Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

That’s not to say there were no ales brewed with herbs in Britain. I’ve tracked references to between 40 and 50 different herbs and plants that were added to ale at some time, both before and after the arrival of hops (you can read more in the “Herb beers” chapter of my book Amber, Gold and Black, from which a fair part of this post is nicked.) There are a couple of East Anglian recipes for herb-flavoured ale dating from around 1430, in the collection known as the Paston Letters:

Pur faire holsom drynk of ale, Recipe sauge, auence, rose maryn, tyme, chopped right smal, and put this and a newe leyd hennes ey [egg] in a bage and hange it in the barell. Item, clowys, maces, and spikenard grounden and put in a bagge and hangen in the barell. And nota that the ey of the henne shal kepe the ale fro sour.

In modern English: “For a fair, wholesome drink of ale, chop finely sage, wood avens [or Herb Bennet, Geum urbanum, a common perennial plant with yellow five-petalled flowers, found in woodlands and hedgerows], rosemary and thyme and place in a bag with a newly laid hen’s egg, and hang the bag in a barrel. Second recipe: grind cloves, mace and spikenard (probably ploughman’s-spikenard, Inula conyzae, an English perennial flowering plant found in scrubland whose roots have a strong, spicy aroma] and put in a bag and hang in the barrel. Note that the hen’s egg will keep the ale from going sour.”

I’d love to see either of those recipes reproduced. John Gerard, the Elizabethan herbalist, printed a similar sort of recipe for sage ale in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597, declaring: “No man needs to doubt of the wholesomeness of sage ale, being brewed as it should be with sage, scabious [probably field scabious, Knautia arvensis], betony [Betonica officinalis, a bitter grassland plant], spikenard [Inula conyzae again], squinanth [squinancywort or squinancy woodruff (Asperula cynanchica), a scented, white or lilac-flowered plant formerly used in the treatment of quinsy, a throat infection] and fennel seeds.”

Scurvy grass

Scurvy grass

Those “multi-ingredient” herb ales are similar to the two new ales bought out by the Pilot and Ilkley breweries, both of which have “foraged” for their ingredients, using herbs and botanicals than can be found near their breweries. The ale from the Pilot brewery, which opened in Leith late last year, has been brewed at the request of the Vintage bar and restaurant in Leith to celebrate the restaurant’s first anniversary. The restaurant has been using foraged food in its seasonal menus, and it supplied the brewery with foraged ingredients for the ale – scurvy grass, Cochlearia officinalis, a relative of horseradish, used historically to brew “scurvy ale”, which was taken aboard ships for its high vitamin C content; laver, a variety of edible seaweed; crab apples; black lovage, Smyrnium olusatrum, a celery-like plant now naturalised in Britain but originally from Macedonia; sea buckthorn, Hippophae rhamnoides; and juniper branches. Juniper branches are a traditional part of Norwegian home brewing: while there’s little or no evidence British ale brewers used juniper, I’d be surprised if they didn’t, at least occasionally.

Yarrow

Yarrow: you may recognise it from your lawn

The Ilkley brewery’s 5% gruit ale, called Doctor’s Orders, uses a recipe put together by beer sommelier Jane Peyton containing a couple of very traditional herbs for flavouring pre-hop ale, yarrow and bog myrtle. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a common grassland weed, small and feathery-leaved. For pre-hop brewers it gave bitterness, a preservative effect and, if the flowering plants were used, strong herby aromas. Its taste is described by one brewer as astringent, and vaguely citrussy. It had a reputation in Scandinavia for making ale more potent, perhaps because it is said to contain thujone, the narcotic ingredient also found in wormwood. Too much yarrow is said to cause dizziness and ringing in the ears, “and even madness”. Bog myrtle/sweet gale has a similar reputation: I wrote about it here. Viking warriors, according to some authorities, consumed large quantities of bog myrtle to bring on hallucinations and, literally, drive themselves berserk before battle. But gale ale, made by adding leafy branches of bog myrtle to the hot wort, is an old Yorkshire tradition. Peyton also used rosemary, sage, heather flowers and heather foraged from Ilkley Moor to flavour an ale made with six malts, Maris Otter extra pale, oats (6%), crystal, chocolate, brown and smoked, and a small amount of Fuggles hops, for preservative purposes, if not total historic accuracy.

