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Celebrating Oktoberfest with Medieval Brews

Grapes and other gruit herbs grown at The Met Cloisters

Gruit herbs grown at The Met Cloisters. All photos by the author

It's tempting to attribute the popularity of our annual Oktoberfest to a winning recipe combining beer, art, and a beautiful fall evening in the garden. Of course, these are all great reasons to come The Met Cloisters on Saturday, September 16, to enjoy a brew and a sunset—and, perhaps, to learn a bit about medieval art and brewing traditions. But, the reason we celebrate Oktoberfest has less to do with the party and more with the historical importance of the refreshments.

Fermented beverages, such as wine and beer, were an essential part of daily medieval life. Unlike today—when, apart from a limited number of enthusiastic home brewers, brewing is largely the province of professionals—almost everyone was a home brewer in the Middle Ages. Brewing was a weekly activity, at least. As such, the responsibility fell to the women to become the skilled household brewers.

Brewing was so important in the Middle Ages that the Plan of Saint Gall, a ninth-century architectural drawing of the ideal monastic compound, depicts no fewer than three breweries. They are situated alongside the bakeries, where they share similar requirements and a healthy collection of wild yeasts. Some of the earliest large-scale breweries were in medieval monasteries, and it was there that many of the brewing techniques still employed today were first standardized.

While fermented beverages provided a much-needed source of calories, the importance of brewing extended far beyond the material world. Imbibing alcoholic beverages occupied an important spiritual function in medieval society. The same intoxicating effects of alcohol that are sometimes frowned upon today were once thought to fortify the faithful and facilitate communion with God. Herbal medicines were frequently prescribed suspended in wine or beer. The 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen often recommended "wine and beer, since [the patient] is strengthened by them."[1]

Hops grown at The Met Cloisters

Hops grown at The Met Cloisters

The Middle Ages also marked a new development in brewing techniques: the use of hops (Humulus lupulus) as a flavoring and preservative. While the characteristic bitter flavor from the cone-like bracts of the female hop plant are intrinsically associated with beer today, this was not the case in the Middle Ages. Despite the fact that many historians believe the invention of beer came not long after the invention of agriculture, the first record of hopped beer does not occur until the ninth century, when a well-known abbot instructed a novice to collect hops for the brewery.[2]

Many earlier references to hops support its use in medicine and as a foodstuff. Writing in the first century, the Roman author Pliny recorded hops as a wild plant that can be foraged along with other delicacies, like samphire and sea kale.[3] The herbalist John Gerard (1545–1612) saw little nutritional value in hops but recommended the spring shoots as good for the intestines and as a valuable diuretic that has the power to "purgeth the blood from all corrupt humors."[4]

Prior to the widespread usage of hops, medieval brewers employed a wide variety of botanicals to flavor and preserve brews. The most popular additive was known as "gruit." While the exact constituents of gruit are obscure, there were likely many regional variations. That said, certain herbs are mentioned regularly. One plant commonly thought to be a principal ingredient of gruit is bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale (Myrica gale). Bog myrtle is a resinous shrub that grows in wetlands, especially along the coasts of the Northern Hemisphere. Bog myrtle, along with bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica), is one of my favorite scents. When you crush the fresh leaves between your fingers, the fragrance lasts for hours. Brews with bog myrtle must have had a particularly strong aroma.

Myrica gale grown at The Met Cloisters

Bog myrtle, a sweetly scented shrub, contains high amounts of fragrant oils in the foliage, which increase potency when dried. The waxy leaves cause the morning dew to bead. The herb is extremely bitter and would counter the excessive sweetness of malt. For more on the history, uses, and constituents of bog myrtle, check out the scholarly and fascinating Spice Pages.

Like most of the plants in medieval gardens, bog myrtle had many practical uses. As a strewing herb, sprigs of foliage were used to repel moths and worms from woolens and linens. As a liniment, the oil-rich leaves were used as an insect repellant. Boiled, its waxy fruits provide a pungent bayberry wax used in scented candles. The leaves yield a yellow dye and the wood makes a quality charcoal.

Bog myrtle's widespread use as a brewing herb probably arose because of a combination of its active chemical constituents and its relative availability. Social historian Dorothy Hartley (1893–1985) recorded that the gathering of myrtle leaves was once a source of income for society's most disenfranchised, who lived roughly in the fens.[5]

In The Met Cloisters's medieval garden, we cultivate most of the species commonly mentioned as gruit herbs. While a few herbs are now known to be far too toxic for consumption—such as the deadly henbane (Hyoscyamnus niger)—many others, such as nettles, sweet woodruff, and ground ivy, have resurged in popularity thanks to adventurous and historically minded brewers. At The Met Cloisters, we have often discussed creating our own specific brew and are actively researching and cultivating gruit herbs in our gardens and grounds.


Notes

[1] Hildegard von Bingen, Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, trans. Priscilla Throop (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), 100.

[2] Richard W. Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 15.

[3] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, vol. 7, trans. W. H. S. Jones (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1980), 85.

[4] John Gerard, The Herbal or General History of Plants: The Complete 1633 Edition, rev. ed. Thomas Johnson (New York: Dover, 1975), 885.

[5] Dorothy Hartley, Lost Country Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979), 36.

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