted in a myriad of herbal ale alternatives to hopped beer. It also led to a strong association of gruit with a specific set of three herbs—bog myrtle, marsh rosemary, and yarrow—in contemporary scholarship and craft brewing circles.

Yet a close look at 14th- and 15th-century Dutch and German accounting records that have been published but neglected by scholars reveals that we can indeed draw some conclusions about what gruit contained and did not contain. This presentation discusses the unfortunately mistaken list of ingredients which has gained such widespread traction and the conclusions we can draw based on actual surviving evidence. Peppered throughout my presentation are several intriguing mysteries about gruit; like its relationship to hops, whether it contained grain, and why it has become associated with narcotic effects.

Bringing more awareness to the fantastic topic of historic gruit beer should change our assumptions, over time. But if nothing else, the key takeaway should be that not every ale brewed with herbs is a gruit beer. And not every contemporary beer marketed as a “gruit ale” is based on historic gruit beer!

Learning Objectives

  • Generate an increased awareness of the differences between modern gruit ale and historic gruit beer
  • Educate on which gruit stories can be taken with a grain of salt (or a nice pint of herbal beer!), and which are based on verifiable information
  • Explain which gruit botanicals we think were used in historic gruit beer but actually aren’t, which are and what their function would be as part of the brew
  • Hear new research that indicates the medieval definition of gruit beer does not match the modern view of generic unhopped herbal ale. This same research also indicates the product medieval gruit used specific herbal ingredients, not all known to modern brewing, including the use of resin and some sort of grain product, none of which is reflected in modern gruit ale descriptions and brewing definitions

About the Speaker

Susan Verberg works as an independent researcher and historian, occasionally dabbling with experimental archaeology, to deconstruct the secrets of medieval and post-medieval soap production and brewing techniques (which have surprising overlap). Susan presents her research both in the academic field—she has published in Brewery History as well as the EXARC Journal—and occasionally writes popular articles for magazines catering to the homesteading and brewing community (including She has been fascinated with medieval Eurepean brewing, specifically Low Country gruit, not only because it is such an intriguing beverage, but also as she, like the beer, originates from the Netherlands. And that makes reading the historic documents a heck of lot less problematic!

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