Brewing with Herbs

Posted by Rob Hern on

Oh Brother, wherefore art thou hops?

As a hop lover, part of me just f@*!ing hates gruits. That same part of me feels like they are a waste of a brew day. Why would I put time and energy into a left-behind brewing practice that favours inferior ingredients? Do you know why I use hops? Because they are amazingly well-suited to beer. Once you get a taste for the pungent flavours and bitter notes there is no substitute. Well, there is no substitute that actually stands up. But that's just my inner hop head talking.

Gruits and herb beers definitely have their place. As we roll into 2016, you may find that some hop varieties are harder to find and that prices can be steep - especially for varieties that are in high demand! It may be a prudent idea to play around with hop alternatives for this reason alone. Beyond the cost of brewing, though, brewing with herbs can be downright fun. It can also be deliciously rewarding.

With International Gruit Day around the corner, it seemed like the appropriate time to do this post. So, let’s look at some options for brewing without hops. We know the big job of the hop is to add a balancing bitterness to your brew. Here are a few herb options that you can use for this purpose:

  • Mugwort
  • Wormwood- Absinthe
  • Bitter Melon- Karlea
  • Artichoke Leaf
  • Burdock Root
  • Buckbean Leaf (apparently quite bitter)
  • Barberry Bark
  • Horehound
  • Agrimony

There are other options out there, but these are a good place to start. Dried mugwort is probably the easiest to access for most homebrewers. Accessibility is key.

As with hops, aroma and flavour are the next things that you need to look at. Here is where herbs really take the upper hand on hops. I know, I said it. The enormous variety of herbs and spices you can use in brewing is really impressive. There are so many interesting and sometimes bizarre flavours  that you can create; I am not going to bother listing a bunch here, because as far as I am considered it is open season. Gruits are beers that showcase herbs; traditionally, most of them were brewed with a combination of bog myrtle (Myrica Gale), yarrow, and marsh rosemary. Chamomile is a modern favourite to add to this list. When crafting your own, you could stick with these, or make up your own combo. Hell, you could even go right off the beaten path to physically pick your own herbs and see what happens. 
NOTE: Please don’t poison yourself. It is critically important that you accurately identify what you’ve found and that it is safe for consumption after boiling.

In the end though, I have to concede: gruits offer a very interesting and intriguing potential for creativity.

It’s also important to keep in mind that brewing with herbs does not necessarily mean brewing a gruit. Gruits were a style of beer brewed extensively Papa Muntzbefore the widespread use of hops. But we have hops! And we have herbs. Why not use both? Currently on tap in my garage is a Belgian golden ale that was brewed with lemongrass and coriander. In this beer, I used Sorachi Ace hops to help compliment and increase the lemon and grassy notes in the beer. I also recently brewed Papa Muntz: World Famous Snake Elixir with Kitchener legend Chris Inch, which is an Imperial Root Beer Stout. In the last 15 min to whirlpool we added sassafras, sarsaparilla, cinnamon, and licorice root. Then, in secondary, we dry “herbed” with wintergreen. Using herbs and spices to accent and create interesting beers is a great tool in any homebrewers brew kit.

Lastly, here are a few things to keep in mind when brewing with herbs. Before you use any herbs smell them - even taste them - in order to try to gauge how potent they are. All of the herbs we sell are dried and sealed, so they should be consistent. Just like hops, though, certain harvests and plants will be more potent than others. As with hops, it is up to you as a brewer to decide how much is enough. Depending on brew size I like to split batch when playing around with herbs and spices, especially in secondary. This gives me the option of doctoring my beer at different potencies and, if necessary, blending them together to get the ideal beer.

Do I want to replace hops in my beer? No. But do I enjoy the flavours and aromas offered by the huge variety of herbs that are available today? Absolutely. On February 1, I’ll be brewing a gruit in honour of International Gruit Day. For the rest of the year, though, I’ll be content to enhance my beers through the use of herbs and spices.

Do you enjoying brewing with herbs? If so, let us know your favourite styles, herbs, and spices to use either by commenting below or by reaching out on social media. You can find us at @shortfingerbrewing on Instagram, and at @shortfingerbeer on Twitter. Cheers!

1 comment

  • Not a fan of Gruits, but really enjoyed your perspective. Hops in beer are paramount. Learning a lot from your home-brewer posts! (Tim @ See you at your event later this month – hoping to share enthusiasm and learn even more.

    Tim on

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