By Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn in the Sylvan Kingdom of Æthelmearc
The Dutch language has a saying for which I have not found an English equivalent: hearing the bell toll, but not quite knowing where the clapper hangs. It kinda-sorta means “close, but no cigar.”
I was reminded of just this during our trip to the Netherlands this summer when we visited the craft brewery Jopen and I ordered one of their historic brews: Koyt Gruitbier.
A nice glass of gruited koyt at the Jopen Brewery
in Haarlem, the Netherlands
I had found out about this beer as part of my research into the early medieval Dutch beer called gruit and was quite curious to see, and taste, this commercial interpretation up close. And my first question upon seeing the label was: why is it called a koyt gruitbier? I asked a resident brewer and the answer was that they used the grain bill for koyt and added bog myrtle seeds (and other undisclosed herbs…) for gruit, to make a historic gruit beer.
To understand why this is historically problematic, and rather ironic to boot, let’s take a look at the beer style koyt, modernly known as kuit. The Jopen Brewery is located in the city of Haarlem in the province of North Holland – a city with a long brewing tradition going right back to the Middle Ages.
To distinguish themselves from other craft brewers Jopen Brewery delved into the archives of their city for inspiration, and the lucky bastards located several beer recipes to help start their brewing business. They chose to redact two recipes for commercial production, a 1407 recipe for koyt and a 1501 recipe for (generic) hopped beer. Naturally, the brewery was not amenable to sharing its sources, but luckily for us the city archive is open to anyone. The following are scans of the original 1407 koyt recipe and the 1501 hopped beer recipe.
Also those who want to brew coyt, they shall brew in the brew barrel no hopped beer within four days, that is to understand, that three or four days would be in between, having brewed with hopped beer. And as well one shall to each brew coyt brew with 12 eightparts wheat malt, eighteen eightparts barley malt and four and twenty eightparts oats malt and of each not less, on the fine of 3 pounds.
This information, combined with the following ordinance about water usage, gives a good idea of a recipe for medieval koyt.
About coyt, which one transports over sea, one shall not brew longer than 26 barrels, on the fine of 3 pounds, and about coyt which is sold domestically, and one shall not brew longer than 25 barrels coyt, and of each not more, or less, of one wants, also fined as regulated.
But wait, there is something missing… what about the hops? And that’s where part of the confusion originated: these ordinances are not recipes, they are grain bills. Hops, and in earlier times the additive gruit, was under its own taxation and was not mentioned in the ordinances, not even in the 1501 Haarlem ordinance for hopped beer (displayed below).
Also it is ordained as well, that a decent brewer or brewster who wants to brew hop beer, in each brew hop beer dumps ten eightparts wheat malt, and thirty-six eightparts oats malt, and thus so may each brewer or brewster exchange, if they want, for each sack wheat malt two sacks spelt malt or sacks of barley malt, and that until three sacks wheat malt and not more, and thus so shall one brew each hop beer brew fourteen stucken and a half long and not longer, that is to say fourteen stucks to deliver and to keep a half stuck for their drinkebeer (small beer), and that one shall not squeeze or push [press] nor brew on a loose bottom, and so who does different, there is the fine of 12 crowns and no work, until one shall have paid as above.
The burghemasters and the court consented, that a decent brewer or brewster may brew hops as well on a loose bottom as differently, and that without a fine.
Was it because of mistaking grain bills for recipes that for decades there was a persistent misunderstanding between kuit (koyt) and gruit (gruyt) beer? Or maybe because the two names sound so alike it was assumed the beers must be alike, or even the same.
So how do we know if koyt really was made with hops, and not gruit, as Jopen Brewery assumes? The answer to that question is actually two-fold. Historic mentions of koyt beer outside of brewing ordinances indicate a clear connection between koyt beer and hops. For instance, the Duke of Burgundy licensed in the year 1455, in favor of the Goudsche (from Gouda) brewers, the hops-taxation on their brew: Goudsche Kuyt(1). Another brewer’s regulation of 1460 mentions that hops-taxation clerks can fine delinquent brewers of large beer and coyten (2). And the History of the city of Gouda from 1817 explains in the 1520 description of brewing “no herb except for hops” was allowed in their brew(3). But even more important in the gruit-versus-hops debate in connection with koyt are their respective time-lines.
In the early Middle Ages in large parts of the Low Countries, which consisted of modern Flanders, the Netherlands, and parts of Germany, the production of commercial beer was taxed through the sale of a product thought necessary to ferment a proper beer, called gruit. The sale of this grain-and-specific-herb-product made a number of families very rich, until a new method of brewing appeared on the horizon.
