Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beer in Europe ~ le troisieme part

Before we move the blog along to other potentially broader, more important topics, I need to confess something.  This won't be easy.  I'm a little nervous about saying it.  It's rather un-American, actually.  Nevertheless, what must be said, well, must be said.

... oh... be still my bleating heart...
just look at all those fine examples of
Rocket Fuel waiting to be processed by
my kidneys...

I'm completely and utterly ignorant.

Yes.  There you have it.  It's true.  Absolutely.

I learned this recently when I attempted to plan a wee-trip to the Sublime State of Beervana.

Choosing between Amsterdam (or "Hamsterdam", as it suddenly becomes after a few pints of Rocket Fuel), Brussels, or Ghent, I wandered a few internet sites to try and sort out who serves the best examples of the Gods Own Beer.

... je pense que ton verre est presque vide...

Amsterdam looks interesting.  Hmmm... so does Brussels, actually.  I know nothing about Ghent, except it came up on a site that talked about taking a Beer Pilgrimage.

In similar time, Jude and I were watching BBC's Tudor Monastery Farm series.  In episode 3, Ruth Goodman very clearly states that what we call "ale" is a beverage sans houblon, without hops.  She goes on to say that "beer" starts out with "ale's" malts, but has hops (les houblon) added.

Huh.  There's something I never knew and quickly filed the bit of information away for retrieval the next morning. Remembering a bit I read on the Ghent tourist site I needed to more carefully consider something related. 

So... if one sausage goes well with beer...
um... what would four sausages go well with...?

Therein they say... the best tradition of Ghent going its own way, the beers they brew there are firmly hop-free. That's because the Gruut Brewery (found on the corner of the 'Grote Huidevettershoek', right in the middle of town) has gone decidedly 'old school' in its approach to beer and ales. Back in the Middle Ages, Ghent lay on an ancient beer-making fault-line, one with religious overtones, and which split the town in two.  

On the right bank of the river Lys, under Dutch influence, brewers used the (now-dominant) approach of flavouring beer with hops.

But on the left bank, which was ruled by a French-speaking elite, the brewers kept to the much older tradition of gruut beer-making. This used a whole range of local herbs to add flavour to malted beers, and avoided hops entirely...

...Gruut beer-makers used local herbs like mugwort, ground ivy, sweet gale, yarrow, and heather for bittering, and exotic spices like aniseed, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. The term ale actually referred exclusively to these gruut-flavoured beers, back in the day. The Catholic church cornered this market in brewing, exacting taxes on the gruut-spice mix. So when hops became a preferred beer-drinkers tipple,  and spread across northern Europe, the Church was not happy, and even banned the hop for a while...

Now there is a LOT of information I did not know.  First, that the Catholic church taxed gruut-spice mixes.  Second, well, in truth, I didn't even know gruut-spice mixes ever existed, let along used in the brewing of ale. Third, that Ghent, and not any village or ville in Strongly Catholic France, became the Cross-Over Point to what we now call "beer" (ie: mit hoppenschkruben, that dastardly plant that led to the Rise of Budwieser and Coors and Such, apparently, Protestant Abominations).

Off I went to research Gruut (or Gruit or Gruyt - depending on, I guess, how much you've had to drink).  No mention of the Catholic Church taxing Grutt and turning tastes toward the lesser cost hop-enhanced-bubbly-stuff was found.  To add to the confusion, I came across an internet site (which I can no longer find, not enough beer, I guess) that says Gruut was served by the Catholic Church to hospital patients and the poor.

Abbey beer... a big pot of mustard...
a Vast Plate of Frites and Sausages...
hereby one comes to the Gates of Heaven...

So... which was it?  A Highly Taxed (Taxing?) Flavoring for "ale" drunk by the Overly Wealthy Overtly Catholic Belgium Upper-Classes?  Or was it commonly handed over to the Great UnWashed to smooth out the edges of Week-Old Bread Crusts version of sterilized water?

Is this why Trappistes/Cisctercian/Benedictine/Carmelite Rocket Fuel come brewed sans houblon?  Are these considered Grutt ales?

Is there really any difference between "beer" and "ale"?  Do the old definitions still hold?

Can someone, anyone, a reader of this Humble Blog (run by Someone Completely Ignorant) perhaps, shed a wee-bit-o-light on the subject?  Inquiring Minds need to know.

Perhaps more importantly, does my favorite Suds Shoppe sell modern versions of Gruut/Gruyt/Gruit?  I'm fascinated.  What On Earth does it taste like?  Does this grant one Instant Access to those Catholic Pearly Gates upon leaving one's Mortal Remains behind?  Are my sins Forever Absolved?

Someone help me out here.  Please.

Passing through the Four States of Enlightenment

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