As we move forward into the 21st century, many brewers are looking to the past for inspiration.
In America, we’re seeing a resurgence of ancient beer styles that were on the brink of extinction just a few decades ago.
The gose (a salty, tart, low-alcohol ale) and the farmhouse ale (also known as a saison) are experiencing a rebirth a thousand years after they were first brewed.
And now a Portland brewery is resurrecting a style of beer that predates the use of hops in brewing. Urban Farm Fermentory – known for the production of kombucha, meads and hard ciders – has entered the world of gruits.
A gruit is a beer flavored with a variety of spices and herbs instead of hops. Gruit recipes date back thousands of years and remained en vogue throughout Europe until hops became the flavoring ingredient of choice around the 1200s.
It’s preposterous at this moment in beer history to imagine drinking a beer without hops. We live in the age of hops. People stand in line for hours to obtain hopped-to-the-max beers like Maine Beer Co.’s Dinner. We are a craft-beer population addicted to the sticky resin of Humulus lupus.
But maybe it’s not that crazy for Urban Farm Fermentory to take a chance on gruits. Rising Tide Brewing Co., located just down the street, has seen success with Pisces, its take on the gose. It seems like craft-beer lovers are ready to expand their palates beyond the citrus and pine flavors of hops.
On a sunny day in July, I headed to Urban Farm Fermentory in search of gruits. Its tasting room is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of spray-painted walls, thrift-store accouterments and industrial concrete floors, with agrarian undertones of bundled rosemary and fungal material soaking in jars. The name is fitting: the space feels both urban and agricultural, making it the perfect setting to try an ancient beer style brewed in the modern world of iPhones and Donald Trump.
On my visit, there were three gruits on draft: Strawberry Lager, Sweetfern Lager and Beet Red Nitro. By the names, it’s clear that these gruits lean toward the natural flavors of local farms to garner their taste.
The tasting room attendant explains that its gruits are brewed with 10 percent of the hops used in the production of regular beers. While they’re not hop-less, the aroma from these gruits tells you you’re embarking on something different.
The Sweetfern Lager has a bright but mild aroma of fresh herbs. The flavor is light, highlighting refreshing earthy flavors interplaying with the bite from the lager yeast. This beer is more refined than some of the experimental gruits I’ve tried. Since a lager isn’t known for big hop flavors, it seems like a great choice for a gruit.
The Strawberry Lager rides a similar line as its Sweetfern counterpart, but the strawberry gives it a more robust flavor. Both of these beers are perfect for a hot July day.
The Beet Red Nitro gruit is brewed with beets as the primary flavoring agent and poured on nitro, giving it a big mouthfeel. The sweetness of the beets really shines through.
It’s funny; I didn’t find myself missing the hops in these beers. Surprisingly, without hops, they still taste like beer. Urban Farm Fermentory’s gruits are balanced, clean and impressive.
Do not fear the gruit. Head to Urban Farm Fermentory and taste an ancient beer style that satiated our ancestors long before the arrival of the now ubiquitous hop plant.
WHO: Urban Farm Fermentory
ON DRAFT: Sweetfern Lager, Strawberry Lager and Beet Red Nitro (expect many different styles of gruits from the experimental fermentory)
WHERE: 200 Anderson St., Portland
WHEN: Tasting room open noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
MORE INFO: fermentory.com
OTHER BEER HAPPENINGS
Maine Brew Bus Sips and Sea Dogs Beer Tours
3:30 p.m. bus pickup at Hadlock Field, Friday, Aug. 5. $45 per ticket. themainebrewbus.com
As the dog days of summer roll on, The Maine Brew Bus offers craft beer lovers a chance to tour Portland breweries and catch a Sea Dogs game. There are two more Sips and Sea Dogs tours being offered this baseball season. If you can’t make it Friday, check your calendar for Aug. 26. Guests are picked up at the Slugger statue in front of Hadlock Field at 3:30 p.m. and brought to three breweries before returning to Hadlock Field for game time. It’s the ultimate pre-game tailgating experience. Price of ticket includes all brewery tours and tastings along with your ticket to the Sea Dogs game.
Celebrate National Mead Day
Saturday, Aug. 6 at Maine Mead Works and Urban Farm Fermentory.
Celebrate National Mead Day by visiting Portland’s two meaderies: Maine Mead Works and Urban Farm Fermentory. Mead, a sweet wine made with honey, is even older than the gruits discussed in this week’s Beer Muse column. In fact, mead is the oldest fermented beverage known to humans. Ancient civilizations considered it the drink of the gods, so it should suffice for an afternoon in August. Maine Mead Works and Urban Farm Fermentory each have its own take on mead making, so be sure to stop at both Portland meaderies on Saturday to celebrate National Mead Day.