Tag: herbs

Who Knuit?

The grocery store was out of mugwort. What’s stranger: that you can buy mugwort from a store—in bulk, too—or that there are enough mugwort shoppers out there to empty a gallon jar of the stuff? Artemisia vulgaris is related to wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) but milder. Or so they say—the comparison isn’t exactly relevant to a novice herbalist. In any case, the wormwood jar was full.

Medieval brewers used mugwort, wormwood, and a pantry full of other herbs, to flavor their beers, add some medicinal, ceremonial, or extra-intoxicating punch, and preserve them (or just mask the taste when they inevitably spoiled). It’s easy to think of gruit as rustic stuff: mysterious herbs, foraged from the bewitched woods, bubbled in cauldrons, sipped from sacred bowls. But gruit was actually the tightly regulated territory of the Catholic church, and its herbal blends were guarded secrets, doled out to the brewers of each town by the monastery-run gruithuis. Hops, some say, were a Protestant attack on the gruit monopoly. Someone needs to name an IPA after Martin Luther.

Still, a foraged beer appeals, especially here and now, when the San Francisco breeze blows fennel, eucalyptus, sage, rosemary… Stay tuned for my attempts. In the meantime, as one anachronistic homebrewer says, “Keep it clean, kick up the alcohol, and don’t stint on the mugwort!”

Molto Birra


Italian beer can be great, but not always. We tried a lot of bottles when I was working on this article, and they were all interesting, and expensive, but we found a few duds. Some had gone a little sour. Some were old. Inconsistency is expected with such a small industry. The biggest Italian craft brewery, Baladin, is 1/15th the size of Dogfish Head, and Dogfish Head isn’t even that big.

But beer is booming there — Italy had 65 breweries in 2000. Today there are 279. That’s not as explosive as the biggest spike in American craft breweries (200 opened between 1993 and 1994) but it’s something. Both booms produced some sub-par beer, but the difference with Italy is range. A flooded market forced American craft brewers to specialize; Italian brewers are making weird stuff right out of the gate.

I asked Sam Calagione what it was like collaborating at the new Eataly brewery with Teo and Leo, the brewers at Baladin and Birra del Borgo, guys who brew with stuff like kamut, myrrh, and ginger.

“We picked fresh thyme in the hills behind Leo’s brewery, threw it in the brew kettle. I put a jalopy brewery in my truck and drove up to Boston, met the guys at a nondescript warehouse, and fired up some test batches. It all happened in person, over pasta and good beer. Teo doesn’t even use email.”

Leo does. He wrote to me that brewing with Sam went like this: “When I was brewing with Sam I was telling to Sam the idea and Sam went crazy for that!” That’s about how it works in our house, too.