Alas, I’ve not had this ale yet, but Luke Raven, sales and marketing manager at Ilkley Brewery, said: “The beer is delicious. The fragrant mixture of gruit herbs and heather from Ilkley Moor really packs a punch and yet it’s a beer you could happily enjoy with a Sunday roast or pheasant.”

Butler's Head

The Dr Butler’s Head near Moorgate in the City of London in the 1960s

I suspect it is called Doctor’s Orders in part as a nod to Dr Butler’s Ale, a medicated or “purging” ale that was the invention of William Butler, the court physician to King James I, who died in 1617. Inns that sold the ale often went under the sign of the Dr Butler’s Head, and there is still a Butler’s Head in the City of London (now owned by Shepherd Neame). Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink used for betony, sage, agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria, a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass, Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (Inula helenium, a dandelion-like bitter plant still used in herbal cough mixtures) and horse-radish, to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation. It was described in 1680 as “an excellent stomack drink” which “helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

It’s my suspicion, however, that when British brewers used herbs in the past, they were much more likely to use them singly than bung in three, four or more different types. There are only a tiny number of actual medieval references to herbs and spices used in ale: in William Langland’s long poem The Vision of Piers Plowman, written in the late 1300s Beton the brewster tempts Glutton away from his journey to church, telling him: “I have good ale.” When Glutton, asks if she has any “hot spices” to hand she replies:

“I have peper and piones [peony seeds] … and a pound of garlice,
A ferthyngworth of fenel-seed for fastyng-dayes.”

The “peper” would have been “long pepper”, made from the long rod-like structure made from merged berries that develops on Piper officinarum (from India) or P. retrofractum (from Indonesia). However, it is not until we get to Stuart times that we get more frequent mentions of herb-flavoured ales. One of my favourites is from The Bacchanalian Sessions: or The Contention of Liquors, by Richard Ames (1643-1693), a long paean to drinks of all sorts, which contains a submission to Bacchus from the ales:

Whether Scurvy-grass, Daucus, Gill, Butler, or Broom,
Or from London, or Southwark, or Lambeth we come;
We humbly implore since the Wine in the Nation,
Has of late so much lost its once great Reputation;
That such Liquor as ours which is genuine and true,
And which all our Masters so carefully brew,
Which all men approve of, tho’ many drink Wine,
Yet the good Oyl of Barly there’s none will decline:
That we as a body call’d corp’rate may stand,
And a Patent procure from your Seal and your Hand,
That none without Licence, call’d Special, shall fail,
To drink any thing else, but Strong Nappy Brown Ale.

That’s five herb ales, of which only one, “Butler” (Dr Butler’s) is mixed. Scurvy-grass we have talked about. “Daucus” is wild carrot seed: William Ellis wrote in The London and Country Brewer, which first appeared in 1736, that when hops were dear “many of the poor People in this Country gather and dry in their Houses” daucus or wild carrot seed from the fields, which gave a “fine Peach flavour or relish” to their beer.

Ground-ivy

Ground-ivy or alehoof

Gill ale was made with ground-ivy, Glechoma hederacea also known as alehoof (from its hoof-shaped leaves) or Gill-go-over-the-Ground, a creeping plant common in woods and hedgerows all over the British Isles: it can be used as a salad herb, and even cooked and eaten like spinach. The pre-Norman English cultivated ground-ivy, and a recipe in an Anglo-Saxon leechdom, or medical book, distinguishes between the wild and cultivated or garden varieties: another name for the plant, tunhoof, comes from tun meaning enclosure or garden rather than tun meaning cask. It was steeped in the hot liquor before mashing, and it seems to have been a widely used plant in brewing ale, even after the arrival of hops: John Gerard said in 1597 that “the women of our northern parts, especially Wales and Chesire, do turn Herbe-Alehoof into their ale.” It gives a bitter, very strong, tannic flavour to ale (described by Stephen Harrod Buhner as like black tea), but more importantly it helps fine the drink, clearing new ale overnight, according to Culpepper. Gill ale was being advertised on the signboard of the [Red?] Lion pub in Bird-Cage Alley, Southwark in around 1722, “Truly prepared and recommended by famed Doctor Bostock”, Bostock being the pub’s landlord.

