Hops Hurt Your Head? Try a Gruit
We got some very serious news recently. Our good friend Julie found out she is allergic to hops. (Gasp!) When she asked for help finding unhopped beers, it took awhile to get over the horror of a life without IPAs and all the other hoppy treats she can no longer have, but we sucked it up and did our job. Heather ale came to mind first, Fraoch being a fairly easy one to find, but we soon recalled a recent discovery: gruit ales.
Gruit is a mixture of herbs and spices that was used to bitter and flavor beer before hops were a primary brewing staple. With its medieval European roots (pun intended) and ingredient names like yarrow, mugwort, sweet gale, and horehound (Old English for pimp, no?), gruit can easily be imagined as something straight out of a Monty Python sketch or one of Harry Potter's potions.
We noticed two beers labeled as gruits on the draft list at ChurchKey last month and decided to try both. Nöel Des Géants, brewed by Brasserie Des Géants in Belgium, was more of a Belgian-style Christmas ale than what we expected from a "gruit," having a molasses flavor with only a touch of tartness. Italian brewery Birrificio Le Baladin's Nora, described as a "Gruit Ale w/ Kamut, Ginger, Myrrh & Orange Peel," had an herby, almost savory aroma and tasted like a cross between ginger ale, lemonade, and iced chamomile. We'll call this one, which we have regularly seen at Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring, a slightly more sophisticated version of a soda fountain suicide.
Our assessment? We have not crossed paths with many straight-up gruits and aren't that likely to. It's possible that Danish brewery Norrebro's collaboration with Dogfish Head, a true gruit called Old Odense Ale based on a 15th Century recipe containing fir bark, wood sage, and blackthorn berries, has made it onto a rare bottle list somewhere in town, but that may just be wishful thinking on our part.
Regardless, if the concept has enticed you, we spotted a few herbed (but still hopped, sorry Julie) beers on Pizzeria Paradiso's Georgetown draft list recently, including Birra Del Borgo Genziana, a hopped Italian beer brewed with gentian root, and Wintercoat Mols Ol, a Danish beer made with juniper branches and wild thyme. Also, Dieu du Ciel Roseé d'Hibiscus, a Canadian beer brewed with, you guessed it, hibiscus flowers, is a regular on Paradiso's bottle menu at both locations.
If you have any tips for Julie that don't involve juniper berries or spruce branches in her beer, let us know. We are sure she will appreciate it.