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Gruit basket

In today’s IPA-crazed climate, it’s hard to imagine a time when beer was brewed without hops. But hopless, herbed and spiced ales – called gruits (rhymes with “fruits”) – were common throughout most of European history.

While they faded from favor for reasons ranging from hops’ supposedly superior preservative properties to religious/sexual politics, a smattering of traditionally minded brewers still are keeping the category alive.

Spokane’s Bellwether, which specializes in Old World styles, has regularly served gruits since opening in September 2015. Its rye gruit jointly brewed with Mad Bomber was one of the featured collaborations for last year’s Spokane Craft Beer Week.

The real local coming out party is tomorrow, when Bellwether celebrates International Gruit Day with its first Gruitfest. The centerpiece is another collaboration, this time with Young Buck, Whistle Punk and Republic Brewing. Bellwether, Whistle Punk and Republic also will pour their own separate interpretations, as will Big Barn and Iron Goat.

The $20 tasting package includes a commemorative glass (pictured above) and seven 6-ounce pours (each of the featured gruits, plus an extra of your favorite). Doors open at 3 p.m., with other brewers expected to arrive around 5 for the official start of the festivities.

The variety among their offerings is impressive. Like sours, gruits aren’t so much a style unto themselves as a broader concept that can be applied across the beer spectrum.

“Dark or light, high ABV or low ABV, instead of hops, put in a mixture of herbs and spices and you’ve got a gruit ale,” says Bellwether brewer/co-owner Thomas Croskrey. “And the whole scope of herbs and spices that are available makes it limitless.”

The new, complex collaboration – dubbed We Are Gruit (a comic-book movie reference) – is a dark mild, just under 5 percent alcohol by volume, made with wormwood, yarrow, lemongrass, lemon verbena, smoked chili flakes, rosemary, heather, horehound and spruce.

It’s a full batch brewed on Young Buck’s seven-barrel system, so look for it to show up on other taps around town. The others are small batches made specially for tomorrow’s event.

Croskrey cooked up an amber with birch bark and leaves, cardamom and black pepper. Whistle Punk produced a delicate saison with wormwood, lemon verbena, basil, hibiscus flowers and spruce, while Republic is bringing a hearty winter warmer with hyssop, black pepper, cardamom and yarrow.    

Big Barn’s contribution is a dark, rich beer brewed with smoked and peated malts and finished with spruce tips. Owner/brewer Craig Deitz is so satisfied with how it turned out that he’s considering a fresh spruce Scotch ale next fall using the Christmas trees he grows at his Green Bluff farm.

As for Iron Goat, co-owner/brewer Greg Brandt says, “We wanted to make ours taste as much like a hopped beer as we could.” Over a pale ale base, that involved passion fruit for tropical yet dank aroma and flavor, and a bark tea for bitterness.

There’s common ground, since certain hop qualities often are compared to herbs and spices. Herbs like mugwort, wormwood, yarrow – even chamomile, when boiled long enough – can contribute the bitterness associated with hops, Croskrey says.

But there’s a whole range of flavors in gruits that go beyond what hops have to offer. Combining them properly can take some trial and error.

“You can sometimes get an idea by making a couple of cups of tea and flavoring it that way,” says Croskrey. “I typically go into it with, how am I going to I achieve a balance in the beer?”

For example, his Gruitfest offering gets some bitterness from the birch leaves, wintergreen/menthol brightness from the birch bark and warming spice notes from the black pepper and a touch of cardamom.

“I love what cardamom does in cooking and brewing,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite aromas and flavors.”

While the ancient techniques still are new to today’s beer world, Croskrey is encouraged by the response so far from both brewers and customers.

“I’m really stoked that several other breweries are willing to step in and do some experimenting,” he says. “We’re looking forward to seeing how it goes tomorrow, getting the word about gruit ales out there. And I’m already looking forward to next year and making it better.”