The young green tops of broom, Cytisus scoparius (or Sarothamnus scoparius), were used in season to give a bitter flavour to ale. Among the bitter compounds found in broom is sparteine, a narcotic alkaloid which can cause hallucinations in very large doses, and probably gives a buzz even at low levels. Broom was one of the bittering agents specifically banned under the Act of Parliament in 1711 that imposed a penny a pound tax on English hops: the only let-out was that retailers could infuse broom and wormwood in ale or beer “after it is brewed and tunned, to make it broom or wormwood ale or beer.” Wormwood has been used to make bitter wine-based drinks since at least Roman times, and is the origin of the word vermouth. Maude Grieve, author of A Modern Herbal, published in 1931, said that shepherds had long known that sheep who ate broom became excited and then stupefied, “but the intoxicating effects soon pass off”. Broom also contains tannins, which would help to preserve ale, and make it taste more astringent. Broom ale is another one I’d love to see revived.

The hop tax banned other bittering agents purely to try to crush tax-avoidance, despite a claim that it was done because “it had been found by experience that hops used in the making of malt drinks were more wholesome for those that drink the same and of greater advantage to the drink itself than any other bitter ingredient that can be used.” It did not stop home brewers using herbs: William Ellis said when hops were dear, some used “that wholsome Herb Horehound, which indeed is a fine Bitter and grows on several of our Commons.” This was white horehound, Marrubium vulgare, “extremely bitter” according to Stephen Harrod Buhner, rather than the nasty-smelling black horehound or Stinking Roger. Horehound is still used in herbal cough mixtures, and was sometimes used in a “beer for coughs”. The juice of horehound, according to Ellis, was also used to spruce up used hops and sell them to the gullible, when dried, as new.

Just over 20 years before the hop tax was imposed, Thomas Tryon, in his A New Art of Brewing Beer, Ale, and Other Sorts of Liquors, published in 1690, list 13 herbs that could be added to ale, and said there were “a great number of brave Herbes and Vegitations that will do the business of brewing, as well as hops, and for many Constitutions much better, for ’tis custom more than their real virtues that renders Hops of general Use and Esteem.” His two favourites, “noble” herbs, of “excellent” use in beer or ale, were balm, or lemon-balm, Melissa officinalis, an introduced herb from the eastern Mediterranean, and a relative of ground-ivy, and pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium, a small-leaved member of the mint family, with a bitter flavour and a pungent odour, which grows wild on the muddy edges of ponds. Tryon said it made “brave, well-tasted Drink”; today, however, it is regarded as dangerously poisonous, not least because it can induce abortion. It is now an endangered species, known from only a dozen or so places. Don’t try (on) this one.

Matching Chinese food and beer

One of the opportunities I was looking forward to in Hong Kong was the chance to match beer with Chinese food, a surprisingly under-explored area. I believe strongly that most beers go with most foods: but that doesn’t mean some pairings cannot be particularly felicitous, and that’s especially true with Chinese cuisine.

China is easily the biggest beer market in the world, almost twice as large as the US, the next largest, and in 2010 China drank very nearly a quarter of all the world’s beer. But annual consumption per head, at around 30 litres, while rising at some five per cent a year, is still almost a third of the US figure (81 litres). In addition, most of that consumption is of pale, undemanding lager.

What that means is that the Chinese DO drink beer with food, but it will be Tsingtao, or Blue Girl (from South Korea) or something equally bland and dull. Fortunately, Hong Kong takes advantage of its position as one of the biggest trading centres in Asia by importing good beer from all over the world: you won’t find Gale’s Prize Old Ale in Chiswick right now, for example (there’s none in stock in the Fuller’s brewery shop and I bought the last two bottles they had in the Mawson Arms next door back in October) but you WILL find it in stock in Hong Kong bars run by the El Grande group, such as the Happy Valley Bar and Grill – or at least you will until I buy up their complete current holding and the 2012 version gets shipped out. And, amazingly, Prize Old Ale is a beer that goes fantastically well with Chinese food, so well it could almost have been brewed for it.

