The gruit. That archaic herb mixture that once bittered and flavored beer long before hops became de rigeur. With words like sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, and horehound, the gruit style sounds like a drink out of Beowulf or Harry Potter. The flavors, however, are as contemporary as the American palate can get with deep tannins, bright tart and sour notes, and a medicinal, stone-fruit bitterness that many craft drinkers crave. That’s the gruit.
Spiteful Brewing is one of Chicago’s most ambitious nanos, and yet, still an unlikely producer of the gruit style. Housed in a restored industrial stretch of the Ravenswood neighborhood on the far north side of the city, this small crew cranks out batch after batch of imaginative recipes. Saisons, stouts, dunkelweizens, winter ales and roggenbiers — but even in a shop with this many styles under their belts, a gruit is a leap.
Calvin Fredrickson, their most recent hire, is a bit of an industry journeyman with a number of volunteer and professional tours behind him (18th Street and Goose Island among them). Last week he locked up his bike in the pouring rain out side the GBH Studio, stepped inside and shook off. He smiled, flipped his messenger bag around his waist, and grabbed a bomber by the neck. Prove it Gruit.
If only all beers could be delivered with so much excitement. "I read about gruit in Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer. It didn't seem zany to me — it sounded delicious. The real trouble is finding gruits. You can count on two hands the number of gruits available in Chicago.”
According to Fredrickson, there are a handful of gruits worth seeking out: Scratch Brewing (Ava, IL) and Cambridge Brewing (Cambridge, MA) brews gruits regularly. Mystic Brewery (Boston, MA) has become a proponent for National Gruit Day, February 1st. In terms of gruits available in Chicago, New Belgium just released one as part of their Lips of Faith series. Brasserie Dupont's Posca Rustica is widely available, although the gruit label is a bit under the radar. Upright Brewing (Portland, OR) and Propolis Brewing (Port Townsend, WA) both brew with herbs extensively, and are available in Chicago with some regularity. Professor Fritz Briem 13th Century Grut Bier is perhaps the most widely available.
Fredrickson has long been inspired by herbal concoctions. In his childhood, his father treated him and his sisters with medicinal herbs (pharmaceuticals were a last resort for occasional illnesses). With that background, and the legacy of a centuries-old tradition of brewing without hops to inspire him, Calvin pitched the idea to Brad Shaffer and Jason Klein, and the team got cracking on a recipe. " Over Father's Day,” recalls Fredrickson, "I opened a bottle of Prove It with my dad, who normally doesn't care for beer. He loved it."
The hazy orange brew bursts with citrus and funk. Both dry and grassy, fruity and tannic, it’s a slow reveal of a multitude of flavors — grape soda, minty herbs, salty and resinous. And yet the whole thing feels united with a pleasantly weighted body, weizen-like. Any hops? Only enough to meet the legal requirements for “beer.” Everything you’re getting is herbal.
Jason Klein, Co-Founder, Business Guy #1
When it comes to recipe development, I'm more of a traditionalist, which made the gruit an appealing challenge. The gruit provides a window into the past. While it's hard to truly know what ancient beer would have tasted like, brewing a gruit allowed us to use our imagination to recreate a lost drink. There is no clear map to follow. With it being open to interpretation, I based the recipe on what I'd read in addition to experimenting with herb ratios. We did this through steeping tea with each herb, as well as spiking beer with the herbs. It was an exciting process for our whole team to collaborate on what ultimately became Prove It Gruit.
In Chicago proper
The Beer Temple
Binny's, Lincoln Park
In the suburbs/stateline
Binny's, Downers Grove
Binny's, Highland Park
Artale Wine, Rockford, IL