Bygone Beer Makes a Comeback

WASHINGTON A historic style of brewing is making a comeback.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, long before brewers discovered the preservation benefits of hops, beer was made using a bittering blend of herbs, called gruit.

“It would be a proprietary mixture things like bog myrtle, yarrow, wild rosemary,” said Drew McCormick, assistant beverage director for Pizzeria Paradiso.

“And I almost think of it as a tea bag that was added to the overly sweet beer that they were making to make it palatable and give it a little bit more flavor.”

Gruit (also the name given to the style of the beer) had a good run, but it fell out of fashion once brewers realized that beer made with hops outlasted beer made with rosemary, so its availability diminished that is, until recently.

McCormick says she has seen a gruit “comeback” in the last few years, as more craft breweries experiment with alternative styles in order to gain an edge in a crowded and competitive industry.

“People are kind of constantly looking for the next thing or are on to the next trend, and I’m hoping that this [comeback] could shine some light on gruit and some of the interesting things that breweries are doing,” McCormick said.

Want to give it a try? On Feb. 1, Pizzeria Paradiso’s Dupont Circle location will pour nine different gruits from its taps for International Gruit Day.

McCormick says it isn’t easy to describe the beer’s flavor, since the profile is heavily dependent on the blend of herbs used in the brewing process.

“You can have things that are a little bit more on the sour side and then it could go all the way to the other end. You could have something similar to a stout brewed with maybe fennel, so it has that nice licorice flavor to it, so it really runs the whole gamut,” she said.

McCormick isn’t aware of any local breweries that are making gruit, but says the process is pretty similar to that of hop-brewed beer. Marketing is where things become more difficult.

“It’s a strange name, and [depending on the herbs used] you never know what you’re really going to get,” she said. “If you think about all the herbs and plants and flavor profiles out there, it kind of turns into this amazing culinary experience in beer, which I think is a very interesting thing.”

Pizzeria Paradiso’s Gruit Day takes place Wednesday, Feb. 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. at 2003 P St. NW. More information is available on the restaurant’s website.

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