Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Drew McCormick didn’t set out to become the gruit gal.
Sure, she hadn’t exactly hidden her affinity for the broadly defined style of unhopped, spiced beers. In fact, two weeks before she was named Pizzeria Paradiso’s Executive Beverage Director, putting her in charge of one of the area’s premiere beer programs, McCormick organized a gruit showcase at the restaurant group’s Dupont location in celebration of International Gruit Day. But, of course, Pizzeria Paradiso hosts events for all kinds of holidays, dubious or otherwise: National Mead Day, Bike to Work Day, Belgian Independence Day. It even fetes Grammar Day.
And, yes, the Valentine’s Day press release announcing McCormick’s new position noted towards its end that she felt “particularly passionate about gruit beers,” but that was more of a fun fact – an interesting tidbit. After all, how many people even know what a gruit is?
In other words, gruits were certainly an interest of the new beverage director, but it wasn’t the only alcoholic beverage in her fridge.
Nevertheless, the internet has a way of running with things, and every article about the ten-year Pizzeria Paradiso veteran’s ascendance at least made mention of them. The Washington City Paper went so far as to headline its feature “Pizzeria Paradiso’s New Beer Director Loves Gruits.” Relegated to the subhead: “Drew McCormick is the local chainlet’s first female beer boss.”
“We got off on a tangent about gruits, and then it was in the paper, and then it became a thing,” McCormick says of that interview. “Everybody still gives me a hard time about it.”
It’s hard to escape some genial razzing when you work in a trend-driven industry and one of your pet interests is directly at odds with zeitgeist.
“Hops are all the craze right now, and the base definition of a gruit is that it has no hops,” the beverage director explains. “So, it’s an unusual style.”
“She’s interested in things on the fringe, even within the craft-beer industry,” Pizzeria Paradiso founder Ruth Gresser told the Washington Post earlier this year. “I like the idea that her interests are in the more esoteric and unique stuff.”
Gruits first piqued the Maine native’s interest a few years back when she visited Earth Eagle, a small brewery across just the border in New Hampshire. Generally speaking, gruits are beers flavored and often bittered with a mix of herbs and spices in lieu of hops. They can be sweet, tart, herbaceous, bitter, or some combination thereof. The particular Earth Eagle gruit that opened McCormick’s eyes was dark like a stout and brewed with fennel seed.
“I was just totally blown away by the flavors that they were pulling out of the fennel,” she remembers. “I mean, I love hoppy beers, and you can get so much flavor from that one variety of plant, like grapefruit rind and juicy tropical fruits, but if you’re utilizing all of these other botanicals, your flavor options just explode at that point.”
McCormick makes a good gruit pitch, which is something she’s instilled in her staff across Pizzeria Paradiso’s four locations.
“Everyone now knows what a gruit is and can talk about it,” she says. “It doesn’t fly off the shelves, but I think the people that try it are often pleasantly surprised. We have a couple on the bottle menu, and they may not move as fast your pilsners and IPAs on draft, but they’re right in line with some of the other styles. Also, it’s a little easier for someone to pick a gruit from a list of 12 to 16 drafts than a list of 200 bottles.”
Not everyone needs to be convinced. One product of the press surrounding her gruit fandom is that it has attracted existing fans of the style and, more generally, curious customers. From the former category, they’ll even show up with bottles to share privately – a perk of McCormick’s line of work.
Since taking the reins of Pizzeria Paradiso, she’s poured offerings from Earth Eagle (and personally drove 1000 miles to make that happen). She spotlighted her home state’s Urban Farm Fermentory during Savor Week. She’s added Dutch and German gruits to her restaurants’ bottle lists. But she has yet to pour a local gruit – until now, that is.
Tonight, all four Pizzeria Paradiso locations will tap The Gruit Made Me Do It, a new collaboration with Maryland’s Denizens Brewing Company. Tart, ruby red, and wonderfully aromatic, the 6.5% gruit showcases rosemary and sage across a rich malt backbone. It’s the first gruit that Denizens has produced, and the first that co-founding Business Development Manager Julie Verratti has even tried.
