While the Vikings were raiding, the monks of northern Europe were brewing. Little is actually known about the beer they brewed, called gruit. The word gruit is related to our English words “grit” and “grist.” This may be because the secret dose of herbs and spices was disguised by mixing it with a quantity of ground malt. Three herbs are almost always mentioned in connection with gruit: bog myrtle (Myrica gale), wild rosemary (Ledum palustre), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Bog myrtle is a perfectly wholesome ingredient, but the other two have toxicity that makes them unfit for consumption.
There are medievalist homebrewers who brew gruit, reconstructed as best they can from very limited information. I have to say that to our modern tastes, gruit is not a particularly delicious beer. The herbs have a strong menthol or camphor quality, along with a heap of raspy tannins. I usually assume that ancient people were quite capable of making excellent beverages, although, in this case I…well…I, uh…maybe I’m missing something.
Hops and Other Adulterations
For reasons probably having more to do with product stability than flavor, hops replaced gruit by about 1400 on the continent. England was not so steeped in the gruit tradition; its ales seem to have been largely devoid of all seasonings, at least at the time they were being challenged by hopped beer. Even so, hopped beer had completely replaced unhopped ale by the end of the 17th century.
Strangely enough, hopped beer seems to have brought a whole host of other adulterations to England with it. By about 1750, the drugging of beer, especially porter, seems to have been a serious public health problem. Unscrupulous brewers jostled for market position, and despite laws to the contrary, fell to temptation to add strength or reduce cost through the use of noxious substances in their beers: Cocculus indicus (a seedpod with strong stimulant properties), Faba amara (an Asian bittering material also called “bitter bean,” which contains strychnine) and opium. Also part of the mix were chili pepper, coriander, licorice and other innocuous ingredients.
Thanks to a government crackdown on druggists, along with the lifting of the tax on hops, things were pretty much cleaned up by 1820. Many quaint spiced beers using wholesome ingredients lingered on in private country house breweries until the end of the 19th century, and many of these recipes are preserved in a usefully detailed form in books from the time.
Smoke is another taste of the past. As contemporary texts make clear, brewers ditched smoked malts as indirect coal or coke-fired kilns were put into use by the mid 17th century. Everywhere except in some of the more rustic parts of Germany, that is. The north Bavarian town of Bamberg remains proudly archaic, and brewers there produce rauchbier in a full set of styles using beechwood-smoked malt, although the flagship is kind of a “smoketoberfest.” This malt gives the beers an almost “bacony” nose. The first sip can be pretty weird, but as your palate acclimates to it, the smokiness mellows and becomes quite delicious, especially when combined with robust country foods such as sausage or ham.
The Bamberger rauchbiers are the sole smoky survivors in Germany, but once there were others. A beer called grätzer was once hugely popular in Posen, Prussia, which is now part of Poland. It is brewed from 100 percent smoked wheat malt; 7 percent of which is kilned to an amber color. Of normal or weak strength, grätzer is highly hopped, creamy and delicious. Sad to say, the last commercial survivor, brewed under the name Grodzisk, died in the 1990s. Another smoked beer, Lichtenhainer, was a weak, sour smoked barley malt beer from northern Germany. It had vanished by World War II.
A related style, steinbier, is also brewed in Bamberg, although this version was inspired by a beer that survived into the early 20th century in a rural province of Austria called Carinthia. In this ancient brewing process, white-hot rocks are lowered into the kettle to boil the wort, although rocks were originally used to heat the mash as well. The cooled stones are added to the fermenters where the caramelized wort gradually melts off. A touch of smoke from the wood fires used to heat the rocks adds another layer of flavor. The modern Bamberg interpretation, Rauchenfels, is a märzen, although the original Carinthian steinbier was quite low in gravity and had a high proportion of oats.