Monday, September 26, 2011

Brewing Fire-Pit Gruit

Fire Brewing with Marty and Martin.While the basic steps that go into brewing haven't changed much over the 6,000+ year history of the beverage, the ingredients and equipment certainly have. As a result, the beverage we call beer today doesn't share much in common with what was being brewed and drank 1,000 years ago. The most significant change to the ingredients over that time has been the dominance of hops over all other brewing herbs. Hops are the perfect spice for beer, they add bitterness, aromatics, boost head retention, inhibit Lactobacillus, and grow like weeds in northern climes (the same places where barley thrives and grapes do not). Even so, it is nice to try the alternatives sometimes to see what the other options are (even if just to affirm your choice).

Over Labor Day weekend I drove from DC out close to the border between Virginia and West Virginia to brew with one of the homebrewers who attended Brewing Locally. When Marty mentioned that he and his friend Martin brew gruit over an open fire, it sounded like an event that I couldn't pass up witnessing for myself. The combination of an arcane beer style, and an crazy brewing technique was something that seemed right up my alley.

Adding the pre-measured herb blend.Traditionally blends of herbs called gruit were used to balance the sweetness of the malt as well as their supposed medicinal benefits. I have brewed a couple non-hopped beers (Heather Ale, and the Winter Kvass), but I have yet to brew one with the classic combination of herbs that make up gruit.  Martin and Marty both seem confident that these herbs (yarrow, sweet gale, wormwood, marsh rosemary etc...) have a stimulative effect compared to drinking a couple hopped beers (hops being a sedative). I haven't noticed much difference, but for more information of these herbs and their supposed effects you can read Stephen Harrod Buhner's Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers.

Martin and Marty buy their herbs in bulk from an online spice/herb shop for the most part. The only one of the mainstay herbs that is hard to come by is marsh rosemary, which they buy for $10 a jar from a Canadian who forages for it (Labrador tea was suggested as the best easily accessible alternative). They have also started to grow some of their own and forage for local equivalents.  The most important aspect of brewing a good gruit is avoiding over-spicing (as most of the handful of commercial examples I've tried have been), which is something that the various gruits they served (classic, sage, burdock root etc...) avoided. They are still tinkering with the timing, sometimes adding all of the herbs near the start of the boil, others saving the more aromatics herbs for a later addition.

Propane is so popular with brewers because it is clean, easy to control, and compact, but it also adds ~$4 a batch onto my cost. Brewing over a fire has a romantic appeal, it makes brewing seem more like an event and less like a chore. If you want to brew over a fire you'll need something to suspend the kettle over the fire and a way to adjust the heat. A more complex rig could have a winch to raise and lower the fire, but in Marty's case he simply pulls the kettles partway off the fire when they threaten to boil-over. Another advantage of brewing over a fire is that it is easy to brew a couple batches at once over a single fire (we brewed three 10 gallon batches). Building guitars for a living and having a house out in the woods Marty has a lot of extra scrap wood to burn, but if you didn't you'd probably lose most of your savings from not buying propane by buying wood.  Martin has a web page with details of his slightly more elaborate fire-brewing rig.

They do not get a smoky flavor from boiling over the fire, or any additional caramelization (or melanodins) from the intense heat as far as I tasted.  The soot from the fire does blacken the kettles, but this isn't a big deal.  The biggest disadvantage is that tending the fire to ensure that it is hot enough to boil the wort is one more thing to worry about.

To cool the beers they simply leave the kettles covered overnight before transferring the cool wort to carboys and pitching yeast the next morning. The wooden lids are not tight fitting, which allows ambient air to be sucked in as the wort cools and contracts.  As a result of this (and the lack of preservative hops) all of the beers I tried had a wonderful refreshing tartness that mingled surprisingly well with the herbal bitterness. Sour and bitter and not normally flavors that combine pleasantly, but it this case the bitterness comes through in the front with the sourness holding off until the finish.

A bottle on Martin's gruit that he sent me home with.It was a terrific way to spend a day, capped off with a delicious dinner of venison (which Marty had hunted) roasted in a pot over the same fire we were using to brew. Not sure that I'll be building a fire in my small backyard to brew anytime soon, but it certainly inspired me to try my hand at a traditional gruit.

Martin's Classic Gruit
10 gallons:
Mash 1/2 a bag (25 lbs) of American pale malt in the low 150s F (strike water ~165 F).

After 60 minutes of conversion, run-off, batch sparge, then bring wort to a boil.  They do not recirculate which leaves the beer hazy, and looking like a medieval beverage.

3 oz yarrow and 1 oz wormwood for bittering near the start of the boil.
1/2 oz each of myrica gale (sweet gale) and marsh rosemary (or Labrador tea) as finishing in the last 10 minutes of the boil.

Allow to cool naturally overnight.  In the morning rack to fermenters, pitch US-05, and allow to ferment.  When fermentation is complete prime and bottle.


Simon Huntley said...

I made a batch of gruit a few months ago in the general recipe of your buddy here.. and the flavor is interesting. I suspect it is an acquired taste and I've only tried one or two bottles so far. It's so hard because there are few if any commercial examples so I don't know what it is *supposed* to taste like. We are all experimenting here to come up with something palatable.

Middle Class Middle Aged White Guy said...