“I had heard of the style, but I looked it up after reading the article about Drew taking over,” she admits. “I was like, ‘Gruit? Huh.’ I had sort of passed over it. So, I did some research and started reading about it, and I was like, ‘That’s sort of an interesting beer. It’s definitely different.’ Nowadays, the more hops you have, the longer the line around the corner. This is like, ‘Fuck you, we’re not even using hops. We’re doing our own thing.’”
There’s a certain irony to the idea of gruit existing as a countercultural product.
The first recorded use of the word “gruit” traces back to late 10th century Europe. For millennia, cultures far and wide had used herbs and spices to make beer, but it was during the late medieval period that Holy Roman Emperor Otto II decided to put such brewing under the control of church and state. He did so by establishing a system wherein the government granted nobles (and, in some cases, municipalities) the exclusive right to make and sell those herbs and spices. This privelage was called gruitrecht. It was granted to gruiters. And the proprietary mixture they sold was referred to as gruit. Thus, the true historical definition of gruit isn’t the unhopped beer but the blend of crushed herbs and spices used to make it.
In essence, the regulation of gruit functioned as an early form of beer taxation. Across most of northern Europe, brewers were forced to produce beer with gruit mixture, and they had to procure said mixture from The Man. There’s nothing punk rock about that.
The particular ingredients of any one gruiter’s mixture varied – at least from what we can tell.
“Gruits are a beer shrouded in mystery,” says Michael Stein, a beer historian and the president of Lost Lagers. “American beer historians know very little of it because this beer wasn’t made in America, unless your definition of ‘gruit’ is super loose. Gruits are really part of the tale of how the barbarians were brought under the yoke of the church.”
According to historian Randy Mosher, most medieval gruits contained bog myrtle (also known as sweet gale), yarrow, and wild rosemary, though their usage varied regionally. Together, these herbs swirled to produce a drink of tanic bitterness.
“The exact recipe for gruit was a closely held secret,” Mosher writes in Radical Brewing. “Three herbs are always mentioned in association with gruits, and a great number of herbs and spices were part of the mix as well, including juniper berries, ginger, caraway, wormwood, anise seed, and others. Generally, the spices were mixed together with malt, flour, or other starchy material, which helped to conceal the true nature of the mix… Little useful information is available on the beer itself. Like all medieval ales, it was likely to be strong, dark, smoky, and possibly a bit sour from long contact with wooden casks. Various strengths of beer were brewed, as with all ages dark or not.”
The popularity of gruit beers began to wane in the 15th and 16th century, as the usage of hops increased across of Europe. As a rival botanical, hops effectively bittered sweet wort while furthering functioning as a preservative. Perhaps more importantly, hops weren’t controlled by the state.
“Though a taste for hopped beers did arise among brewers and drinkers beginning in about the 11th century, the demise of gruit had less to do with preferential supersession than political, religious, and moral struggles within the individual counties in which it was used,” Dick Cantewell notes in The Oxford Companion to Beer. “With the Catholic Church having widely held a monopoly on the sale and taxation of gruit, the use of hops in brewing was nothing short of a revolutionary act as German princes asserted their independence just as the Reformation dawned.”
Some relatives of gruit beer – notably, the Finnish beer sahti, flavored with juniper berries – survived the rise of hops, but as a beverage of mass consumption, gruit quickly fell out of fashion. In the time since then, however, our definition of gruit has seemingly expanded. In essence, the “style” has come to mean anything brewed with hops. That more generous definition both grandfathers in beers that predated the Holy Roman Empire and become inclusive of the herbed beers being brewed today.
“The reality is that if you go beyond gruit as a medieval European beverage and put it in the broader classification of unhopped beer, humankind has been brewing gruits for longer than hopped beers,” Stein shares. “We’ve always made alcoholic drinks with what was available. So, the majority of the ancient beers were brewed without hops. The Chinese were making gruits in 7000 B.C. The Mesopotamians were doing it in 3500 B.C. If we broaden our definition, we find examples of gruits all over the place.”
