The Gruit ale tradition: traces of the European Reformation in modern brewing

Authors: McQueen, D.

Start date: 11 April 2019

This paper explores the causes of the decline in gruit ale production since the 15th century across Europe, but particularly in Protestant countries such as Germany and Britain. Itoutlines the ancient roots of herbal flavouring of beer and the development of the ‘gruit’tradition which included the use of yarrow, (wild) rosemary and bog myrtle. These and other herbs, some of which had a mildly narcotic effect, predate the use of hops. Hops, which came into more widespread use in Germany and the low countries from around the thirteenth century and in Britain from the late fifteenth century eventually overtook the gruit tradition for a number of complex reasons. The preservative quality of hops allowed for transportation of beer to more distant markets and stimulated the growth of larger breweries which may have helped shift popular tastes away from unhoped ale to more bitter ‘beers’. However, the collection and taxation of many of the herbs used in gruit ales was often controlled by the Catholic Church and the decline in the gruit tradition was most marked in Protestant countries, such as Germany, where purity laws effectively outlawed many traditional ingredients.

This paper traces this politically-infused history of gruit ale and offers a snapshot of gruit brewing practices around Europe with a special focus on the microbreweries in the UK which continue the tradition. The session will conclude with a sample taste of gruit ale and a look at the wide range of ingredients that were used in its production.

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