In my last post I detailed the basics of Gruit, or at least what in our time we know about it. The article is about experimenting with the basic and other ingredients to improve the flavour.
The first important thing to note when experimenting is to make sure the ingredients you are using are safe, and that nothing else is infecting the brew. Dipping or soaking your ingredients in boiling water before use is not a bad idea. Drying them after tends to help even more. I believe many of my first attempts had wild yeast get in them spoiling the taste, this is now what I assume was the more cidery taste. Wild yeast will give varied results so if you notice any type of off taste it could be the cause. A good way to check is if there is a larger sediment deposit especially near the top of the bottle.
As established Yarrow, Myrica Gale (Sweet Gale, Bog Myrtle) and Marsh Rosemary are the base ingredients yet not always used in conjuncture. The first thing I tried was making a tea with each kind, each proved to give a bitter taste but not a hoppy bitterness. Despite this they seem to give that same function, but in high amounts the taste becomes overpowering. Different recipes give wildly different amounts to put in, and this was likely the same back when Gruit was produced on a large scale. So a low amount but still enough to bitter seems best.
While hopped ales don’t need to have any extra ingredients, Gruit seems to benefit a lot from them. With the variety of hops on offer you can get a real range of flavour without any extras, you can even do so with using the same hops at different points. But the base ingredients on Gruit offer less variety and not a pleasing bitterness on their own, thus extras are needed. Honey seems to be a good addition for each one, it sweetens and helps the bitterness not be as harsh. It will make the brew bubble an incredible amount though. Flowers like heather are also a good option but you have to keep an eye on variety. In the case of heather I first tried Erica which barely imparted any flavour, while Calluna had a much stronger taste. Other common ingredients are mugwort, elderflower and juniper. It is worth experimenting with lots of different plants, but you also must be careful to check whatever you use is safe.
Although I got successful brews out of these, I was not happy with the taste. While certainly drinkable none particularly great. The tuning to get a good brew from gruit is a lot more difficult than most brews because you are adding so many different ingredients while not having hops to fall back on. Every little bit has to work in unison which means a huge amount of variables.
There is also the issue of how long to leave a bottle. Recipes like Mum’s Mumme can be left for a while despite no hop content. Not as long as a hopped beer but still good for a number of months after, with gruit it is likely better to not leave it for such an extended period because records suggest it goes off quicker. But at the same time maturing can greatly improve lot of ale so there may be a sweet spot to aim for. Which in general seems to be the real trouble with gruit.