You can also find them, the historian continues, across the history of America – in the molasses beer of colonial Virginia, in the fermented birch sap on the frontier, in the Southeast’s persimmon beer. And that tradition is alive and well in boutique breweries across the country like Earth Eagle, Earth Bread + Brewery, and Cambridge Brewing, in addition to one-off projects from more prominent operations like Dogfish Head, New Belgium, Schlafly. Locally, Right Proper head brewer – and history buff – Nathan Zeender has produced a handful of gruits, including Smell the Flowers (brewed with elder flowers and yarrow flowers) and Marginalia (produced with veritable garden of burdock root, dandelion root, spicebush, mugwort, yarrow, sorrel, and chicory flowers).
Some of these beers pay close tribute to the gruits of yore. Others merely riff on the idea of herbed beers. According to Stein, it’s all fair game.
“It’s easy to crack down and say, ‘Where’s the bog myrtle? This isn’t wild rosemary,’” the historian observes. “But even Mosher observes that there’s no exact source for the recipe, and on top of that, brewers were also messing with things like wormwood, caraway, and anise seed. Normally, with rosemary and sage, I’d be like, ‘Eh, not so much.’ But knowing this is coming out of Denizens’ brewhouse with the expert palates at Pizzeria Paradiso, I’m pretty much sold already.”
No one remembers quite exactly how Denizens and Pizzeria Paradiso came to produce a gruit.
As the chief salesperson for the Silver Spring brewery, Verratti has known McCormick and Assistant Beverage Director Erin Gilbert for as long as she’s been lobbying to get her beers into Pizzeria Paradiso and Granville Moore’s (Gilbert’s former gig) – which is to say, as long as Denizens has self-distributed. So, it was natural for Verratti to extend a congratulatory note to McCormick when she became the first female beverage director of Pizzeria Paradiso.
“I reached out to Drew to say, ‘It’s totally badass that you have this position,’” Verratti recalls. “There wasn’t any intention about it. But then we just started talking about how we should do a collaboration at some point.”
Soon enough, McCormick, Gilbert, Verratti, and head brewer Jeff Ramirez were sharing ideas over beers at Pizzeria Paradiso.
“It, like, spiraled out of control,” McCormick recalls. “I think we had a few too many beers and a gruit suddenly became a good idea.”
Verratti was on board, but she had to convince Ramirez it was a good idea, too.
“Honestly, I’d like to do a lot of collaborations, but I have to run it by Jeff because he’s in charge of the brewery and the production schedule,” the co-founder explains. “I can’t just be like, ‘Jeff, we’re making this collaboration, and it’s happening on this day.’”
Ramirez’s response was characteristically dry.
“I told them they should go ask Tom Baker at Earth Bread + Brewery because he makes gruits real well,” the former Philly resident remembers with a laugh. “That’s the first thing that came out of my mouth.”
Thankfully, the wheels were well greased at this point of the evening.
“When you get a few beers into Jeff, you can convince him to make any kind of beer you want,” Verratti kids.
The Gruit Made Me Do It would be Ramirez’s first foray into gruits, but he would draw from his extensive experience producing sour beers both at Denizens and in Colorado before it. More specifically, the brewer began constructing his gruit with a grain bill based on Denizens’ Kvassier, a low-ABV sour ale brewed with loaves of rye bread – a nod to the style’s Eastern European roots – in addition to wheat and several types of kilned barley. For The Gruit Made Me Do It, he would substitute malted rye for full loaves, but in any form, the spicy grain imparts a rich mouthfeel.
“If we’re doing a collab with Pizzeria Paradiso, I wanted something to go with their savory and rustic pizza crust, and that extends to the malt bill,” he explains. “Even though this doesn’t taste malty, like an Oktoberfest, it has all this malted rye and wheat. It could be categorized as a Roggenbier for as much rye is in it.”
