Eating the Woods Part 2: Mam’zelle

(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, Eating the Woods: Other Traditions of Spicing and Tannic Structure.  This post introduces the beer Mam’zelle.) 

Around the year 1000 CE, Beowulf as we know it was written down. As the monk began to set the words on sheep skin, the hairs of which were roughly perceptible, he would have received a daily ration of beer, perhaps one beer a day, as with modern monks. This beer would have been somewhat sour and funky, as the monks would have backslopped yeast from a previous fermentation without any attempts at modern sanitization, so halfway between a domesticated yeast and a wild microbiome. It would have been darker in color, roasty even to the point of smokiness, based on the primitive malt kilning technology of the time. It would probably have been higher in alcohol, as higher alcohol levels were acknowledged to protect against spoilage. It would have often incorporated other available to hand fermentable sugars like honey, either locally harvested or from the monastery’s apiary. It would probably have no hop character, as it probably would have no hops in it, or very weak hops in small amounts by modern standards. Instead, it would use a series of herbs and spices to bitter and flavor the brew. Yarrow, bog myrtle, and marsh rosemary, three herbs still associated with witchcraft (bog myrtle is said to aid with astral projection, for instance) and healing, were the most common base herbs on which an endless permutation of possible flavors could be built. Don’t let your uncle tell you how he misses old fashioned beers like Bud Light. A pilsener is newfangled nonsense. These sour, dark, smokey, high alcohol, spicy, herbally bitter, witchy, healthful brews were the original beers. They were called gruits.

This word ‘gruit’ or ‘grut’ or ‘gruut’  in the modern context has a relatively obscure precise meaning and a widely acknowledged imprecise meaning, just as ‘dilapidated’ technically refers to the disrepair of stones in a structure, but is almost always used to indicate general disrepair. A gruit is specifically a hop-less beer made with yarrow, bog myrtle, and marsh rosemary, or that series of herbs itself; more widely, it is a beer in which hops are downplayed or absent, and some proprietary spice and herb blend takes center stage to flavor and bitter the brew. The beer we are looking at this week, Mam’zelle, uses some but not all of the elements of what a gruit used to be. It is sour, high in alcohol, low in hop presence, has a pronounced wine character as if available to hand grapes had been included, and displays at its center a spice blend quite unlike a winter warmer’s. What spices? Luc Vermeersch from De Leite Brewery will not tell me, except to say that is is not the classic trio: “The herb is one of the rare secrets of the brewer.   😊 But they are not the ones you mention.”   This secretiveness regarding proprietary spice blends is common in these other traditions of spicing and certainly one of the charmingly mysterious elements of the world of amari which we will visit next week.  

As with Cuvee Soeur’ise that we have looked at from the same brewery, the base is their Enfant Terriple tripel, which means Pilsener malt, wheat, oats, and even rice, no candi syrups, and three different strains of yeast, none of which are famous strains from other breweries. As with Cuvee Soeur’ise, as well, Medoc oak barrels are used to age the beer.  These barrels will affect the beer in three major ways. For one, they will impart the character and some of the color of the wine into Mam-zelle, and remember that wines from the Medoc tend to be robustly tannic and intense. Secondly, compounds in the French oak will impart a complex spiciness and tannic structure into the beer as well. Finally, and maybe most importantly, the barrels have been allowed to develop a vibrant microbiome of their own, and bacteria like lactobacillus, pediococcus, brettanomyces, and acetobacter will go to work souring the beer by turning small parts of it into lactic and acetic acid, as well as a whole host of other wonderful and strange flavor compounds – a sea change in a barrel. During the aging, as the souring process continues and the character of the oak and wine are imparted, most of the hop character falls out. In the final stages of aging, the spice and herb blend is introduced into the barrel so that its effects will be the most intense and long lasting.

