Hops (Humulus lupulus), considered today to be crucial to beer brewing, were not commonly used until the fifteenth century. Before that time, brewers added different herbs, such as alecost (Tanacetum balsamita), to their beer to improve its flavor. Several of these medieval brewing herbs can be found in Bonnefont garden.
Ale is made of malte and water; and they the which do put any other thynge to ale then is rehersed, except yest, barme, or godesgood, doth sofystical theyr ale.
—Andrew Borde, The fyrst boke of the introduction of knowledge, 1452
Beer was a staple drink for medieval Europeans, as it provided much-needed calories to the often undernourished population and was cleaner and safer to drink than water. Then, as now, beer was made by brewing malted barley in boiling water to make sugars more available for yeasts to consume (see an image of Jorg Prewmaister tending his brew in a page from a fifteenth-century German manuscript, Amb. 317.2). This sugary, malty potion, known as “wort,” eventually becomes beer after the yeasts eat the sugars, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts of fermentation. On its own, wort is fairly flat in flavor, so brewers add additional ingredients, such as hops and spices, to enliven a beer’s taste.
The particular taste that is familiar to beer drinkers today comes from hops, which provide the beverage’s desired aroma, flavor, and clarity. In fact, many people recognize hops as the key ingredient in the production of good beer. (For more information about hops, see “He-Hop, She-Hop,” October 1, 2009.) But it wasn’t until the fourteenth century that hops became a standard brewing ingredient in Europe, and they didn’t take off in England until the fifteenth century. Before then, medieval brewers relied on garden herbs to excite and invigorate their beer, which yielded a much different brew from the hopped beer we drink today.
Alecost, or costmary (Tanacetum balsamita), was the favorite herb of medieval brewers before the introduction of hops. Its leaves were added to wort at the end of the brewing process in order to clarify, flavor, and preserve beer, and to add body and improve the beer’s head. During the Middle Ages, alecost was a well-known aromatic herb and was among those strewn on floors to animate rooms with a spicy, sweet scent. The minty aroma of alecost was likely sought after by brewers to add a complex bouquet to their beer. As a medicinal herb, alecost was used by medieval people to treat intermittent fever and chest pains. These medicinal functions may also have been imparted to alecost beer.
In addition to alecost, ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioca) numbered among the many herbs utilized by medieval brewers to add flavor and flair to beer.
The leaves of ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) found their way into medieval beer as a flavoring ingredient. Like alecost, ground ivy also served to clarify and preserve beer. It was thought that the addition of the herb to beer would help to clear a person’s head of “rheumaticke humours flowing from the braine” (John Gerard, The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plants, 1597), and it was generally understood to act as a purifying tonic. [For those interested in experimenting with ground ivy as a brewing herb, it is readily found throughout the United States (see the U.S.D.A. Plants database).] Ground ivy was sometimes included with sweet gale (Myrica gale), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and wild rosemary (Ledum palustre) in an herbal mixture known as gruit. A fairly standard brewer’s additive for flavor and aroma in the Middle Ages, gruit is seeing some resurgence in popularity among specialty brewers today (see www.gruitale.com for more information).
Among their many other functions and uses, the young leaves and shoots of the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) were also added to medieval brews to add bitterness. These same parts of the herb, extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, were also cooked and eaten as greens. It’s important to boil nettles before use to remove the stinging hairs that give nettles their reputation. (See “Grasping the Nettle,” April 28, 2011.) Nettle beer is still brewed commercially in some parts of the United Kingdom, although its designation as beer has been disputed by some. In the Middle Ages, both ground ivy and nettles were used medicinally to relieve headaches. Perhaps they were added to medieval beer in order to prevent the pains that can follow overindulgence.
Once hops were introduced to brewing, hopped beer became terrifically popular, so much so that the Duchy of Bavaria adopted the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which stipulated that the ingredients used in the brewing of beer would be limited to barley, hops, and water. Some breweries claim to adhere to these guidelines to this day. While hopped beer is the popular favorite among modern drinkers, curious brewers today can re-create medieval herb beers to get a taste of the staple beverage of the Middle Ages.
Bryan Stevenson is a summer intern in the Garden Department at The Cloisters. He is interested in cultural history, public education, and natural history, and enjoys brewing at home.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984
Bessette, Alexandre. Gruit Ale & Unhopped Beers, http://www.gruitale.com/
Bremness, Leslie. Herbs. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1994
Eden, Karl J. “History of German Brewing,” Zymurgy, Vol. 16, No. 4, 1993, quoted in “Reinheitsegebot: Germany Beer Purity Law”: http://www3.sympatico.ca/n.rieck/docs/Reinheitsgebot.html
Freeman, Margaret B. Herbs for the Medieval Household. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997
Hartley, Dorothy. Lost Country Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979
Newman, Dan. “Brewing Botanicals.” Reprinted with permission from Brew-Ha-Ha, 12 September 1999: http://www.calferm.org/edu/misc/botanicals.htm
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