By Matt Humbard, Hy-Functioning Alcoholic
Good news everyone: It is February 1st, also known as International Gruit Day. And yes, autocorrect, I meant to type “gruit” (pronounced GREW IT) and not “fruit” (NOT pronounced FREW IT).
So, while you wait with bated breath for the annual rodent-based meteorological spectacle on the 2nd, you can diffuse your “will he” or “won’t he see his shadow” tension by exploring an ancient brewing tradition.
International Gruit Day
What is a gruit? The simplest definition is that it is a type of beer that does not use any hops, at all. Since gruits do not use hops they are typically flavored with other spices or flowers. Gruits can feature just about any spice but common spices in modern gruit traditions include coriander, cumin, curacao, citrus peels, anise, ginger, yarrow flowers, cardamom, ginseng, vanilla, all spice, woodruff, and many others.
Gruits can range in color and alcohol content and are historically a little higher in alcohol. Basically, gruits are the “herbal teas” of the beer world. Never heard of them? That’s not your fault, they have a terrible publicist but gruits are actually the origin of all beers.
Gruits: The Origin of All Beers
For millennia, gruits were the only beers made but now gruits occupy a tiny portion of the global beer market. There is archaeological evidence that beer was made as far back as 10,000 BCE, all of those beers were gruits. A 3,900 year old Sumerian poem to the goddess Ninkasi (the god of beer and brewing) describes a gruit recipe.
Now, anything sold in the United States labeled “beer” has hops in it (hops are part of the regulatory definition of beer in the United States). Gruits often need special approval or “formula review” by the federal government.
No one knows exactly when hops were added to beers for the first time, but it was a common practice approximately 500 years ago and continues to today. We had approximately 12,000 years of brewing without hops and about 500 years with hops; gruits are the much more common beer throughout history and have the power of the ancients behind them.
When hops were becoming popular, beer was sorted into two categories so people could understand what they were buying. In medieval Europe, “Red Ales” was the designation for ales made without hops (gruits) and “White Ales” was the designation for beers made with hops. For a while, gruits were as popular as hopped ales with people not liking the bitterness and aromas of the hop in their beer.
In 1622, Thomas Fuller wrote that they were “not so bitter in themselves, as others have been against them, accusing hops for noxious; preserving beer, but destroying those who drink it. These plead the petition presented in parliament in the reign of King Henry the Sixth, against the wicked weed called hops.”
Due to the antibacterial properties of hops and their ability to grow like a weed, the hopped beers slowly dominated the global production.
The Gruits Revival
Gruits, as well as other historical beer styles and practices, are enjoying a bit of a revival now. And to repeat the entire premise, February 1st is International Gruit Day. You will have an opportunity to try examples of these ales out of history at Pizzeria Paradiso’s recognition of this beer holiday.
If you are more curious about gruits, Drew McCormick, the beverage director at Pizzeria Paradiso, is also speaking at the Heurich House in Washington D.C. about gruits and women in beer. (While the event is technically sold out, we’re told that tickets are available at the door. Call ahead to confirm: 202-429-1894.)
Today’s the Day – Get Your Gruit On
So at this point you might be thinking to yourself, “are you saying that I can better understand thousands of years of brewing tradition, pay my respects to an ancient Sumerian god, connect with hundreds of civilizations stretching back to the origins of humanity and have a shared experience across thousands of years and billions of people just by drinking some beer made without hops?”
Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. So belly up to the bar today and order the beer described as having “spruce tips” or “Labrador tea” or “lemongrass, hyssop, Sichuan peppercorns and orange peel”, say a prayer to Ninkasi and thank the women in the Euphrates river valley who invented beer so we could all get in the right headspace to let a groundhog prognosticate the weather.
Hyattsville’s Matt Humbard is microbiologist-turned brewer who’ll soon be opening Patent Brewing Company And Laboratories along with co-owners Krissi Humbard and Matthew Geist. Follow Patent on Instagram and Facebook to keep up with their exciting developments and nerd out to all-things-beer-related with Matt’s podcast here.