Ramirez proposed open-fermenting the wort with a strain of the wild yeast brettanomyces while souring it with the bacteria lactobacillus – a decision that would allow Denizens and Pizzeria Paradiso to employ herbs simply for flavor and aroma. In other words, the brewer wouldn’t have to worry about bittering the liquid because the “lacto” acidity would cut through its sweetness, plus help keep it from oxidizing.
“What usually bothers me about gruits is the bitterness,” the brewer shares. “So, when you have a sour, you don’t need to have a bittering aspect to it.”
When it came time to select the all-important herbs, Denizens and Pizzeria Paradiso went back and forth on their options. Rose hips were initially in the discussion, but an anise character was quickly ruled out, thereby eliminating a number of herbs and spices popular in gruits.
“I think it would have taken this over,” McCormick says of the decision. “I love fennel, I love anise, I love black licorice, but I didn’t want it in here.”
With anise off the table, they returned to the gruit’s expected pairing for inspiration.
“I was like, ‘What goes well with pizza?’” explains Ramirez. “I thought of pitching fresh oregano, but I was like, ‘Eh, that just belongs on the pizza.’ I think that’s one of the tough parts: Not making the beer taste like food.”
Ultimately, the collaborators settled on sage and rosemary in a ratio of two to one. Here, as with the tartness of the beer, the goal was one of moderation.
“I think a lot of people, if they know what a gruit is to begin with, can be little put off because gruits can be too herbal or a little bit syrupy and kind of thick on the palate, and I wanted to avoid all of those things,” McCormick says. “We were all on the same page there. Gruit is a style, but anything can be a gruit. There’s a huge spectrum.”
To ensure that he didn’t overshoot the herbal presence, Ramirez added the rosemary and sage last in the process as a “tea.” If he needed to add more tea later, he could, but had he added it all early in process, he could have been stuck with an aggressively assertive gruit.
Making the herbal tea was a labor of love. For hours, Ramirez plucked the leaves from fresh stems of rosemary and sage. Then he deaerated a pot of water, added lactic acid to adjust the liquid’s pH, placed his nearly three pounds of herbs in a “big-ass mesh bag,” and seeped the makeshift teabag for a mere three minutes.
“It probably took four hours to prep all of the stuff,” he shares bemusedly, “and then… three minutes.”
Two weeks ago, Ramirez added this tea to the gruit, which had already been conditioning for five weeks.
A few days later, the Pizzeria Paradiso team is sitting in the Denizens tasting room on a warm Sunday afternoon, sampling the gruit for the first time and convinced Ramirez had hit his mark.
“I think that the sourness turned out perfectly,” McCormick says. “I could drink this with pizza. I love goses, but I’m not going to have one with a margarita pizza; it’s just not where I want to be. And it’s not too malty but I think it would stand up to food with that little rye spice.”
To test this hypothesis, the beverage director has brought some of that award-winning crusty pizza with her, just like you’d hope your friend from Pizzeria Paradiso would do any time you hung out together.
“Jeff’s instincts were spot on: Bitterness is not something I want in a gruit, and it’s not in here,” Gilbert adds. “There’s definitely some sour that lays on the mouth but I like that it has a drop-off. It’s almost like: take a bite, cleanse your palate, take a bite, cleanse your palate.”
That’s good business for everyone.
The name “The Gruit Made Me Do It” is a reference to the 2004 comedy “Mean Girls”. Right now, in the basement of Denizens, there are three barrels worth of the gruit aging in second-use Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels, and if all goes according to plan, that liquid will be blended, split in half, and spiked with two different mixes of herbs. Then, they’ll be released as “You Don’t Even Brew Here” and “Stop Trying to Make Gruit Happen,” thus completing the “Mean Girls” trilogy.
This is precisely the combination of serious craft and lighthearted humor that defines Denizens and Pizzeria Paradiso’s unassuming approach to beer.
