Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 65

What Is a Gruit?

The word “gruit” describes an herb mixture originally used to enrich the flavour of beer before the widespread use of hops. The earliest known reference to gruit dates back to the 10th century from an area now in the Netherlands, Belgium, and northwestern Germany. Historically, a gruit mix was primarily comprised of bog myrtle, yarrow, wild rosemary.
Of all the herbs, bog myrtle is nearly always mentioned, known for imparting gruit with a piney resinous flavour akin to hops. Yarrow and wild rosemary were likely less popular herbs, where yarrow added a bitter and astringent quality and wild rosemary a menthol, resiny bitterness. Additional gruit spices varied due to geographical and regional differences, though caraway, juniper and wormwood are often mentioned.


Gruitrecht, or “gruit right” gave permission to those in possession the right to make their own gruit mixture to sell to brewers. This right was granted directly to monasteries or towns, or indirectly to ruling nobility or clergy members. Those with Gruitrecht were granted authority to control the brewing industry, as brewers were only allowed to make a specific quantity of beer that was in direct proportion to the amount of gruit purchased. The purchase of gruit was mandatory for brewers and served as an early form of taxation.

Rise of Hopped Beer

The first hopped beers began to appear at the turn of the 9th century in North West Germany. Early adopters of hopped beer were “free” brewers, living outside of regions legally obligated to use a gruit mixture for their brews. In contrast to gruit, hops were cheaper and had greater preservative qualities. The extended shelf-life of hopped beer allowed for brewers to sell their beer further abroad rather than exclusively to local markets. Most importantly, hopped beer required significantly less grain than gruit to make a palatable brew – an important consideration in a nation plagued with many wars and grain shortages.

Purity Ordinances & Ban on Intoxicating Herbs

Demand for beer rose steadily during the fifteenth century, requiring larger quantities of brews that could be effectively cellared. With an increasing demand for beer and a scarcity of “safe” herbs, many gruit brewers starting adding more intoxicating substances like wormwood to the mix.

While the use of poisonous herbs becoming increasingly problematic, authorities were realizing that hops were readily available, cheaper and could make an extremely palatable brew. This confluence of factors formed the basis for various purity laws enacted during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The most well-known purity ordinance was the 1516 Bavarian law limiting ingredients in all beer to water, barley and hops. As much as these decrees were enacted out of a need for consumer protection, the ruling elite recognized the massive financial gains that could be made from hopped beer. Ultimately, nobility and town councils that had relied on gruit for economic gain found even greater revenue from excise taxes on barrels of hopped beer.

Brewers often held their gruit recipes as a proprietary trade secret, and as a result there is little documentation of actual brewing recipes from the Middle Ages. Much of our current information on historical gruits has been derived from tax records detailing the sale of spices and herbs to brewers.

Brewers today celebrate hops for their incredible flavour additions and bittering compounds, without having to rely on them for their preservative qualities – thanks to technological advancements like refrigeration and pasteurization. As a nod to the past, some contemporary craft brewers are creating their own version of the gruit with the advantage of access to a nearly endless variety of herbs and unique ingredients. If you are lucky enough to come across the rare locally-produced gruit, be sure to give it a try.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as the Beer Boss and a server at C’est What)