There is probably a proper expression for this, but I don’t know it, so let’s call it “food imagination”, or “food intelligence”: the ability to summon up in the mind two different tastes and decide how they would go together, even if you have never actually matched or paired them in life. I’m sure it’s possible to test “FI”, with questions like: “what beer would you recommend with fennel?”* Good chefs need “FI”: good brewers, too. Great chefs (and brewers) have “food imagination” in wagons. You need to have at least a little “food imagination” to match beer with food, to even be able to write about beer and food matching: someone like Garrett Oliver obviously has “high FI”, and I think I have a reasonable “FI quotent”, or I wouldn’t dare write about beer and food together myself. So some of this is based on experience, some on speaking to Chinese beer lovers in Hong Kong, and some on “FI”. Continue reading

Sussex Steak with Port and Porter

When I started this blog I promised to give recipes with beer as one of the ingredients. There’s not been enough of that, so here’s a great dish for winter evenings – Sussex Steak.

K&B PorterPort and porter are an old combination, known in Ireland as a “corpse reviver”. In 2000 John O’Hanlon, born in Kerry, South West Ireland but now brewing on a farm in Devon, used this idea to produce a new style of bottled beer, containing two bottles of port to every 36 gallons of a “stout” that is really the strength of an old-time porter, to make O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout. The beer won a top prize in the Campaign for Real Ale’s Champion Winter Beer awards for 2002. This dish is also an old one, and why it is called Sussex Steak no one seems to know. However, the long, slow cooking makes for beautifully tender beef, and delicious gravy. To make it a bit more “Sussex” you could use Harvey’s Imperial Russian Stout, from Lewes, the county town, as the “porter” bit, but any strong porter or stout will do.

This would never make it into a Delia Smith cookbook, because it’s too easy to get wrong: if the steam level inside the dish drops while cooking, you’ll end up with steak like boot leather, so as the instructions say, no peeking: trust your oven.

INGREDIENTS:
1kg (2lb) lean rump or chuck steak, sliced 2.5cm (1in) thick
Flour and seasoning
1 large onion, sliced
30ml (1fl oz) mushroom ketchup
100ml (3 fl oz) port
100ml (3 fl oz) porter
(or substitute 75ml port and 125ml O’Hanlon’s Original Port Stout)

METHOD:
Season the flour, rub into the sliced steak. Lay the steak flat in an oven-proof dish.
Layer sliced onion on top, mix and pour in the ketchup, port and stout.
Cover as tightly as you can, using layers of and cooking foil tied round the dish with string.
Cook in oven at 135C (275F) for three hours. Do not be tempted to peek while the dish is cooking: it relies on the tight seal to keep in the steam from the port and porter, which tenderise the steak to perfection.

Serve with mashed potato, steamed green vegetables of your choice and field mushrooms baked for an hour with butter in a sealed dish.

Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer

Cooking with beer helps prevent cancer – well, it’s in New Scientist magazine, so it must be true.

Normally I’m deeply sceptical of “eating/drinking X gives you/prevents Y” stories but this one was so wonderful I had to repeat it.

A lady called Isabel Ferreira, an assistant professor at the Department of Bromatology* at the University of Porto in Portugal and her colleagues have been experimenting with marinating beer steaks in beer before pan-frying them.

The idea was to see if this would cut down on the levels of compounds called heterocyclic amines (HAs) that are created when the steaks were fried or grilled, with the heat of the cooking converting the sugars and amino acids in muscle tissue into HAs.

The trouble with HAs is that, while they probably help to make the cooked steak taste good, they do appear to be associated with an increased risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute in the United States says its researchers found that

those who ate their beef medium-well or well-done had more than three times the risk of stomach cancer than those who ate their beef rare or medium-rare.

The old statistician’s caveat applies here: three times not very much is still not very much. But if you’re worried that your love of well-cooked T-bone is going to kill you, can marinating it in beer first help?

The answer, Ms Ferreira found, was yes, most definitely: six hours of marinating steaks in beer (or, to be fair, red wine) slashed levels of two types of HA by up to 90 per cent when those steaks were cooked  compared with cooked but unmarinated steak. Beer was more efficient at reducing levels of a third type of heterocyclic amine than wine, cutting levels significantly on cooking after four hours’ marinating, while wine took six.

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Loch Fyne could be finer with decent beer

At the top of the (long) street where we now live is what used to be a pub called the Lord Nelson, the middle one of a trio of boozers with Napoleonic names between Hampton Hill and Twickenham Green. (The other two being the now-closed Wellington and the Prince Blücher, which is named after the Prussian general who pulled Wellington’s derrière out of the hot fat by turning up just in time at Waterloo, and which is a fine Fuller’s outlet.)

