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
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frankbeswick on 05/05/2023

I have no knowledge about the precise resolution of this issue.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/05/2023

The John Derbyshire site describes G.K. Chesterton as having "favored fortified wines -- sherry and port."

The site does not indicate the source that furnishes its observation of the poet as drinking "a lot, though he seemed to hold it well." It elaborates that the poet ended a dispute by "accusing his opponent of being sober."

Online sources give no information about the above incident. Would there be information -- factual or folkloric -- on your, eastern-pond side as to the nature of that dispute won by calling the antangonist/defendant/opponent/plaintiff "sober" ;-D!?!

frankbeswick on 05/05/2023

Ale and beer were traditionally associated with commoners, as was cider. Naturally some higher social orders drank it, but wine and spirits were associated with the u
Paper classes.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/04/2023

It's amusing to re-read this wizzley after having re-read your wizzley on Brexit. In the latter you mention The Secret People by G.K. Chesterton.

So I read the poem online through the John Derbyshire site. The latter says that "The common man's fondness for ale" runs through The Secret People.

The third-to-last line states that "It may be beer is best. / But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet. / Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget."

Would beer-drinking be associated with some other socioeconomic class on your, eastern-pond side?

frankbeswick on 03/25/2022

Without the widget the Guinness would be less fizzy. I don't think that you should let your sentients play with the widget, as it might be small enough to choke them if they play with it.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/25/2022

Recently, the grocery store where I shop had quite a markdown on Guinness, which I don't know and which I opted to try for the first time just before Lent. So I let myself be swayed by the very attractive prices and purchased an eight-pack of canned Guinness.

I sampled a can and kept hearing something moving on the bottom. Finally, I saw a little white ball after I managed to hack an opening into the top of the can, which, despite its mangling, still will be able to go into recycling.

Internet sources say that the little ball is a widget that keeps nitrifying the canned Guinness.

What would the flavoring in Guinness taste like if it didn't have that ball, which is absent from the bottled four-packs that I see on the shelves?

Would this ball not be something that I can let my sentient kittens and cats play with?

frankbeswick on 03/16/2022

I must confess that I hardly ever drink gin, so it is hard for me to express a preference. The link to Portugal is interesting, as Portugal is England' oldest ally and there have been longstanding cultural and trading relationships between the two countries.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/16/2022

If anyone knows the answer, it's Frank! Thank you!

Internet sources include an article, This Unique Gin Liquor is Flavored with Turnips, Berries and Herbs, by Laura McQuarrie July 15, 2016, on the Trendhunter site. McQuarrie indicates that Ginabo is now the world's only gin flavored with turnips. But she links turnip-flavored gin to Portugal!

This makes me try to imagine how gin and tonic would taste if the former were turnip-flavored, not juniper berry-flavored.

Which would you prefer, gin with juniper, surplus grain (what kind?) or turnips?

frankbeswick on 03/16/2022

I should have said that cheaper gin came from turnips, but other gin came from surplus grain. Farmers started growing for the gin industry, so it became plentiful.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/15/2022

Eating steamed turnip greens yesterday caused me to consider this afternoon again a sentence that I noticed the first time around and then the second and third times, with my current re-readings of your wizzleys.

You indicate in the next-to-the-last paragraph of your last heading, Other Flavours, that "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."

Is it known why there was a problem with too many unsold turnips? (Mine last night were delicious ;-D)

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