Not only was this beer, made with hops, able to travel and thus be traded – it did not fall under the gruit taxation! This new hopped beer from the Hansen city-states in not-quite-yet Germany, like the rotbier made in the city of Hamburg, scared the pants off the gruit masters, and import of this beer, and of hops, was quickly banned.
Of course, the Holland citizens – as the Netherlands did not quite yet exist either – recognizing a good thing, were not that easily persuaded. By 1321, the sale and production of hopped beer was officially permitted – and taxed (initially often under the umbrella of gruit). By 1327, Haarlem started the production of hopped beer, as did Dordrecht in 1322 and Delft in 1326, quickly out-competing the traditional gruit ale in the provinces of North and South Holland(4). For some reason the southern parts of the Low Countries persisted in making gruit ale over hopped beer for another 100 years or so – which could probably spawn a quick joke or two about those people from below the rivers, but let’s keep on track.
The brewing kettles, flanked by bar and stained glass windows…
Back to Jopen Koyt Gruitbier – a beautiful beer brewed in a beautiful church and touted as a real historic beer. Which it is, although more correctly: it is two historic beer styles rolled into one. This commercially successful beer illustrates the importance of knowing your history. As we’ve seen, koyt and gruit beer did both exist in the medieval Netherlands, and both at the same time, but not in the same regions. By the early 15th century, in the region of northern Holland, gruit ale had already disappeared – outcompeted by the very successful imports of Hamburg beer that were quickly locally produced, and exported, under the name of… wait for it… koyt.
Basically, Jopen Brewery attempted to make a historic gruit, and based it on the beer that had killed it.(5) That’s irony.
On the other hand, a brewery that’s named for a well-known historic beer type but states on its website that its name is inspired by a beer barrel size which historians are not familiar with, might need a sprinkle or two of extra salt when reading their folklore – oops, I meant history.
Although, I nearly reached my breaking point with the following description: “Jopen Koyt is brewed with gruit, a medieval blend of herbs in which sweet gale, picked according to ritual, was essential. Legend has it that, to avoid its hallucinogenic properties, sweet gale could only be picked at full moon by nude witches.” What the …?! I would love to see that reference, and with illustrations.
The moral of this story? Do not believe everything you read on the Internet. Just because someone is proficient in something does not mean they are proficient in everything. Remember, legend sells as Jopen’s gruitbier slogan shows: deliciously risky.
And the biggest irony is that Jopen Brewery could have had three fantastic historic recipes. The Jopen brewer might not be a historian, but he does know how to brew: that gruit ale sure tasted like more!
Elska á Fjárfelli (Susan Verberg). Medieval Herbal Ale: Gruit Demystified. 2018 https://www.academia.edu/37346911/Medieval_Herbal_Ale_Gruit_Demystified
Document scans by the City Archive of Haarlem, the Netherlands.
Photography by Susan Verberg, 2018
(1) Brunel, etc. Groot algemeen historisch, geographisch, genealogisch, en oordeelkundig woordenboek, behelzende zo het voornaamste, dat vervat is in de woorden-boeken van Morery, Bayle, Buddeus, enz…
Netherlands: De Companie Bookverkopers, 1725
(2) Jacobs. Korte chronycke van vele gedenckweerdige geschiedenissen: soo in de principaele steden van het hertoghdom van Brabant als in de stadt en provincie van Mechelen, Volume 1. Loven, the Netherlands: Joannes Jacobs, 1747.
(3) Cornelis J. de Lange van Wijngaerden. Geschiedenis en Beschrijving der stad van der Goude: meest uit oorspronkelijke stukken bij een verzameld, Volume 2. Van Cleef, 1817.
(4) Most of this paragraph is paraphrased from Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit, 2018. https://www.academia.edu/35704222/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Gruit. As nearly all the citations are from foreign language sources, I chose to refer to the paper, not the individual sources.
(5) Of course, it’s a bit more nuanced than that, but not by much. In 1374, the grain bill of commercial hopped beer made in Hamburg was updated and part of the oats was exchanged with barley. This Hamburg beer became a very successful export product. Both German products were emulated by Dutch cities: rotbier under the name of hoppenbier and Hamburg beer under the name of koyt, making koyt the daughter of the beer that out-competed gruit ale. Private communication with Freek Ruis, 9/11/2018.