If one hasn’t tasted the elegant flavors of pineapple upside down cake in their pint glass, then they haven’t been to Gruit Day at Mystic Brewery.
The annual tradition, held this week at the Williams Street brewery on Monday, Feb. 1, is a nod to the days of old in medieval Europe when herbs and spices – rather than hops – were used to flavor and preserve beer. Such techniques haven’t been incorporated in the brewing process for centuries, but the folks at Mystic have become skilled at pulling things from the past that will likely take off in the future.
Described simply as “herbal beer,” Mystic founder Bryan Greenhagen said Gruit is a pre-hop beer technique that uses spices often found in modern teas or herbal remedies. Those same ingredients, however, were once used as the preservative and flavoring in medieval beers.
“You’re looking for the right combination,” he said. “When you put a few different things together, you get a third new thing. That’s really what we’re hoping to do with the Gruit we make…For us, it’s interesting and finding out just what we can do with a blend of herbs. Truthfully, you have 100 percent creative freedom. There aren’t the strict rules about having grain and hops and that’s how beer is made…It’s kind of the whole idea we’ve had here at Mystic, to go backward and see if there’s something very interesting they did that could grab people in the future. Gruit is one of those things that’s catching on.”
That was evidenced precisely on Monday at the brewery by a Gruit called ‘Warned by the Television Snow,’ which was a combination of mugwort, chamomile and bitter orange.
“You’ve got mugwort, chamomile and bitter orange here, and somehow that combination of things tastes to me like pineapple upside down cake,” said Louie Berceli, the marketer and designer for Mystic.
And, of course, it did.
On Monday, there were four Gruits on draft to honor Gruit Day. They included ‘Mechanical Topography,’ a saison beer with Juniper, Calendula and a hint of blueberry. There was ‘What Keeps Man Alive,’ a Gruit with dandelion, Indian coriander and damiana. Then there was ‘Extra Dimensional Ancestry,’ a Gruit with yarrow, red clover tops and cherry bark aged on maple and cherry wood.
And naturally there was the strange pineapple upside down cake.
Not many people know much about Gruit, and it’s such a lost art that most brewers would think it to be a waste of time. However, Greenhagen said it is typically their biggest day of the year; that beer drinkers around these parts have come around to the Gruit.
“One wouldn’t think it would be worth your while to do something like this, but this is usually our biggest special day,” said Greenhagen. “The fans of Gruit aren’t the people on the Internet. They aren’t the people who are super posters on the beer critic websites…Most people who know a lot about beer and are on the Internet sites don’t even know what Gruit is yet.”
Added Berceli, “My sense from the people who come here is that people do like this a lot. It’s old and yet it’s the cutting edge.”
Greenhagen said Gruit was the standard for brewers long ago.
In order to preserve a malted beer, brewers had to put blends of spices into those beers. Many ancient brewers would experiment with spice blends. However, it wasn’t always the best thing, as some of those spices – which are illegal today – were hallucinogenic or worse.
“Four Loco has always been a problem,” laughed Greenhagen, referencing the now-illegal stimulant drink. “A lot of the herbs they used have stimulant qualities in them. It’s always been a problem. Some of the beers had hallucinogenic qualities and people would get in bar fights. So, it began to cause trouble.”
The problem was addressed, he said, in the 1600s and early 1700s when the Gruit Masters of old began to call for the traditional hops herb to be put in the beer to preserve it. That was codified in English Common Law and was, perhaps, reinforced strongly by the Abbeys and monks that began to take over brewing at those times.
“That English Common Law is still perpetuated today,” he said. “We still have to put a small amount of hops in every beer. This isn’t a hop beer. We put only a very little bit and more and more herbs and spices.”
Greenhagen said his favorite herb to use after many, many experiments has been yarrow – which is often found in modern teas.
“Yarrow has properties that don’t fit tea as well as it fits beer,” he said. “You can taste that. Yarrow has an old beer heritage. It’s better in and fits better with beer than with tea.”
And of course, Greenhagen said he’s grateful to have landed his brewery in Chelsea, as the city and its location has given him the ability to experiment and be creative without having to worry about paying Boston rents.
“Chelsea has given us the liberty to do this,” he said. “We’re not in $66 per square foot spaces, so we don’t have to push out whatever is the most popular thing right now. We can be innovative. It’s definitely a little bit like, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”