Mead, the earliest known booze, comes from honey. Beer comes from grain. Mix the two together in a cauldron and you have braggot, an exceptionally hearty beverage that combines the sweetness of mead with the grainy, maltiness of ale. Modern braggot brewers tend to ferment the grain and honey together, but Dark Age publicans in Britain blended theirs at the bar, also tossing in whatever herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits they had on hand (which often included hops). Sipping is encouraged, as these heady brews tend to clock in at 8 to 10% ABV.
Early brew kettles were often made of wood, which meant that direct flames were a no-no and achieving the temperatures necessary to make beer properly was nigh impossible. Medieval brewers came up with a clever workaround: throwing scorching hot chunks of granite directly into the liquid wort. The rocks—stein means stone in German—cause a rapid, violent boil and caramelize the grain for a sweet and toasty brew. These days, it’s far easier to skip the third degree burns and utilize the fruits of industrialization, but a few fearless brewers risk life and limb to keep the tradition alive.
Tolkienites, take note: Gruit is the beer for you. Long before hops caught on, medieval Europeans flavored, preserved, and bittered their beer with a jumble of herbs and spices that—with names like mugwort and horehound—might have grown with abandon in Mordor. The herbal, often dry elixirs were thought to increase sex drive and induce a euphoric buzz, probably due to the occasional narcotic twig or berry.
Scandinavia is in the midst of a beer boom these days. But a millennium or so before craft brew kettles were bubbling from Oslo to Copenhagen, the Finns were downing this potent pour, brewed from a variety of grains like barley, wheat, rye and oats. Sahtis are unfiltered—hence the haze—and often citrusy. In place of hops, juniper twigs provide an herbal bitter balance.
A construction worker needs a drink every now and again. Sometimes at 8am. Nineteenth-century English laborers looking for a morning buzz used to glug this herbal brew bright and early. Originally flavored with wormwood—the bitter plant in absinthe once thought to be hallucinogenic—purl was later infused with gin, ginger, and spices. Unadulterated ale eventually bumped purl from the morning routine, but a few historical brewers have brought it back to beer shelves.
Before there were Beer Nuts, there were oysters. The mollusks were once common at English pubs, often eaten over a pint or ten of stout. Lore has it that a few early 20th Century brewers in England and New Zealand took the combo a step further, adding oysters to their brew for nourishment during the “Guinness for Your Health” era (doctors used to promote stouts as health drinks, seriously). These days, a number of modern brewers pay homage to the classic pairing, tossing fresh oysters—sometimes still in the shell—into the brew kettle, adding extra body and a subtle minerality to the beer. And before you gag, know this: Oyster stouts taste nothing like seafood.
Smoky German rauchbiers—bready, toasty brews made from smoked malt—have made a comeback with beer nerds. But the Poles have their own entry in the “this beer tastes like bacon” genre, the grodziskie (or gratzer). Brewed primarily from smoked wheat malt, grodziskie’s are noticeably toasty. They’re also light and refreshing, hoppy, and low in alcohol. The last Polish grodziskie brewery was sold in 1994 and stopped production, but a number of brewers in Germany, the States, and elsewhere keep it alive.
An ancient style from Leipzig, Germany, the gose (pronounced gose-uh) is brewed with salted water, lending it a slight briny character. Like most wheat-based beers, goses are light and citrusy. But toss in coriander and Lactobacillus bacteria, and the style is truly unique: spicy, sour, and full of complexity.