No link to the "online spice/herb shop"? After having tried Fraoch and Alba from Williams Brothers brewing, I wanted to try to brew both styles myself. One recipe called for TWELVE CUPS of heather tips, which would be extremely expensive at any source I found - and I'd have to buy a metric crap-ton of the 2 oz packages at my LHBS.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I forget which shop they'd bought their herbs from, but I've had good luck with (they have heather flowers for $13/lb).

Kevin said...

Figured I'd chime in and second Mike's recommendation of Mountain Rose. Fantastic guys and gals to wrk with; very informative, very homebrewer friendly. And being just down the road from me here in Eugene, OR, getting to dodge the shipping cost is a nice touch.

They have been supplying homebrew shops for a while now, but are starting to work more closely with breweries.

Oakshire, a local brewery, released Mountain Rose Gruit back in April, a Beglian-style beer, spiced with Mugwort, Dandelion root, Dandelion leaf, Burdock Root, Licorice Root, Milk Thistle Seed, Blessed Thistle, Chamomile Flower, and Grapefruit peel from MR.

And at last weekend's Rootstalk Festival, (a 3-day music fest put on by MR to benefit the Cascadia Wildlands), Oakshire released Rootstalk Gold, a golden ale, spiced with Rose Hips, Elder Flowers, Lemon Verbena and Meadowsweet from MR.

Ok, after those two horrendous run-on sentences, I think I'm done caning for Mountain Rose.

Cheers Mike!

Beer and Coding in Eugene

Jim said...

This would make for a great camping trip!

Kyle said...

Very cool. I've been facinated with the stuff since I visited Bruges (which was built by 13th century gruit barons). This is a post I'll tuck away for some future experiment with gruit.

Rowan said...

Very interesting

If you're interested in boils without propane you might like this:

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Cool stuff, certainly looks much more energy efficient than the big fire.

Anonymous said...

Very cool. I have been wanting to experiment with different herbs for a while, but have felt intimidated since it is so easy to overdo it. I wonder how doing this with a different malt bill would change the profile. I was thinking something like a witbier would work well with the herbal earthy/spiciness and the tartness brought on by ambient bacteria/yeast.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I think that could work really well. If you are worried about over doing it, go easy on the herbs. You can always boil some up in water and add that to the bottling bucket or keg if it needs a boost.

lylekarsen said...

I was curious about your experiences with this, did you ever get around to brewing gruits? These are actually my preferred tipples, but there are a few points of practice which I often don't see discussed in the literature that I've worked out I thought I would share with you in the event that you hadn't. The first and utmost is the state of the plant materials before their introduction to the wort. I have found that I create much more agreeable ales, (by which I mean flavor as well as psychotropic, inebriating, and stimulating effects) by using fresh herbs, harvested during the correct time of year for the concentration of terpenes, alkaloids, etc. to be ideal for the brewing process. Also, I feel it is necessary to use them fresh and harvested immediately when they are to become part of a wort. In addition to this they must be added again during the latter portions of fermentation in mostly similar quantities. Brewing with these herbs not only more seasonally (since one must grow these things to harvest at peak stages), but more singularly as well, (since many of the important ale herbs will come into season at different times, i.e. tunhoof/ground ivy in the spring, yarrow in the height of summer, and wormwood in the late summer) also allows me to appreciate the subtle effects of the various plants on the mind. Suffice it to say it is a grave error to mix inebriating herbs such as yarrow with the more mentally stimulating and invigorating classes. Finally, there is a class of herbs and plant materials one can use as flavoring agents which includes lemon balm, various peels of fruit, ginger, the standard brewing spices, true sages, etc.

As far as their prefer-ability to hops is concerned, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. I certainly do not miss hops during their summer dearth and enjoy waiting for the first IPA with homegrown fuggles and cascade when it emerges with the changing of the leaves. It was by fiat that these herbs were removed from ale and replaced with the estrogenic and soporific hops in most cases, so the people of the Age of Gruit (lasting many thousands of years) seemed to agree. The love of homebrewed gruit persisted right up until the early 20th century when mass-produced lagers became available and cheap even in remote parts of the beer drinking world. In a way the whole idea of making traditional gruit, gathering herbs from where you live and fermenting in the sugar at hand, is a rebellion against the idea that a beer purveyor should be paid for one's love of the drop. Its easy to see why that had to be eradicated in favor of the beers which became popular as the Industrial Revolution wore on.

Enjoying a lovely end of summer gruit as I type,

P.S. Sorry about the double post I didn't realize I couldn't edit my comment.

P.P.S. Yarrow will definitely oxidize its highly inebriating qualities upon storage and will also gain a medicinal flavor that I find rather unpleasant. You will get better results using yarrow harvested around the end of June to early July in my neck of the woods, probably similar up around Washington D.C. Don't bother measuring because like hops that are grown at home there's significant variance in the plant's makeup from year to year- just grab two good handfuls.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

As you discovered, I haven't brewed many gruits myself, just the split batch flavored with teas made with heather/lavender, and hibiscus/jasmine. It is good to know that there are still people so committed to foraging and brewing with a wide array of traditional brewing herbs. However, in my more general experience brewing with spices and herbs I’ll disagree that there is one single best way to add flavors to beer. Different amounts of time, heat, and alcohol will all change the flavor imparted. What works best for one plant, does not work for all.