We can see the effects of the barrel aging the second we first pour the beer: this sour tripel has a blush to it, a soft almost mimosa glow whose flush of color derives from residual wine pigment. You can immediately smell the funk of the microbiome’s great diligence, as well as the smell of the oak itself. I am struck, in fact, with Mam’zelle and with Monk’s Blood from 21st Amendment, by the extent to which the taste and smell of whiskey is almost wholly derived from oak: there is a memory of bourbon here, and in Monk’s Blood, just from the oak. A pronounced lactic sharpness and red wine character burst on the palate. All the fruity, funky, fresh, zesty notes of a geuze effervesce on the tongue, but with a much rounder body from the higher gravity. The cream of carbonation persists finely without much carbonic bite, the tell tale textures of bottle conditioning. The spices are indeterminate, but I get more tea and leather notes than holiday cake type stuff; this is not a winter warmer. The mysteriousness of the spice blend is actually huge part of the tradition and romance of both gruits and amari. As with amari, the plurality of flavors makes experiencing one in isolation difficult. If you can isolate the individual herbs and spices in Fernet-Branca, you are lying.  One of the primary pleasures of these spice blends is that they are pungent and mysterious, overwhelming and ineffable at the same time. As with Mr. Jones, there’s something going on here, but you don’t know what it is.  

The food pairing potential here is very wide as the tannins from the oak, residual wine, and spice blend stand up nicely to the roundness of the body and fruitiness of the esters, and the moderate acidity and tannins cut wonderfully through fatty food and carbs on the one hand and nicely compliments spicy and acid cuisines like in Mexican or Thai food. 

Now, before we leave gruits, I’d like to spike a little argument I’m sure is brewing. I’m sure someone is thinking to themselves, “Yeah, but we must have stopped making these sorts of beers, and started making hoppy ones because hoppy ones are better. Progress, man. This is like advocating for horse drawn carriages.” But this is not true. The replacement of gruits with beers is, like the American refusal to adopt the more convenient, safe, affordable, and environmentally responsible train system of Europe, totally just a political thing motivated by greedy rich guys in charge. (When powerful people do things out of greed it tends to be called “politics.”)

To oversimplify things only slightly, you drink hoppy beers now because of German politics in the 16th century. See, the Catholic Church taxed gruits; German states taxed hopped beers. The Reinheitsgebot was a power move against the Catholic Church. It was of a historical and cultural piece with Martin Luther, and it was his contemporary: the 95 Theses and the purity law were posted one year apart. Note also that all the countries where the Reformation took root are considered modern beer regions and all the countries where the Catholic Church remained in power are considered modern wine regions, even though Germany has world class vineyards and France could certainly grow fine grains. We have hoppy beer today because of the ascendency of the secular and the recession of the sacred in Renaissance Europe. It is not because everybody thought hoppy beer tasted better. 

Gruits were always the crowd favorite, the beloved tradition, and it was only after centuries of coercive governmental regulation that everybody grudgingly got on board the hop bandwagon. Gruits could accommodate so many more flavor combinations than hops, many of which had been worked out painstakingly over centuries by brewing families. It was the sacred libation, perhaps because of the inclusion of narcotic and psychotropic elements like, for instance, the hallucinogenic moss that grows on Scottish heather, and is called colloquially “fogg,” among other compounds including bog myrtle itself. Gruits were universally reported as the catalyst for Viking warriors going into berserker states, a deeply religious experience, though certainly not of a Christian sort. Gruits were considered medicine, thought to have healthful effects, and while that may sound a little crazy on the face of it, the entirely organic ingredients and the abundant probiotics and vitamins from the wild fermentation along with the genuine medicinal properties of many of these herbs (marsh rosemary is still very commonly used to combat cold and flu symptoms) actually make one gruit a day quite a healthy option by modern standards as well as ancient ones.

The gruit is a cosmos of possible interlocking patchworks of flavor, of infinite possible combinations, especially so in light of how ignored these avenues have been over the past few centuries. The brewing and drinking of gruits is a way to really engage with our particular green community, our actual part of the world. They still exist and they are still being explored. Mumm from Scratch Brewing is an example quite close to what would have passed under the name gruit in the days of Beowulf’s setting down: sour with a house culture,  darkish in color, a little roasty, no hops, all bittering and flavoring coming from a combination of locally harvested or grown herbs and spices. Gruits are also a bit of a bigger deal in Belgium where there is even a brewery actually called Gruut dedicated to alternative spicing and flavoring approaches. Still, I would love to see more examples from local brewers, especially at this moment when most beers taste like most beers, even in the craft world. 

  I will sign off as did Luc Vermeersch, Met hartlijke groet. With heart-like greetings, Jackson.  

Similar Beers in Store: All Things Yet IPA by Dogfish Head, a botanical IPA. Sam Calagione is, of course, more in tune than any other modern brewer with how one can raid the past to create a deeply weird future.  

If you try Mam’zelle, let me know what you think in the comments!


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