hist-brewing: Gruit Ale

Cindy Renfrow renfrow at skylands.net
Wed Oct 20 07:45:37 PDT 1999

>Gruit is a combination of the 3 herbs sweeet gale,yarrow, and rosemary. Their
>Latin names are respectivelymyrica gale, Achillea millefolium, and Ledum
>palustre. The proportions of  these herbs  varied.

Gruit was a mixture of herbs which included these three.  [Ledum palustre
is Marsh Rosemary, btw, not the culinary herb.]

Since you're all citing  Stephen Harrod Buhner's article ("The Fall of
Gruit and the Rise of Brewer's Droop", American Brewer, July/August '99
issue, and even though your next issue should be appearing in your mailbox
soon with my letter to the editor in it), I have to tell you now that I
disagree with his statement that "though gruit herbs do possess mild
inebriating properties, they are actually quite healthy for people when
used in moderation".

Mr. Buhner neglects to mention in his article that sweet gale and yarrow
are not safe for pregnant women to drink.  Sweet gale (Myrica gale) has
been used as an abortifacient, and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as an

In compiling  my book "A Sip Through Time", I discovered that many herbs
called for in old recipes are not safe to use.  In addition to sweet gale
and yarrow, pennyroyal, aloe, bilberry, catnip, chamomile, etc., can all
"promote women's courses".  Lily-of-the-valley, orris root, celandine, and
groundsel (all of which are called for in period recipes for wines, beers,
or meads), are all poisonous.  Not all herbs are safe to use
indiscriminately.  Perhaps it was for this reason, rather than politics or
religious fervor as Mr. Buhner suggests, that gruit came to be perceived as
"dangerous" and fell into disfavor.

In contrast to Mr. Buhner's statement that hops causes "brewer's droop" and
was added to drug men into "dull, flaccid sleepiness", the addition of hops
to beer was actually thought at the time to be medicinally beneficial:
"...The decoction of hops drunk openeth the stoppings of the liver, the
spleen, and kidneys, and purgeth the blood from all corrupt humors, causing
the same to come forth with the urine...   The manifold vertues in Hops do
manifestly argue the wholesomeness of Beer above Ale; for the Hops rather
make it a Physical [medicinal] drink to keep the body in health, then an
ordinary drink for the quenching of our thirst." (Gerard's Herball, 1633 -
I've modernized the spelling.)

Additionally, hops not only to made the brew keep longer, it also enabled
the brewer to use less malt and make a weaker, (and therefore cheaper to
produce) drink.   Remember, at this time, workers received part of their
wages in bread and ale (or beer). If you were a wealthy landowner, wouldn't
you like to cut your labor expenses?


Cindy Renfrow
cindy at thousandeggs.com
Author & Publisher of "Take a Thousand Eggs or More, A Collection of 15th
Century Recipes" and "A Sip Through Time, A Collection of Old Brewing
http://www.thousandeggs.com -- please come visit my new web site!

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