The second in our brewer-centric Intelligent Design series is Unbined, a gruit beer from Weston Shepherd.
You probably have a couple questions. Let’s address them up front:
Gruits get their name from the herb mixture (Grut=German for “herb”) used instead of hops to give the beer its flavor and aromatics. This centuries-old brewing method used Harry Potter-ass-sounding ingredients like yarrow, horehound, and mugwort, and occasionally more common spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. This style fell out of favor in the 1500s and 1600s, thanks in part to the Reinheitsgebot, which dictated what ingredients could be used in beer. Mugwort wasn’t one of them, to the detriment of beer commercials everywhere. You’re hearing Sam Elliott say “hops, barley, and mugwort” right now, aren’t you?
Anyway, the following timeline of the last 1000 years in brewing notes some of the most important events in the beer industry and culture.
Some sources claim medieval morality also played a part the switch from gruit to hops, as the latter has sedative effects, while the former often had aphrodisiac, stimulative properties. (NOTE: We are not saying Unbined will make you super horny. That is illegal.)
What Unbined does possess is a massive herb bill, mingling traditional botanicals (stinging nettle, yarrow, sweet woodruff and (yes!) mugwort) with modern brewing techniques and ingredients like citrus and malted oats. It’s dry-“hopped” on grapefruit and orange zest, lemon balm, and fresh rosemary, contributing a complex, completely unique tea-like aroma. This citrus zest, combined with a delicate, honey-malt character, makes Unbined refreshing and drinkable.
(IT’S A TRUE FACT: The woodruff is a known White Walker repellent, so if you find yourself Beyond the Wall, keep that in your hip pocket.)
We spoke with Weston Shepherd about his brewing career, why he chose a gruit, and why he hates hops so damn much. There’s nothing wrong with hops. (Ben and Jerrod paid me $15 to write that last part.)
I’ve been at Surly for 3 years. I was hired as a brew assist in 2014 and worked at the Brooklyn Center brewery for a year, brewing for half that time. I’ve been working at MSP for two years starting as a brewer, and now as a lead brewer.
Surly was my first brewery job, but I got my start in the beverage industry in 2011 at a craft cider company in Vermont called Citizen Cider. Prior to that I was a homebrewer/winemaker.
I chose a gruit for my beer because I wanted to brew something unique, not just to Surly, but in the industry in general. Very few other breweries in the country are brewing this style commercially. I also wanted a challenge, a chance to experiment with different ingredients and flavors, and expand the breadth of what people think a beer can smell and taste like.
I did several trials to find the ingredients I wanted to use in Unbined.
Malt: The base malt for the beer is chevallier, which is an heirloom variety of barley that was popular in England in the 19th century. It fell completely out of favor and was no longer grown at all by the middle of the 1900s. Recently some agricultural researchers and maltsters grew some from a few seeds that had been sitting in a seed bank. They liked the flavor profile and started propagating the variety to sell. Crisp Malting (the company who revived the variety) brought some to Surly for us to try. In addition to liking the story and the historical significance of the malt, the chevallier has fantastic flavor, contributing a really nice, rich honey character that I thought would work well in tandem with the botanical and citrus aspects of the beer. In addition to being a different barley variety, the chevallier is floor-malted, which means that it is malted by hand in a traditional method that creates a less uniform, but a much more flavorful and interesting product. In other words, it’s hipster malt.
I wanted the beer to have a multigrain aspect to keep with the ‘brew with what’s available’ nature of a gruit. I also wanted the malt to be able to stand up to the strong and complex aroma of the herbs and citrus. The red wheat and oats were chosen because they contribute to the satisfying cracker and honey notes present in the beer and leave behind a little bit of sweetness.
Herbs and citrus: My goal in choosing the herbs was to recreate some of the characteristics that make hops such a successful part of beer. The mugwort contributes bitterness. The yarrow adds a floral note; the nettle, grassiness; the woodruff, herbal, spicy character. The lemon balm, rosemary, and citrus zest were added as an attempt to recreate the piney and citrusy character of a dry-hopped beer. I trialed a lot of herbs before deciding on this combination. All these herbs have historically been used to flavor herbal beers in Europe.
Other info: This beer is kind of a hybrid of some ancient beer traditions and some modern craft beer flair. Loosely defined, gruits are the original style of beer; brewed in tiny batches before the infrastructure of industrial brewing existed. People would make beer with the grain and flavoring agents that were available at that season and in that region. The style eventually died out partially due to beer purity laws like the famous Reinheitsgebot in Germany. Many of these laws were designed to increase revenue for the Catholic Church, which owned much of the hop fields in Europe. Other theories are that medieval ruling classes wanted to steer people away from herbal gruits because they were purported to have hallucinogenic and highly intoxicating properties, while hops are known for doing the opposite.
The name Unbined refers to the hop plant which is classified as a bine (not a vine). Bines are climbing plants (similar to vines) that climb by wrapping around a support (another plant, a string, a tree, etc) as opposed to vines, which climb by putting out tendrils that grip on to whatever they are climbing. It’s Unbined because there are no hops, and by brewing a no-hop beer, I was freed from the bonds of brewing a beer with the same four ingredients mandated hundreds of years ago.
Unbined is pouring NOW in the Beer Hall. It’s delicious.
Next brewer up in the Intelligent Design series: JAWSH. More details as they become available.