Is the lore true? No. The infamous phytoestrogenic compounds in hops are in too small quantities, even in the hoppiest beers, to affect male erectile function. That said, there are plenty of reasons to push hops out of bed: Their trendiness in the last 10 years has flooded the market with unbalanced, largely undrinkable beers that are overly bitter, cloying, and exhausting. Thankfully, the backlash has begun. Welcome gruit, an ancient style of unhopped beer that is suddenly making a comeback after being dead for hundreds of years.
Long before hops became brewers' favorite bittering and preserving agent, people used all kinds of herbs and spices in beer. Some of these were mildly poisonous, some even made you high, some were both mildly poisonous and made you high. (Read more about this in an interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers.) Among these types of beer was gruit, a hopless brew made with an herb-spice mix that typically included Myrica gale, yarrow, and rosemary.
With the rise of the hop industry, and especially with the passage of the German Beer Purity Law, the “Reinheitsgebot” of 1516, gruit became defunct, and hops became king. But now, gruit is back. It's showing up at a handful of esteemed breweries, like Dupont of Belgium; Midnight Sun Brewing Company of Anchorage, Alaska; The Bruery out of Placentia, California; and Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There's even a brewing professor in Germany making gruit as part of a series of historic beers in conjunction with Weihenstephan Brewery.
LITERAL ROOT BEER
The taste of gruit varies widely; it's more of a loose concept rather than a specific style with guidelines. Bog myrtle, orange peel, and all manner of twigs and berries have been featured in recent gruits. As one home-brewer who, appropriately, made gruit over a campfire wrote, spice balance can be challenging. Bad ones taste like gross root beer. Good ones taste a lot like normal beer (maltiness, yeast flavors), with an unusual, unexpected herbaciousness in place of the familiar Christmas-tree flavor of overly present hops.
Every year I look forward to the annual tapping of Magnolia Brewery's Weekapaug Gruit, brewed each winter here in San Francisco. It's a dark amber ale that's all at once astringent, meaty, and earthy, with a subtle rosemary tingle. Maybe it's knowing the history of gruit, but whenever I drink it I feel like I've been transported to a lonely heath, a hooded cloak whipping around me in the wind, Mists of Avalon–style.
This spring, I've been enjoying Dupont's new Posca Rustica (pictured), a high-alcohol yet well-balanced beer with a strawberry-blond color and delicate sage flavor. It was a megahit with the CHOW staff at the spring beer tasting.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the same people who say that hops have a dampening effect on male sexual vigor also swear that the herbs traditionally used in gruit have the opposite effect. That claim is equally unproven, although it is true that gruit is stimulating in one sense: It's a welcome respite from a decade of hop bombs. Will gruit be the new IPA, destined to be overspiced and oversaturated? Doubtful, thank goodness. Somehow, "bog-myrtle bomb" just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Photograph by Christopher Rochelle / CHOW.com