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  A Hobbled History of Beer:
Good and Medieval (1000AD - 1400AD)

by Cub Lea
Last updated 09/00
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The millennium: "Wicked weeds", the hop's tale and Ye Warre On Drugges

By the time the millennium rolled around, beer and brewing in Northern Europe had evolved to a state very close to where they are today, but with one highly notable exception: seasoning.

Seasoning there was, make no mistake about it. Beer had been spiced since Egyptian days, and for very good reason. If the potential for bad taste from local waters, leftover brewer's yeast or poor-quality grains wasn't enough to take the pleasure out of a dark-ages brewski, there was this matter of water-borne disease, exacerbated by the lack of refrigeration. Unlike wine or spirits, beer was considered vital fluid, not just celebratory beverage. It was a dietary staple, needed on a daily basis by much of the population for its calories and protein. Spice was a preservative, relied upon for antiseptic properties, as much as for its ability to mask the rot and rancidity of much of the available food. Europeans became accustomed to heavily seasoned foods from an early age, and beer was no exception. So seasoning there was...seasoning there had to be.

But it wasn't hops.

As brewing technique developed over the centuries, various cultures discovered different herbs and herb combinations especially well-suited to seasoning and preserving beer. Eventually a combination of herbs was found which we believe consisted primarily of yarrow, sweet gale (also known as bog myrtle), and marsh rosemary and which was known as gruit or grut. According to Scandinavian records, these three herbs had mild sedative properties on their own, but combined and infused in an alcoholic beverage they became a potent narcotic. Drunkenness on gruit ale was said to produce intoxication far in excess of what alcohol alone should produce, and the hangovers were reputed to be of the pray-for-an-early-death variety.

700AD: Dosing the masses
(or The Battle of the Continental Chefs)

By the 700s gruit was integral to brewing across Europe. Actual recipes for gruit were carefully guarded trade secrets. The possession of a Grutrecht, or Flavoring License, was equivalent to a franchise for brewing...without it, one couldn't brew beer. It was a brilliant marketing strategy on par with the finest franchising plans of today. One can even envision the billboards of the day:

"Wythout gruit, beere dost not tafte lyke beere"

"The devile ift weaker wyth gruit in thy beaker"

And apparently, that's precisely what the populace came to believe. At least, if they didn't, both church and state were there to remind them that...well...gruit is taxable, and must be used in beer (that's an order, not a suggestion) so it would likely be wise to believe it if one knew what was good for one's immortal soul. And should one choose to make one's own gruit, well, the church well knew that what punishment the soul can't feel, the body surely can.

And the apparent synergistic narcotic created by the three main ingredients was only gruit's meat and potatoes. Gruit could literally contain anything that might loosely be termed herb or seasoning, so while some gruit sellers apparently focused on flavor, others likely had more, shall we say, esoteric motives in selection of ingredients.

There were all the expected benign flavorings available in the region...milfoil, rosemary, licorice root, anise seed, juniper berries (the chief flavoring agent in gin), caraway seed, spruce chips, pine roots, bay leaves, elecampane, cornflower, red currant, cardamon, dandelion, chicory, strawberry, lavender carnation, fennel, carrot, ginger, German chamomile, marjoram, nettle, box plant, cornflower, red currant, cardamon, dandelion, angel's trumpet, strawberry, bay leaf, even sugar, which we'll touch on in more depth in just a moment.

Gives a whole new meaning to "market traffic"

But there were also many wild exotics. Here are just a few of the more interesting ingredients used in gruit.

If the first two of these didn't turn your stomach, the remainder could do a real number on your head...or put a real name on your headstone, and it's likely that at least a few gruit sellers chose these ingredients precisely for their psychoactive properties.

Henbane and the "brew witches"

By far the most controversial ingredient used in gruit, and also one of the most widespread, was henbane and its close botanical and chemical cousin thornapple. Henbane is Europe's equivalent to jimson weed, a viciously toxic, unpredictable and uncontrollable hallucinogen with a long history of use by witches and shamans. A small touch of henbane in your system and you'd likely suffer little more than a bit of constipation and a draining of the sinuses. Multiply that dosage a few times, as apparently many brewers did, and you might experience wild dreams or nightmares. Multiply that dosage again, as apparently a few brewers were foolhardy enough to do, and you could expect to experience visions of the past and future, perhaps even enter the realm of the dead...or so said the shamans. Multiply that dosage again, as you might do to blow off steam after a particularly hard day of thatching and winnowing, and you might very well forget which species you are. Multiply it one more time, as you might do if it was a particularly hard week, and you won't have to worry about your role in depleting the world's oxygen supply any more.

Clearly this herb is more at home in a witch's brew than in yours, as a few amateur "heritage brewers" have discovered to their horror. And they discovered this fact precisely because henbane was so widely used in gruit that it might be hard to find an authentic gruit ale recipe that doesn't list either henbane or thornapple as an ingredient. Fortunately for those who drank it on a daily basis, one develops tolerance to its effects quite rapidly.

Unfortunately, one never knew just how much one might get. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the use of this herb in beer is that when traveling, one never knew how much henbane the local brewer might have used. Travelers were often warned of towns or taverns where particularly potent beer was served. Visitors might become temporarily "demon-possessed" from their typical draught, and those who lived in that town might fall ill from withdrawal visiting towns where henbane was used sparingly. We don't seem to find much mention of henbane poisoning in records of the time, however, perhaps because these episodes were often attributed to "brew witches".

