Fearful Symmetries

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26 May, 2015

Hops? We Don't Need No Stinking Hops! - Snowflake 2015 Gruit by Vintage Brewing



A recent column by the Wisconsin State Journal's Chris Drosner reviewed Small Town Brewery's Not Your Father's Root Beer, a beer, unsurprisingly, flavored to taste like root beer. Drosner wrote:

But beer purists — and they are a vocal lot — will say that Not Your Father’s Root Beer is not a beer because it lacks one ingredient considered essential to beer: hops.

Who are these "beer purists"? It's funny. Do beer bottles say "malt beverage" on them or "hop beverage"? Here's how Wikipedia defines beer: "Beer is an alcoholic beverage produced by the saccharification of starch and fermentation of the resulting sugar." Now, do you boil grains to get fermentable sugars or do you boil hops? People were consuming beer long before the use of hops came along.

I didn't know this until I looked it up but the ancestral home of the beloved hop is China. The plant made its way west and found a home in the gardens of ancient Romans who ate the shoots. As far as Western civilization and brewing is concerned, the first record of hops used in brewing comes from 822 C.E. in a list of rules written by Abbot Adalhard documenting how his abbey was to have been run. Tenants of the abbey were to collect hops and a tithe of malt and hops were given to the porter to brew beer.

Hops were growing in the wild in Europe during this time and it wasn't until the 11th or 12th century that hops were first cultivated commercially by some enterprising folks in Northern Germany. From here, their use spread although there was resistance that took decades, if not centuries to overcome.

So, if medieval brewers weren't brewing with hops, then with what did they flavor their brews?

Various and sundry divers botanicals. "Gruit" or "grut" refers to not only hopless beer but also to the botanicals used to flavor beer. It seems that the most common ones were bog myrtle, yarrow, and rosemary. However, many other herbs, spices, barks, etc. were used including juniper, mugwort, heather, sage, caraway, ginger, et al.

As someone who is not a hophead and who grows tired of liquor store clerks only being able to suggest some kind of hoppy pale ale or apologize for not having Pseudo Sue in stock, I decided to try all of the gruits I could this year. Granted, there are few but I gave it my best shot.

Every year Scott Manning at Vintage brews "a new and unique 'snow flake' beer- always a fresh new recipe and never the same brew twice." This year he brewed a gruit which he described as a brown ale with mugwort, licorice root, sweet gale, chicory, chamomile, and orange peel. Not a hop in sight. (Praise be to St. Gambrinus!) I got to taste this year's gruit while it was still in the tank and I was really looking forward to the finished product.

As befitting a brown ale, the beer is a deep reddish brown and is also clear. My pour produced a small head that disappeared fairly quickly. Some bubbles could be seen in the glass. Considering that Scott basically threw the whole spice rack into this brew, I was surprised that all my nose could pick up was roasted grains and an unidentified floral scent. Heck, maybe it's just my nose. Despite my proboscis not being overwhelmed, the aroma was very fine.

As for the taste, the brew was very smooth but had a fairly thin body. I first noticed roasted malt sweetness that was bread-like. On top of this there was a nutty flavor that I presumed was the chicory. Where I would normally expect to taste some sprightly hop bitterness, I found myself pleasantly surprised by a floral flavor along with a hint of licorice. Mind you the beer didn't taste like you were digging into a plate of begonias but rather a more subdued flavor similar to how rose hip jelly doesn't have a sharp, pungent floral flavor. At the finish, I could taste something minty and a bit of bitterness as well that was akin to that of a Noble hop. I believe that the mugwort provided the former while the sweet gale gave the latter.

If you had any ancestors in medieval Europe, you don't have to contract the Black Death to feel a connection to them. Instead you can quaff this fine gruit. I'm not a malt expert but I believe that the invention of malts that didn't taste like the smoke of whatever was fueling the fire that kilned them wasn't until the 17th or 18th century. And so I'd guess that, if you were to invite your ancestors to dinner (which humans don't seem keen on doing), they'd probably wonder just what the hell they were drinking. Having said this, I thoroughly enjoyed Scotty's vintage 2015 gruit.

With a body on the thin side and an A.B.V. of about 5%, this is certainly a brew for the warmer months. The floral taste and minty finish also contribute to the sense of this being a beer for nice spring days and the summer months. I really like how the floral flavor contrasts with the earthy malt/chicory base. These are all mellow flavors with the malt segueing into the botanticals seamlessly. Honestly, I didn't miss the hops at all.

Junk food pairing: Eat Cheddar Cheese Cracker Combos along with your Snowflake gruit. The salt accents the botanicals while the cheese provides a vaguely sharp and creamy contrast to the malty sweetness.


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|| Palmer, 11:41 AM

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