If beer could talk I am sure it would have a dynamic vocabulary, all except this style which can only say “I am Gruit!” Pronounced grew-it, this is a versatile beer style. But what exactly is it, a sentient hop plant from space? Quite the contrary, a gruit is a beer made without hops. But as we have come to learn hops give beer their excellent flavor and stability against contaminants. So why purposely make a beer without them?
Hop usage in beer is actually a relatively new innovation to its history. Most beer made before this time proved to be unpalatably sweet and would spoil within days. The sweetness came from the malt that was used, and later adding hops balanced the sweet with bitter to find a pleasant middle. But due to many reasons in many areas around the world hops were not used as the bitterness component in the beer.
Beer since its inception has always been considered by many to be a sustaining drink. But this is even more so true in the past where most brewing was done by monks and churches. They wanted to impart a healthy alternative in the dark ages to the drinking water that had dead people floating in it (thanks barbarians). So, due to boiling the water, the slight benefits of alcohol in moderation, and the addition of spices which gave critically needed nutrients to a poor diet the first true gruit was born.
It also cannot be denied that the U.K. has had an incredible influence on beer history. In the past England tried to ensure it kept its edge in the industry and decided to levy heavy taxes on what they assumed to be the most important ingredient in brewing, hops. Intrepid brewers however found ways around this with local bittering plants. The Scottish for example made beers bittered with heather, giving a unique flavor to the product. The Irish also used what was plentiful to them, spruce tips. In this example taxation led to the gruit being reborn.
A muddled view of history would paint the gruit as a beer of opportunity or necessity, only being made when poor water or taxes demanded it. But is this the case? Yes, it is. A modern gruit is just a beer that a brewer skimped on ingredients and still wants you to drink saying that all the hipsters are doing it. Okay all kidding aside, the gruit is a very versatile beer style richly steeped in history and tradition. It allows for flavor combinations nearly impossible in conventional ales or lagers, and does still hold beneficial nutritious effects. The next time a gruit passes your way give it a try!