Beer 101: Flavoring Early Beers

05-10-2016, The BeerVibe Crew

Flavoring Early Beers

Have you tried homebrew beer? How do you like the craft beers? There was a time not many centuries ago when homebrew and craft beers were the rule, not the exception

Long before hops were used to flavor beer, beer had to be invented. In time, people learned how to cultivate and harvest cereal grains, like barley and wheat. It was discovered that sprouted and unsprouted grains that were boiled to make gruel (a common food for the common people, like a watery porridge), and left in the pot for an extended time would ferment and bubble and have an intriguing and not offensive smell. Maybe a family went on a trip and left a pot of leftover gruel sitting in the kitchen. After a few weeks passed, they returned home and saw that the gruel that they had left just wasn’t the same. They could have thrown it out as unfit for human consumption, but instead, someone decided to taste the fermented gruel. Maybe the taste wasn’t horrible and the fragrance was acceptable. Or maybe the taste was horrible, but the feeling it gave was nice. We can try to imagine how the first beer was invented or discovered, but however it really happened, there was beer! The first brewers of beer learned that if they repeated the process of letting their gruel get spoiled in the pot they could have more of it, and it was nice! Home brewing began!

There have been many refinements in the brewing of beer since then.

It has been argued that beer became a driving force in the development of civilization. If that is true, civilization owes a lot to beer and to the brewers of beer.

Something like this apparently happened in Mesopotamia, Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, East Asia, the Americas, and anywhere else people learned to cultivate cereal grains and turn starches into sugars and let them ferment.

The primitive, pioneering beer brewers had to improve their product. Something marvelous happened when grains were allowed to sprout and they got cooked and infected with wild yeasts, (which had not yet been discovered), and for some reason it didn’t have the stench of rot and spoilage that would offend the nose and attract flies. Somehow the starches in the grain turned sweet. To improve the flavor something had to be done to balance out the sweetness. It was discovered that herbs and spices could be added to the gruel and that could improve the flavor and aroma. These ingredients that the early brewers threw in the pot to improve the flavor is what we call gruit. Gruit, whatever combinations of herbs and spices were thrown into the mix, was used to flavor beer until hops came into favor.

So then, what is gruit? Many different aromatic herbs and spices were thrown into the pot of fermenting malt to make the resulting beers attain their distinctive flavors. During the Early Middle Ages in Europe, beer-making and bread-making were usually the responsibilities of the wife. (Later on, the task of brewing was taken over by monks in monasteries. This is another story.) She could take some of the foaming yeasts from the top of her barrel of fermenting ale and use it for making bread. What she used in the gruit to flavor the ale was a family secret, passed from mother to daughter by word of mouth, and few of the recipes of those times have survived to this day. Much of what little is known is the result of archeologists discovering residue on the bottom of drinking cups they had unearthed. Such residue has been analyzed chemically and now some things are known about what went into the gruit, which went into the beer.

What the early beer brewer found growing locally might be thrown into the pot. Such herbs and plant parts that you might be familiar with are ground ivy, yarrow, juniper berries, ginger, caraway seed, nutmeg, and cinnamon. These were often used to flavor beer. There is a long list of other ingredients the early brewers could forage for in the nearby forests and fields, many of which you probably have not heard of before. Some other items, found in Viking beer, included hemlock (remember how Socrates died?) and other poisons lethal in sufficient amounts. (Could poisoning beer help prevent over-indulgence?)

Since hops gradually became the beer flavoring and preservative of choice and unhopped beers are almost unknown today, few know that unhopped beers ever existed. Today some home brewers and craft brewers have experimented with what is known of the beer recipes of antiquity, curious to know what our beer-drinking predecessors enjoyed.

Are you curious?


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