The Lord Nelson was well known for specialising in fish dishes, and it had half of a fishing boat outside the main entrance. Soon after we moved to this area, however, it was taken over by Loch Fyne Restaurants and converted from a pub specialising in fish to a proper fish eatery (with, as it happens Loch Fyne’s head office upstairs above the restaurant).

I never got there when it was a pub, though I’ve dined there several times since its reinvention as a Loch Fyne outlet, and the food is well up to the mark: properly cooked (it’s easy to do fish badly) and very reasonably priced. But the beer selection is absolutely dreadful: Beck’s, Stella, some other awful eurofizz lager, and (the only saviour) bottled Guinness.

I had hoped that after Greene King, which has been making some serious nods at beer and food matching (it actually has a website called Greene King Beer With Food, and its Hop bottled beer used to be called The Beer To Dine For) took over Loch Fyne not quite a year ago there would be an improvement. But a trip up the road for our wedding anniversary recently revealed that everything was just as awful as ever on the beer menu.

Not one of Greene King’s beers was available, so, still no ales, though ales, including Greene King’s, go extremely well with fish: Abbot with mackerel, for example, where the beer’s heaviness, slight sweetness and full mouthfeel works well with the oily fish; or XX dark mild with salmon, setting off the coffee/roast notes of the beer against the sweetness of a good wild Alaskan; mussels with IPA; a creamy smoked fish pie with Strong Suffolk; or bouillabaisse with Hen’s Tooth, one of my favourite bottle-conditioned ales.

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Chocolate beer is 3,000 years old

They’ll be cracking open the bottles of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout in Bedford today at the news that archaeologists in Honduras have discovered that chocolate was originally just a by-product in brewing beer.

What’s more, it looks as if chocolate-flavoured beer, like DC Stout, is one of the most ancient beer styles in the world, dating back more than 3,000 years.

I don’t normally do stories I know are going to be pretty much everywhere else in the beer blogiverse, but this is a great tale, and it also gives me an excuse to print an ice cream recipe I’ve been meaning to share for some time.

The story has its roots in one of the puzzles of technological history: chocolate is made by fermenting the seeds of the cacao plant. The pulp of cacao fruit and seeds are fermented together, colouring the seeds purple. Unless you do that, you don’t get the chocolate taste. But who first thought that would be something worth doing?

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One for the Curmisagios

When I was researching the etymological roots of various European beer-related words, I discovered there had been a Gaulish personal name, Curmisagios, which translates as “the beer seeker”, or, if you like, “the beer hunter”. Among the tribes who lived in Gaul, home of Curmisagios, were the Belgae, whose own name was borrowed in 1790 by the subjects of the then Austrian Netherlands for the short-lived Etats-Belgiques-Unis – United States of Belgium – they set up during a soon-crushed rebellion against the Emperor in far-away Vienna.

The name Belgium was revived 40 years later, in 1830, by the Roman Catholic Flemings and Walloons of the old Austrian Netherlands for their own new country after they rose against the Protestant Dutch who dominated the post-Napoleonic United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the 20th century the beers made in Belgium were championed by Michael Jackson, who – some of you can see where this is going already – called himself the Beer Hunter, and who was thus, in the language once spoken in ancient Belgium, the Curmisagios.

Tomorrow I’m travelling to the seminar on wood-aged beers being organised by the Zythographers’ Union in Yorkshire, and I am sure Michael’s benign influence will be felt at the event, even though his death a month ago has robbed us of his presence. He would, I know, have had pertinent and insightful comments to deliver on beer in wood. Every person there will be sorrowful he’s not around to let us have his opinions and experiences, gathered from 30 years of hunting beers across the planet.

For me, the most influential book he wrote during those 30 years was the Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion from 1993, mainly because of its 40-page section on matching food and beer, and cooking with beer. I began my own experiments with beer cuisine by trying out recipes from the book, before going on to try to invent some ideas of my own. One of the dishes from the Beer Companion I’ve made several times is a Belgian dish involving strips of lamb cooked in a beer-and-cream sauce which is a definite dinner party winner.

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