Denard Brewing

Better brewing through science.

Gruit Mead Guide

I love historical recipes. I also love category defying meads. This time, I'm trying something new that is actually very old. 

I've been reading "How to Brew like a Viking". It's a fascinating book that is focused on the history and lore of Nordic/Viking peoples as it relates to their version of mead. A version nothing like ours. 

In any event, Vikings didn't really make mead the way we think of it. It was more of a mixture of everything they could pilfer or barter. Anything fermentable was fair game: grains, honey, various sugar, fruits, etc. Herbs with stimulating effects were frequently used (often psychedelic). Any brew Vikings made would likely defy any category the BJCP currently has....Awesome. I've got to make some of this!

Grains mixed with honey seemed preferred mostly due to availability. The gruit or herbs were know to have a stimulating/intoxicating effect alone, so they are crucial to the mix. After much research, I've narrowed the major herbs down to sweet gale (bog myrtle), yarrow, marsh rosemary, and mugwort. Secondary spices are varied and numerous but included juniper, ginger, wormwood, and many others. Basically, whatever they could find. 

Recipes were simple. Make a syrupy, spiced tea and ask the gods to bless it (with yeast). They often had a stirring stick colonized with yeast (though they didn't know that). I'll get to that eventually. The important point is that the recipes were easy!

Goals: I want an easy, throwback to gruit mead with a few modern improvements to reduce spoilage and ensure fast consumption; however, my ultimate goal is to make this a wild ferment. I'll start with a BOMM style to get the recipe right, then generate a ginger bug for the recipe. Or culture a bee for yeast. I've thought a lot about that, so it will likely happen. My intent is to make gruit mead-centric as most existing recipes are beer-centric. Apparently, honey only gruits were only used for ceremonial and rare occasions. This is the gruit mead I'm going for. 

Gruit Herbs

Many herbs were used for gruit. You can use any combination of herbs you desire, but think carefully about what will work together. I've compiled a list below:

Stimulant/Psychotropic Major Herbs Other Names Genus Taste Notes
Yes; Dry hop for effect Sweet Gale Bog Myrtle Myrica gale Slight retsinous taste and eucalyptus aroma. Boil for menthol; Dry hop to extract stimulating resin.
No Yarrow   Achillea millefolium Bitter, astringent-tasting leaves and flowers. Boil for bitterness, dry hop for aroma.
Yes; Powerful* Marsh Rosemary Wild Rosemary Rhododendron tomentosum Harmaja Fresh and spicy aroma. Traditional recipes specifically call for fresh flowering tops.
Stimulant/Psychotropic Minor Herbs Other Names Genus Taste Notes
Yes, but too bitter Mugwort Lesser Wormwood Artemisia vulgaris Pleasant, bitter-sweet aroma and taste.  
Yes, but too bitter Wormwood   Artemisia absinthium Extremely bitter. For a 5 gallons batch, consider boiling 0.5 oz for an hour.
Yes; Powerful* Labrador Tea    Rhododendron groenlandicum Spicy aroma and bitter. North American version of Marsh Rosemary
No Licorice   Glycyrrhiza glabra Sweet licorice.  
No Juniper Berries   Juniperus communis Bitter sweet; hints of pine and turpentine.

Contains glycyrrhizin: 33x sweeter than sucrose and non-fermentable

No Heather   Calluna vulgaris A rather bitter taste with a mild aroma. Boil for bitterness, dry hop for aroma.
No Bog Heather   Erica tetralix A rather bitter taste with a mild aroma. Boil for bitterness, dry hop for aroma.
No Spruce tips   Varies Fresh pine aroma and citrus flavor.  
No Sage   Salvia officinalis Pleasant-tasting and mildly bitter.  Dry hop to extract oils.
No Ginger   Zingiber officinale A sharp spicy kick. Leave the skin on for max flavor extraction! 
No Aniseed   Pimpinella anisum Sweet licorice flavor.  
No Ground Ivy Alehoof Glechoma hederacea Distinctive mild peppery flavor. Clarifies beer.
No Horehound   Marrubium vulgare Licorice-mint combination.  
No  Caraway Seed   Carum carvi Anise-like with a sharp edge.  
No Chicory   Cichorium intybus Coffee-like with a bitter aspect.  
No Chamomile   Matricaris retutica Flowery and fragrant.  
No Lemon Grass    Cymbopogon citratus Citrus flavor; adds softness to the brew.  
  *NOTE: Marsh Rosemary and Labrador tea can be deadly at high concentrations. DO NOT OVER USE!!!  


Example Gruit Schedule

The herbs are either boiled or steeped in the finished mead. Boiling tends to bring out bitter flavors while steeping tends to bring out aroma characteristics. Many of the stimulating chemicals in the herbs are destroyed by boiling, so steeping is necessary if you are going for effect. Below is an example gruit schedule to give you some idea of how much and how long to boil/steep. Of course, taste frequently and adjust as you see fit.

5 gallons 1 gallon Herb Boil/Steep Time
1 ounce 6 gm Sweet Gale Boil 15 min 
1 ounce 6 gm Yarrow Flowers Boil 15 min
1 ounce 6 gm Marsh Rosemary Boil 15 min
7 gm   1.4 gm Mugwort Boil 15 min
1 ounce 6 gm Sweet Gale Primary 21 days
1 ounce 6 gm Yarrow Flowers Primary 21 days
1 ounce 6 gm Marsh Rosemary Primary 21 days
7 gm 1.4 gm Mugwort Primary 21 days


Herb Sourcing

The major herbs can be difficult to find. Compiled below are the places I've found these herbs: Every spice gruit related.    Some major herbs and most minor


Ginger Bug

As I stated, I would ultimately like to make this a wild ferment. In order to do that, you need to cultivate some wild yeast! One of the simplest ways to cultivate wild yeast is a ginger bug. Simply mix up sliced ginger, honey (or sugar) and water in a cheese cloth covered container and wait 3-7 days. Once you see signs of fermentation (fizzing), taste the culture to see if it is pleasant. If not, start over. If it is good, pitch into a large batch of mead! Here is how I make mine: 

1. To a 1 pint mason jar, add the following:
-2 TBSP honey
-1-2 inches of sliced ginger
-spring water to halfway.
2. Cover with cheesecloth and wait until you see signs of fermentation.
3. If pleasant tasting, pitch into a batch of gruit mead (2 TBSP for 1 gallon; whole ginger bug for 5 gallons).

Honey Bug

I must admit, this is my own (unproven) method for generating a wild starter. Yeast naturally exist in honey as well as most fruits. Here, I am attempting to cultivate yeast from pure honey. It is critical that you use raw, unpasteurized honey for this to work!

1. To a 1 pint mason jar, add the following and mix until full dissolved:
-1/4 cup raw, unpasteurized honey
-3/4 cup spring water
2. Cover with cheesecloth or loose lid, swirl everyday, and wait until you see signs of fermentation.
3. If pleasant tasting, pitch into a batch of gruit mead (2 TBSP for 1 gallon; whole cup for 5 gallons).

by denardb on April 5, 2016, 12:13 p.m.