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Gruit beers: It’s like tasting Woodstock, minus the mud

A lost beer style, once knocked back by everyone from the Vikings to the Tudors, is undergoing a surprising revival. Up until about 1000 AD, beer was not seasoned with the bitter hops we know today, but with a mixture of herbs known as "gruit." Commonly made of bog myrtle, yarrow and heather, the proprietary mixture was an early form of taxation – it was sold by church and state and a mandatory brewing ingredient.

These floral, spicy brews, simply called gruits, dominated European taverns until the 1500s. The history of their demise is murky, but it can partly be blamed on the Reformation: Looking to break the church's hold as the Reformation dawned, Bavarian princes enacted a "purity law" stipulating that beer could only be made with hops (from which they profited handily). Plus, the fact that hops are a superior preservative hastened gruits' fall in popularity, says Ron Pattinson, an Amsterdam-based beer historian.

The strange, woodsy flavours of gruits remain an acquired taste and only a few craft breweries in the world continue to make them. One of the first breweries to make a gruit on a large-scale is Beau's Brewing Co., in Vankleek Hill, Ont. The locavore, organic brewery wanted to showcase the myrtle growing in nearby Alfred Bog. Gruits were a natural fit and brewmaster Matt O'Hara made one on his homebrew system.

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"I fell in love with it," says owner Steve Beauchesne. "There is something so wonderful in the aromatics – it's herbal and woody, like a German liqueur. It is exotic and familiar all at once. And because it's so difficult to find, the only way we could drink it again was to make it ourselves."

Beau's Bog Water smells like a potpourri of sage, lavender and cinnamon, but the heady scents are tempered by toffee and pumpernickel-bread flavours. It's like tasting Woodstock, minus the mud.

Hoping to spread the gruit gospel, Beau's has declared Feb. 1 International Gruit Day, challenging beer-makers to brew their own and release it that day. This year, eight other North American breweries have signed on. Some, like John Graham of Campbellford, Ont.'s Church-Key Brewing, are making their first-ever hop-free ales.

"I made a Finnish style of gruit called a sahti," says Graham, who chucked juniper bows and branches in with the malt, then added rosemary. While it's not quite finished yet, Graham's happy with the taste so far: "It's a bit like focaccia."

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