Traditional Ale Flavourings

by frankbeswick

Beer and ale have been brewed for several thousand years, but brewers used many flavourings other than hops.

A pint of beer flavoured with hops is said to be an Englishman's staple drink, but it was not so during the Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods, for while the English were happy enough to drink ale, they had to flavour it with a wide variety of bitter herbs. These bitter herbs are essential, firstly as they have preservative qualities, and secondly because without them beer and ale are too sweet to drink. The bitter herbs mask the sweetness, and several different ones were used.

The picture shows Artemisia, courtesy of Hietaparta


I trust that few of us have enjoyed an ale flavoured with gruit. There are some ales in production which still use it, but it is a rare drink made for connoisseurs, but had you lived in Saxon England, gruit is what you would have got. So what is it? 

Gruit [grut, gruyt] is a herbal mixture. There is no set recipe, and it is likely that the brewers used whatever was available to them at different times of year and in  a variety of places. We need to be clear, ale was made in private homes, often by the wife of the household, and much depended upon what herbs were available to her. It was also brewed in institutions,such as monasteries, and in the large monasteries there were always herb gardens, so the task of the monastic herbalist was not always to make medicines, but to grow the herbs to flavour the monks' beer. If you look at Strabo's garden, the plot tended by Walafrid Strabo, a mediaeval abbot, there is artemisia, which is a herb widely used for flavouring ale, and Strabo was not growing that for nothing. In some large monasteries there would have been a special garden tended for the purpose of providing flavourants for the ale.

So what was in gruit? It was water flavoured with several or all of the following herbs:sweet gale [myrica or bog myrtle] , artemisia, yarrow [Achillea millefolium]  ground ivy [hedera] , horehound [marrubium] and/or heather. The recipe involved soaking the herbs in warm water for  several hours, depending upon the herb, until the water was flavoured to the brewer's satisfaction. It was then added to the must, the beer/ale mixture  and drunk. Certain herbs have advantages as ale flavourants. Artemisia, the genus that includes wormwood,  is the bitterest herb known to humans, and other members of this genus are bitter as well. The Saxons knew artemisia as mugwort. wort being a Saxon term for plant, the wort which goes in your mugs!

Heather is special. Its flowers make a delicate flavouring, but you need a pint of them and they have to be soaked overnight for twenty four hours, so I believe. I can imagine a misbehaving monk being given a penance of collecting a few pints of heather flowers. They make a lovely drink, but picking them is a long and arduous task. Of course the penance might involve going to pick bog myrtle, a muddy and chilly task at times.  


For several hundred years in the early mediaeval period hops were advancing. Their advantage, they could be mass produced in special hop gardens, and unlike other herbs, which re physically small, they grow in profusion up tall vines.  They came across the continent and reached England in the fourteenth century by way of English soldiers, fighters in our incessant wars. These  were thirsty lads and when they met hop beer they knew what they liked, and some enterprising fellows cashed in on the market. 

Up to the fourteenth century the English only brewed ale,but then continental brewing methods came  in. There is a difference between ale and lager, though both are kinds of beer. Ale is brewed at a temperature higher than lager is, and they each use different kinds of yeast.Hops were popular on the European continent and were often used in lager, and so they acquired a foothold  in England that they have never lost. There was a range of different varieties of hop, each with a distinct flavour, and specific hop gardens' farms sometimes specialized in certain varieties, which were sold to local brewers to give distinct flavours to their ales. Sadly mass production has ironed out local distinctiveness like this, though craft brewers are reviving it, and CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, is doing a sterling job of bringing back the true ales of the nation. 

Hop growing took off with a vengeance in the southern counties of Kent and Surrey, though it thrived more in Kent as Kentish varieties of hops were more disease resistant than the main Surrey variety, though the latter variety is the subject of  recent efforts to revive it.  

In the pictures below you see a Kentish hop garden and a traditional oast house, this one at Sissinghurst, a famous country house now open to the nation as it was given to the National Trust. Oast houses were places where hops were dried, and they are characteristic of the county of Kent, sometimes known as the Garden of England.


Hop growing

Hop growing
Hop growing

An oast house

Oast house
Oast house
Ron Porter

Other Flavours

I have seen hops grown in Northern England, but only on a small scale on an allotment, and the northern regions had their own traditions. 