Henbane was in fact used in witchcraft (or pagan shamanism if you prefer a less emotionally-charged term) as an aid to divination. The witches who used it tended to be among the most highly respected individuals in the tribe or village. But with Biblical law came Christian values. The cauldron, so often associated with witchcraft in medieval Europe, could easily be seen as equivalent to the brewer's kettle. Batches of beer brewed with particularly potent crops of henbane or thornapple could easily produce symptoms in the heavy drinker that might be seen by a casual observer...oh, let's say an officer of the Inquisition supernatural, even demonic in origin. And since it wasn't until the Protestant Reformation of the 1400s that the brewing industry managed to completely banish women from the brewhouses, who do you think got the blame? Women, of course. A quick-witted male brewer or frightened monk might even be able to pass off the blame for an unexpectedly potent batch of beer on the old crone across the field who helped him gather the herb.

The extermination of "brew witches" is well-documented in beer lore, and apparently it wasn't just beer madness for which they were blamed. Virtually any brewing mishap could be passed off as the result of supernatural interference. And given the lack of understanding of sanitation and the toxic effects of spoilage, one can easily imagine how much blame there might be to parcel out.

An end to the gruit dynasty
..or One more thing those poor Belgians can't brag about)

Nasty or tasty, naughty or nice, it didn't really matter to the beer-drinking public...gruit ales enjoyed seven centuries of prominence in Europe. That dominance was under siege well before the turn of the millennium, but it literally took centuries to win the war. Hops had almost certainly been tried as a beer seasoning, and might well have been in widespread use as a component of gruit, as early as the 730s. Records from the Bohemian region of what is now the Czech Republic show that hops were cultivated at this early date, although no specific parallel reference to beer is made. Hops were also cultivated in France and Germany during the ninth and tenth centuries. Records of exports from Bohemia appear as early as 903, and by 1100 they were regularly shipped north to a special market in Hamburg. It is believed that these hops eventually found their way into Bavarian kettles, since we now know that Bavaria developed a particular fondness for Czech hops. These hops were so prized, and so valuable to Bohemia, that "good" King Wenceslas ordered the death of anyone caught trying to export cuttings which could be used to start new crops in other states.

This view of hop history contradicts a popular myth that Belgium was the birthplace of hop use in beer. In fact, many misguided souls still claim that Belgium wasn't just the birthplace of hop brewing, but of all brewing. This myth stems from an oft-quoted passage from King Gambrinus, one of the most revered figures in brewing history, which seems to imply Belgium's claim to giving birth to hop-seasoned beer. Belgian monks were surely using hops in beer by the 11th century, but most scholars seriously doubt that they were the first to do so.

It didn't matter who started it. It didn't matter that the pleasing bitterness of hops was complemented by a lovely floral aroma, especially when added at the right stage of the brewing process. It didn't matter that constituents of its essential oils acted as a sorely-needed natural preservative. It didn't even matter that the worst you could likely experience from an overdose of hops would be a touch of drowsiness. What mattered to the gruit sellers was that it was a near-ideal one-ingredient substitute for gruit.

And that was intolerable. Its use had to be stopped, and by God and Gambrinus, it was. The gruit sellers went ballistic when they saw how easily and comfortably it seemed to be adopted by brewers. By the mid-1200s they had successfully leveraged their position in the industry to have hops banned for use in beer in most of Europe. In some regions, the ban stood for hundreds of years.

England was particularly stubborn about this nasty vine. Hops weren't native to British soil, and it was actually illegal to cultivate hops in England until an act of Parliament lifted the ban in 1554. Hops were publicly decried as "wicked weeds" by lobbyists and politicians, a curious fact of history which has occasionally been seized upon by modern-day cannabis reformers in search of historical object lessons to support legalization.

1400: An unexpected epitaph for gruit

By the 1400s, gruit's day had just about passed, but its death-knell came from a quarter that neither the Holy Roman Church nor the gruit sellers expected: the Protestant Reformers. It took the Protestant movement spearheaded by Martin Luther to expose the church's excesses, and seemingly in one fell swoop its success transformed the brewing industry and solidified traditions that persist to this day.

By exposing the excesses wrought in no small part by profits from tax-free abbey beer, the Protestant movement played a pivotal role in opening up brewing to free enterprise. For the first time in centuries brewers could enjoy the benefit of being taxed by the state directly rather than by church and state at the same time. Such is progress.

By laying bare the evils of gruit and the benign nature of hops, the Protestants helped deflate the popularity of gruit and restored control over altered states of consciousness to the church. After all, truly devout Christians wouldn't think of getting high on anything but worship or meditation, would they?

By painting the acts of brewing and winemaking as the crafts of temptation, they reinforced the need to have these trades under the full control of disciplined sex. After all, the talented Katarina, wife of Martin Luther and a skilled brewmaster in her own right, had given up her trade when she married Marty and embraced the tenets of Protestantism.

So was the replacement of gruit with hops a Good Thing for humanity? Hop fans will surely say yes, but I'll wait until our current War On Drugs is over before passing judgement. I'll always wonder what amazing turns brewing might have taken had women been allowed to preserve their dominant role, but tasty or not, I'll pass on the Thornapple Red Ale, thanks.

As for what might have become of gruit had it survived as a tradition, well, the mind boggles, twitches a bit, and then falls over in a giggling fit. Can't you just imagine the brilliant shade of green in the cheeks of the first brewer who would have eagerly tried Sir Walter Raleigh's New World import - tobacco - in their gruit mixture?

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Except where indicated otherwise, the material on this page is copyright ©2000, Cub Lea. For reprint and reproduction information, contact the author.

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