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Beer Here: Toil and Trouble Gruit from Sweet Mullets Brewing and Vintage Brewing

Credit:Robin Shepard

"This is one for the sour-heads, the barstool historians, and the 'taste-it-all' craft beer hipsters," says Vintage brewmaster Scott Manning, who teamed up with Mark Duchow of Sweet Mullets to make a gruit ("groot"), a beer style that predates the modern use of hops in beer. Manning and Duchow are among Wisconsin's most creative brewers, and they occasionally depart from the mainstream to produce what many see as fringe beer offerings. About six weeks ago they used the Sweet Mullets brewhouse to make a Toil and Trouble, a gruit with heather and mugwort.

What is it? Toil and Trouble, a collaboration by Sweet Mullets Brewing Company of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin and Vintage Brewing Company of Madison, Wisconsin.

Style: The commercial production of gruit dates back to the 15th century in Europe, if not earlier. Such early ales predate the use hops, and instead were made with various herbs and spices, often proprietary to a given beer maker. Among the spices most often identified were sweet gale (bog myrtle), yarrow, wild/marsh rosemary, ginger, juniper, cinnamon, sage and heather. In Britain's brewing history, there is some indication that beer-makers attempted to distinguish "ale" as flavored with a gruit-like mixture and "beer" as brewed with hops.

In German, the word "Grutrecht" meant a gruit tax imposed by the church. Those surcharges may have eventually encouraged greater use of hops and contributed to the creation of the 500-year-old Bavarian Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) in brewing.

It's difficult to find detailed gruit recipes. Exactly what spices were used and in what quantities was a closely guarded secret, especially by early monastery breweries, where gruits became known for magical and mystical qualities.

Background: Scott Manning and Mark Duchow made Toil and Trouble without hops, spicing it instead with heather tips and mugwort. Mugwort gives the beer both aroma and flavor, with earthy and woody scents, and a mildly dry bitterness. Heather gives it a little more delicate flavor, with an herbal bitterness and light contributions to the beer's aroma.

Manning says he and Duchow chose heather because of its traditional use in Scottish brewing. The base-beer in Toil and Trouble was made with a selection of malts and peat-roasted barley that is comparable to a Scotch ale. Working with mugwort is similar to using a very aromatic tea, notes Manning. "And Mugwort has also been used for medicinal and magical purposes, purported to ward off bad spirits, protect travelers and for promoting spiritual visions," he says.

The sourness of Toil and Trouble is largely due to a blend of wild yeast strains (for the curious homebrewer, those include Sacharomyces, Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus).

Duchow and Manning made about 30 barrels of the beer; and they're also holding back a few barrels to see how it ages, in anticipation of Halloween 2013. Toil and Trouble finishes at 7.5%-8.0% ABV. It should be on tap for several weeks at both Vintage Brewing and Vintage Spirits & Grill in Madison, and at Sweet Mullets in Oconomowoc. It sells for $5 per footed pilsner glass at Vintage, and and $4.50 per snifter at Sweet Mullets.

If you find you have a taste for gruits, Fraoch (Williams Bros. Brewing Company of Scotland) is one of the few modern commercial versions available. It's pretty heavy on heather. The brewery claims its recipe dates back to 2000 B.C.

Tasting notes:

  • Aroma: Fruity floral and a light musty-barnyard nose from the mugwort.
  • Appearance: A thick, cloudy orange-amber color with a thin, soft, off-white to light tan head.
  • Texture: Medium-bodied. Starts sharp from the sourness; however, as it warms slightly, the beer's spicy and malty tones come out of a fuller softness in the mouthfeel.
  • Taste: The sourness is like a sharp fruitiness; not really tart, but rather cider-like. A light mintiness, too, lends a slight dryness. There's still a nice malt background to this beer, with hints of peatiness to remind the drinker there's a Scotch ale behind everything else.
  • Finish/Aftertaste: The sourness lingers, diminishing to faint spicy-earthy tones.

Glassware: Vintage serves Toil and Trouble in a footed pilsner glass that is short and round and has a slight inward flare to the lip (sometimes called a Prague pilsner glass or small Belgian goblet). The clear glass with a rounded bowl is a nice way to enjoy the spicy and fruit aromas as you slowly sip the gruit.

Pairs well with: The earthy fruitiness of Toil and Trouble makes it a challenging companion to food. However, that unique, musty, mugwort aroma and the fruity sourness go well with a salad that's dressed with a slightly sweet raspberry vinaigrette and a touch of walnuts. You might also try a cheese with big personality like gorgonzola.

Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)

The Consensus: Toil and Trouble has not received enough ratings to be evaluated at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer.

The Verdict: Toil and Trouble will appeal to sour beer fans, and especially those looking for flavor well beyond mainstream big breweries. There's also the history behind the brew that makes it a fun beer to try. There isn't any bitterness of the type one gets with hops; rather, it has a mild earthy-herbal bitterness from the mugwort and heather that's dominated by sourness similar to a sour (Flanders) brown ale. I also really appreciated the hints of smoky-peatiness of the malts as in a well-done Scotch ale.

In the end, this beer's character is defined by its sourness. Toil and Trouble has no contemporaries, at least local ones, for comparison. While this isn't a beer that I'll drink a lot of, it's a beer to appreciate for what it is. A tip of the hat to brewers who go out of their way to study the origins of a particular brew and try to authentically re-create it. When it turns out to be something as drinkable as Toil and Trouble, it's a quaffable history lesson.

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