George “Butch” Heilshorn is a longtime beer geek. His wife, April O’Keefe, is an herbalist. It was through his wife that Butch came across a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner called Sacred and Healing Herbal Beers, which is how he discovered Gruit.
Long before brewers got their hands on hops, they flavored their beer with packages of spices and herbs called Gruit, which eventually became the name of a style. Popular ingredients included sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, and bog myrtle, but other brewers used rose hips, lavender, chamomile, flowers, roots, and berries. The varieties were endless. It wasn’t until the 16th century that hops became a primary flavoring, but for most of the history of beer, Gruit was the dominant style.
Everyone has to have their own thing these days, and a brewery specializing in Gruits certainly counts as interesting. Most of us never act on our wildest imaginings. But as anyone who has opened a brewery knows, passion often beats sense. Butch and his brother-in-law, Alex McDonald, had been brewing together since 2009, and, after winning several homebrew medals, they decided to open a brewery.
Although Butch was born in Long Island, he’s spent most his life in New Hampshire, and he and Alex opened Earth Eagle Brewings in Portsmouth. The tagline on their website reads, “Empyreal Ales, Wonder Gruits, Lunch, Dinner, & Beyond.” The Empyreal Ales refers to Alex’s side of the business, which makes more traditional beers – “It might be neat to say that we could make it on these historical beers, but to be honest, you’ve got to have a good IPA or you’ll die on the bine,” Butch said.
The result is a tangible distillation of time and place – a singular, ephemeral product that can never be perfectly replicated.”
But certainly, Earth Eagle is known for their Gruits, which frequently use local ingredients. The brewery contracts the services of a forager – like the one pictured in the header image courtesy Jeff Scott. That forager collects raw ingredients from the forests, farms, meadows, and seacoasts of New Hampshire and Maine. Using those ingredients, Earth Eagle makes beers like Ambrosia, which features sage, fennel seed, roasted burdock, and local pears, as well as Antoinette, made with catnip, chickweed, and mugwort.
A few years ago, Butch and Alex heard about a brewery in Michigan that made a beer using pig heads, and they had a conversation about trying to do something similar. Coincidentally, they were speaking within earshot of a person who knew where to source them. Best of all? The pigs came from the New Hampshire wilds. “Porter Couchon” was just one of the beers that Butch used to introduce drinkers to his unique brand of local brewing at this year’s Extreme Beer Festival in Boston.
Unlike modern American IPAs, which might source barley from the Midwest and hops from New Zealand, brewers made Gruits for thousands of years by combining ingredients found not just locally, but seasonally. The result is a tangible distillation of time and place – a singular, ephemeral product that can never be perfectly replicated.
That might not seem important, but its utility becomes clearer when you look at development projects where endless rows of identical houses stretch to the horizon. Cliché as it sounds, variety is truly the spice of life. This ethos has been adopted by those specializing in Gruit, who, consciously or not, make a stand for individuality and freedom of expression.
“We just did a string of beer with spruce tips, poplar buds, immature pinecones, and pollen cones, the really little ones that come out first,” Butch said. “Drinking one of those beers is about what’s going on outside right now in our region. I still get goosebumps turning a little bit of time into a beer.”
Other individuals and breweries making American Gruit include Butch’s “mentor and co-conspirator” Will Myers of the Cambridge Brewing Company, and Scratch Brewing in Illinois. In 2016, the three founders of Scratch published a book on terroir called The Homebrewer’s Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to Making Your Own Beer from Scratch.
As hops grow in popularity, it might become difficult for smaller breweries to obtain them, which could have the unintended consequence of an increase in Gruit. But as anyone who enjoys the tart, herbaceous drink will tell you, that might not be such a bad thing.