Ale Through the Ages: Belgian Gruit Ale

Recreating a Medieval Belgian Gruit Ale

When people speak of Belgium’s brewing tradition, most would reference the unique wild-yeast fermented lambics, the sour saison’s and the high gravity trappist ales.  Mention the word “gruit” and you might be greeted with a confused expression.  Interestingly, gruit (gruut) was the primary ale brewed in the lower Rhine Valley and the Low Countries of northern Europe (Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark) during the Medieval Period and earlier.  Today it is all but forgotten, except for a recent resurgence in certain small craft breweries in Belgium.  It was this historic brew that was the focus for the most recent (and most well attended) Ale through the Ages brewing seminar at Discovery World.  This high gravity (O.G. 1.068) malty Belgian ale turned out to be a splendid alternative to the traditional hopped ales of today.


What’s in Gruit?

En lieu of hops, gruit was a combination of a variety of herbs, which each brewery guarded with secret. The three most common herbs were Bog Myrtle (Miricia gale), Yarrow (Achillea milleflolium) and Wild Rosemary (Ledum palustr).  Other later gruit additions often included: Cardamom, Caraway, Ginger, etc. Therefore, this all-grain recipe is true to the pre-14th Century Belgian Gruit style, which combined bog myrtle, yarrow, wild rosemary and juniper berries.   Six gallons were fermented with a Trappist Ale yeast, while another six gallons were  fermented with an Belgian Abbey Ale yeast.

Gruit Origins

Like many ancient beer recipes, the exact origin of gruit and its first use remains lost to antiquity; however, the earliest references to it come from several written sources in Flanders (Belgium) and the Neatherlands more than 1,000 years ago. By the ninth century, governments in northern Europe asserted the right to dispense of gruit in a gruuthuse (gruit house) under the imperial law known as gruitrecht. This was the exclusive authority to control the benefits from unused land, from which the bog myrtle came. This governmental right was often transferred to monasteries and nobles of Belgium, France and the Netherlands.  For instance, in 974, emperor Otto II granted rights of toll, market, minting and gruitrecht to a certain Notker of Liege (Belgium) in the district of Namur.  A grant to the bishop of Utrecht (Holland) in 999 also placed gruitrecht among those benefits granted by the emperor. (Hornsey 2003, Unger 2007)

Holy Gruit Arnold!

The St. Peter’s Abbey was founded in 1084 by St. Arnold of Tiegem. Legend tells that Arnold, the abbeys abbot, brewed gruit ale to heal ailing builders of the abbey. Soon his reputation grew and his gruit was widely sought after, leading to his eventual status as the patron saint of Belgian Brewers. Today Steenbrugge of the PALM Brewery Group pays homage to St. Arnold with their Tripel ale that is brewed with “Gruut”, the recipe of which continues to be a closely guarded secret.  Another small artisan brewery that focuses exclusively on producing gruit is the brewpub Gruut Gentse Stadsbrouwerij.  Located in Ghent Belgium, they brew four varieties of Gruit ale.

Archaeological and Historic Medieval Belgian Brewing

In 1050 the Count of Flanders, (vassal of the French king) conquered Ename (50km west of Brussels) and built a Benedictine abbey on the ruins. The abbey became a central socio-religious enterprise in Ename for more than 750 years, until it was shuttered by the French revolutionary authorities and fell into disrepair. Excavations at the medieval abbey during the 1980s and 1990s uncovered a bakery, brewery, slaughterhouse, and other workshop. This definitively proves the written documentation that at least 1,000 years ago, formalized brewing was taking place at a large scale in Belgium.  This scale reached industrial proportions by the 14th century, as evidenced by the medieval city of Bruges (Brugge), located in northern Belgium. By the late 1300s the city was brewing around 1.85 million US Gallons of beer annually (572,000 barrels). With a population of ca. 30,000, they were consuming on average 300 liters per person per year, far more than the average person today (Unger:128).

The Enduring Belgian Brewing Tradition

Today Belgium has around 150 breweries and brewpubs (3rd most in the EU) that produce about 800 standard beer varieties. Over 8,000 types if one-off’s are included. The total beer output for 2009 was 18 million hL (15.1 million barrels).  By comparison MillerCoors produced ca. 69 million barrels the same year.  The monastic Trappist brewing industry is minuscule by comparison. The combined output from the seven Trappist monastery breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands is about 0.5 million hL or 13.2 million gl. (420,000 Barrels) per year.  What it comes down to, is that Belgian produced beer focuses on quality not quantity and fortunately the preservation of centuries-old styles are still being preserved for future generations.  So, for those of you who are not keen on hop flavored beer, perhaps you should put gruit (gruut) on your next shopping list.

References:

Hornsey, Ian S. “A History of Beer and Brewing” 2003. The Royal Society of Chemistry

Unger, Richard W. “Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” 2007. University of Pennsylvania Press

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3 responses to “Ale Through the Ages: Belgian Gruit Ale

  1. Wonderful recipe. Where can I buy such beers? I just want to try them

  2. Reblogged this on Argent Cellars and commented:
    An excellent read on gruit ale!

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