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May 12, 2017

Con – gruit – y. The Origins of Brewing in Europe

Con – gruit – y. The Origins of Brewing in Europe

Those of you who have been paying attention (which is a satisfyingly large number now!) will know that the blogs of late have been about the history of brewing. We started with the origins of the art and then looked at Britannia. However, rather like WaveGrip itself, we’re moving out into the wider world, starting with Europe.

Those Northern Europeans

Not many people know this but beer became so popular with the Northern Europeans because it was too difficult to cultivate grapes up there but growing barley was easy peasy. Therefore, by the Middle Ages, everyone in the North and East of the continent was drinking the brown stuff regularly. And it was beer but not as we know it.

For one thing, hops weren’t used in beer making as a matter of course until the 9th Century. Before then, beer was flavoured with a mixture of herbs, called ‘gruit’. Each brewer had their own recipe for gruit but common herbs included mugwort, yarrow, heather and even ground ivy – stomach pains, anyone? Unsurprisingly, given that concoction, once hops were discovered to be better at preserving the drink and didn’t have the ‘interesting’ side effects, gruit became a thing of the past – except in Finland (there’s always one) where sahti, an unhopped beer spiced with juniper berries is made and, we’re reliably informed, enjoyed by the locals. Mind you, we all remember Iceland’s smoked whale testicle beer – must be something to do with the cold …

Bohemian rhapsody

Now we know where Queen got the title for that song! It must have been like an ecstatic experience when the beer-producing towns in 13th Century Bohemia started making hopped beer in reasonable volumes. At this point the domestic alewives were given their marching orders and beer was produced in barrels that could be exported. And exported they were, all across Northern Europe, from Holland to Flanders and, later, England.

Not that everyone liked hops. In fact, the English preferred their ale (and if you were paying attention last time you’d know that ale is beer without hops in it.) As one scribbler of the time put it – and we’re translating for the benefit of those who don’t speak Chaucerian English:

Ale is a natural drink for the Englishman. Ale must be made of malt, water and yeast whereas beer is made of malt, water and hops, which is favoured by the Dutchman (the writer disapproves of this – you can almost hear the tutting).

He goes on to lament that of late days, beer is much used in England, to the detriment of many Englishmen, for beer makes a man fat and inflates his belly.

Oh dear …

Mass production

By the late Middle Ages, beer was being made in most pubs and monasteries and the use of hops had improved both the brewing process and the quality of beer. Meanwhile, those clever Germans had made other improvements, such using larger kettles and brewing more frequently. The better the beer, the more people wanted to drink it – law of supply and demand in action – so, from your average Hamburger drinking around 300 litres per year in the 15th Century, he was knocking back around 700 litres in the 17th.

Getting over themselves

While our hop critic had railed against the hop in the late Middle Ages, by 1400, hopped beer was being imported to England from the Netherlands and by 1500, hops were being grown across England. This meant that, gradually, all beer was being referred to as, well, beer and ale came to mean just a particularly strong one.

A pure brew

Meanwhile, back in Germany, while the English were starting to enjoy beer over ale, the Bavarians and other states of the former Holy Roman Empire were busy bringing in a ‘purity order’ – the Rheinheitsgebot. This series of regulations limited the ingredients allowed in beer and cut them back dramatically, to the extent that the only permitted contents were water, barley and hops.

The reasons given for the introduction of the Rheinheitsgebotvary; some say it was to prevent price competition, others that restricting the cereal used to barley would ensure the availability of affordable bread, as bakers only used wheat and Rye. However, interestingly, give the ‘Holy part of the equation, it may have been because our old friend gruit was allegedly used in pagan rituals and they didn’t want anything of that sort going on in their beer!

It was a shame in many ways that the regulations were followed so slavishly, as it led to the extinction of many brewing traditions and local beer specialities and to the domination of the German beer market by Pilsner style beers.

We could go on about the Rheinheitsgebotas it’s still being used today but we don’t have the time. Suffice to say that it marked the end of gruit, which is where we came in. And we do like a full circle.

Cue shamelessly cheesy link

So why do we like a full circle, you ask yourselves? Well, our carriers fit perfectly around the tops of cans – have you ever seen a square one…?

The post Con – gruit – y appeared first on WaveGrip.


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