A Bitter Pill
We’re having a hop crisis. You’d have to have your head buried pretty deeply in the spent grains not to notice the price increases and scarcity. The reasons are varied. In addition to increased global demand, hops go through extreme cycles of boom and bust. Toss in a couple bad years of weather in Europe and a giant warehouse fire in Yakima, WA, and you got trouble.
Things will eventually return to normal, but this shortage might give us the chance to ponder that, for the first 9,000 years of its existence, beer was not all about hops. I’m not recommending everybody run out and replace the hops in your favorite IPA with some obscure African herb, but it’s nice to have options.
Bitterness is an antidote to malt’s sweetness, and with few exceptions, beer through the ages has contained something bitter. It’s surprising that we should enjoy bitterness at all, since it evolved as a chemical detector designed to steer us away from toxins in our environment. Chemicals that trigger bitterness are the plant world’s way of saying “Don’t eat me!” As tests with babies all over the world have shown, we are programmed to dislike bitterness, but we can learn to overcome this innate repulsion. Some of us have overcome it a lot.
There are thirty separate genetic pathways identified for bitterness, meaning thirty different chemical classes are capable of triggering that sensation. This means there are lots of different kinds of plants that have the ability to trigger our bitter receptors. Over the centuries, many of them have been used in beer and other kinds of beverages. This article will attempt an overview of some of the more common and interesting ones. There are many more. You’ll want to use caution in brewing with these herbs. They are likely to be many times more bitter than hops, so small-scale trials, perhaps in teacups, should be tried before using in your beer.
Bitter herbs are well documented in European Bronze-Age beer. First among these was bog myrtle (Myrica gale), aka sweet gale. Lightly bitter, it has similar piney/resiny aromatics to hops, which makes it quite delicious in beer. A little later it is best known from its role in medieval gruit beer.
Gruit was the most widespread type of unhopped beer in early Europe, superceded by hopped beer everywhere by 1500. In addition to the relatively pleasant and benign (except being a danger to pregnant women and their fetuses) bog myrtle, gruit also contained yarrow and wild, or marsh rosemary (Ledum palustre). Yarrow is medicinally bitter, used as a garden plant today. Wild rosemary is a little less pleasant, and may have been a poorer-quality substitute when bog myrtle wasn’t available. It is mildly toxic and not recommended for internal consumption. Folk use is as an insect repellent.
The taste of gruit is one of the great conundrums of beer history. It’s clear that great quantities of it were drunk in Europe, century upon century, but modern attempts to recreate it usually prove very challenging to drink. Other more palatable seasonings were sometimes part of the mix, but just the same, we seem to be missing part of the story. As the composition of gruit was a highly guarded secret in order to prevent counterfeiting—and therefore bypassing revenue laws—we may never sort this one out. However good it was, it wasn’t tasty enough to prevent the takeover by hops.
Even after the fall of gruit, other bitter herbs remained in use. Wormwood—a whole family of bitter herbs—has been employed for brewing up until fairly recent times. We know it mainly for its bad reputation as a “narcotic” in absinthe, which is entirely untrue. The hysteria surrounding absinthe was whipped up by France’s wine industry to battle the booming popularity of spirits in the late 19th century. There is no evidence that any component of wormwood is harmful, and in fact it is on the USDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list, and finds its way into gin and many other spirits. Bans of absinthe have recently been lifted most everywhere, but the mystique remains. Proper wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) is a bracingly bitter, clean-flavored herb that adds a brisk bitterness to beer and has been documented 19th century Belgium.
Another Artemesia—vulgaris—known as “mugwort,” named for obvious reasons as a beer-bittering herb, was widely used in Medieval England.
Roots and Leaves
There are a number of roots with well-known bittering properties, and many of them find their way into liqueurs with digestive qualitites such as Jägermeister. I have a reference in an 1889 French book (P. Boulin) to a “very brown” beer bittered with gentian root in addition to “Bavarian hops” from Merseburg, in Eastern Germany. With an extremely clean bitterness, it is suitable for this use. Sweet flag (Acorus calamus) pops up from time to time in old English recipes, such as that for “purl,” but it’s not clear if there was ever any great fad for it. But it has complex chemistry, a long history as an herbal medicine and is huge in the liqueur business as well as being used in pipe tobacco and perfumery. It has an exotic aroma and a kind of warming, mouth-numbing quality if the dried root is chewed on.
There was a passion in 17th century England for a German wheat beer called Mumme. Thick, black and bittersweet, it had a very long list of strange ingredients including the “inner bark” of the fir tree, birch tops, blessed thistle, elder flowers, cardamom, bayberries and “new-laid eggs, not cracked or broken,” among others. I have fooled around with blessed thistle, and it is bruisingly bitter, clearly the reason mumme was proclaimed “bitter as gall.” Not necessarily what you want in an everyday beer—or maybe you do.
Recently, a Nigerian client sent me to ply my way through customs with a couple of bags of African herbs, bitter leaf (Veronia amygdalina) and bitter cola (Garcinia kola). These have been studied by Nigerian food scientists and their findings that these herbs have antibacterial powers as well as bitterness were published in The Master Brewers Association of America’s Technical Quarterly. Of course, Africa is a big continent, and it abounds with countless possibilities. And the world is a whole lot bigger than that.
Note: Some of these herbs may be difficult to obtain commercially. www.wildweeds.com has a wide selection (including sweet gale) for what seem to be reasonable prices.