“People want to have fun when they drink good beer,” observes Gilbert. “Beer should be fun.”
“There are a lot of great restaurants in this city, and almost everyone has good beer,” adds McCormick, who recently organized a beer float event during DC Beer Week. “So, we’re always trying to do something that mixes it up a little bit. Even brewing a gruit leads to a conversation with people about what a gruit is. That’s the fun side of things: Having a conversations like, ‘Oh, this Darwin’s Flag Porter – the yeast strain came from a sunken boat in the English Channel.’ Those are the things that are fun.”
As always, you can look at Denizens’ ever-shuffling draft list on any given day to gauge its level of self-seriousness. At this Saturday’s Make It Funky Fest, it’ll be pouring The Gruit Made Me Do It, in addition to beers called Bocho, Ill Cru, ChiChi, Apetit, and Backyard Boogie.
“We try to just have fun with it, to be honest,” Verratti told me in March. “We try not to take it too seriously.”
At the same, while a playful flair may run through both Denizens and Pizzeria Paradiso, and while an interview with the two businesses is loose and filled with laughter, that doesn’t mean there’s not a genuine and serious kinship underpinning this collaboration.
“I wanted to do a collaboration with these guys not just because I love their pizza and beer prgroam, but because I love that they’re a women-owned business and that they’re super involved in the community at every single one of their locations,” Verratti shares. “Their company espouses values that I really believe in.”
“There’s solidarity based around being women in the beer industry,” McCormick continues. “Ruth is a big supporter of women in food and beverage when she can be. If you’re a woman in beer, you’re challenging the status quo, and it’s important to support other people that are doing that.”
Supporting and increasing the representation of women – and any other minority – in the beer industry is significant to both businesses.
“Representation matters, so I’m always looking to highlight that and talk about it with people,” says Verratti, a former advisor at the Small Business Administration. “It’s inspirational to see people who aren’t normally in positions of leadership. It’s important for folks to think, ‘You know what, I can be that someday.’ Obviously, working in this industry, we’re not changing lives – we’re not saving people like Hilary Clinton – but I think the idea of diverse leadership is important in any industry.”
In McCormick’s eyes, diversity not only attracts more diverse and bigger audiences, it leads to better, more informed decisions internally.
“In an industry that’s constantly changing, where everyone wants the next best thing and something new, why wouldn’t we want as many different voices at the table as possible?” she asks. “As a woman, my perspective is a little bit different because of the life I’ve lead and the way that I interact with people and the fact that the beer industry has become a bearded white man’s world. And there are a lot of bearded white men that are really awesome and really good at their jobs, and they get it. I’m not saying that things would be better if women or any other minorities were the majority, but why not rock the boat a little bit? Why not challenge people and push them a little bit about what other people can do?”
As the first woman to oversee Pizzeria Paradiso’s beer program, this is a topic McCormick has spent a lot of time discussing in 2017, which can be something of a mixed blessing.
“Even though I’m sure it’s frustrating for Drew to answer the same questions over and over again – where she’s reminded, ‘OK, what I’m doing is not the norm’ – the conversations are important, at least until it becomes more normal,” shares Gilbert, who was the first female beverage director Verratti worked with in DC. “Until I started at Paradiso, I’d worked only for men, and the conversations were radically different. There were similarities from work place to work place, and when I started here, the thought process, the conversations, the way we come to conclusions were all different, and I like that. I think that’s the most important thing about diversifying: You’re not coming at everything from the same perspective.”
In some small sense, the fact that these three women got together and decided to make something as bold as a gruit – and not, say, another double IPA – is a reflection of those differing perspectives.
“It is rocking the boat a little bit in terms of style,” Verratti observes. “This is not at all where market trends are.”
The brewery co-founder isn’t ready to go all-in on gruits, but she’s more open minded about them than she was a few months ago.
“To this day, I have not had another gruit, but I love this one,” she says. “It’s delicious. So, I’m a fan of gruits so far.”