In the English Lake District, in the North Western county of Cumbria, there is still a damson flavoured ale produced by a specialist craft brewer.  This fits in well with a nearly forgotten English tradition of adding fruit juices to ale.In the great fruit growing regions of Worcestershire, in the West Midlands,  the damson thrives, so it is likely that during the mediaeval period damson was widely used in brewing. 

Further north,  Scotland is not great hop territory, so like northern England  it needed its own variants of gruit. Conifers provided the answer, for spruce and pine needles were sometimes soaked in water for long enough to extract their bitter flavour and the resulting mixture blended with the ale.Sometime pine  twigs were added to the mixture along with the needles. Ivy,a great woodland plant,was widely available to foragers. Scots brewers eventually started importing hops to meet demand.  

But one forgotten flavour was juniper berries. This was often used for gin, which gave took its name from the juniper berry. For some reason as hops were taking over the flavouring of beer they never took over in spirit production, so during the gin craze in the eighteenth century, when politically influential farmers coaxed the government to take duty off gin to enable them to sell their surplus turnips, the juniper berry became the flavouring of choice. This mountain and hillside shrub has a tasty flavour, but it is currently under threat in our uplands and so needs protection, though the berries can be taken. 

Mass production stifles individuality, and so those who revive local varieties of foodstuffs, often against the pressures of powerful companies, are food and drink heroes. They give richness to our culture and our palates.  

Updated: 08/11/2017, frankbeswick
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
frankbeswick on 08/02/2021

On a recent television programme, Countryfile [2cnd August 2021] we saw a Scottish brewer from Fife making gruit out of Yarrow.

frankbeswick on 08/01/2021

There is no record of temperatures, but I think that the water would have been warmed first, but allowed to cool with the herbs in it.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/31/2021

frankbeswick, Thank you for pictures, practicalities and product line.
You indicate, under the subheading Gruit, that "the recipe involved soaking the herbs in warm water for several hours, depending upon the herb, until the water was flavoured to the brewer's satisfaction." Is there any indication as to what temperature that would be and whether it was reached naturally, from standing water or water body, or through heating?

frankbeswick on 10/17/2016

Ginger ale and beer are fermented drinks that use ginger rather than yeast and are therefore non-alcoholic. Ginger beer is an old English drink, but ginger ale was an American invention with a less strong flavour, probably more suitable for mixed drinks than ginger beer was [whiskey and ginger for example.] Whether they can be called true ales or beers is a moot point. However, non-alcoholic ginger beer is a Victorian innovation, as originally ginger beer was brewed with both yeast and ginger, but Victorian temperance campaigners, [all strict Protestants] invented the non-alcoholic kind, leaving out the yeast.

A non-alcoholic ale is just as possible as a non-alcoholic beer [remember that beer includes ale and lager.] I think that the technique for making the non-alcoholic kind is to use the fact that alcoholic evaporates at a temperature lower than water does, so the brewers distill away the alcohol, and you could do this with either ale of beer. There may be other ways to make it, but I do not know them.

blackspanielgallery on 10/17/2016

Are there nonalcoholic ales? Here we get something called ginger ale, but I am uncertain if it is true ale. It has no alcohol as far as I know.

frankbeswick on 10/17/2016

I suppose that the proportions of the various trace elements in the water in New Brunswick might be subtly different from those in Eastern Ireland. Trace elements are great contributors to taste. I also know that there are different varieties of barley, though whether this contributes to the flavour difference I know not.

candy47 on 10/16/2016

Reading the Guinness label right now: "Bottled and brewed in New Brunswick, Canada. Product of Canada". Who knew?

frankbeswick on 10/16/2016

I don't now whether this is still true, but Guinness used to be brewed on tankers that crossed the Atlantic while it was fermenting. But local drinks are often characterized by the use of local water and specific hop varieties, so maybe American guinness is inevitably different from the Irish version of the black stuff.

Veronica on 10/16/2016

I am surprised that you drink Guinness Candy as it is reputed to travel badly. This may of course be an Irish myth to sell more of it in Ireland.

My dad always reckoned Guinness tasted better in Ireland. :)

frankbeswick on 10/16/2016

You are not being annoying, I am always glad to read your comments.

You might also like

Why yeast is no longer boss in beer brewing

Research at Nottingham University is looking into ways that yeast can improve...

The Wine Glass Holder Necklace

Imagine mingling at a party with hands free while you carry your glass of win...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...