Not Just Hops: Herbs and Spices in Brewing

A recent trend in gastronomy is that of foraging for wild herbs, flowers and roots to highlight seasonality and regional biodiversity.

The use of herbs, shrubs and forest fruit as flavorings has been one of the main characteristics of brewing for centuries. The first alcoholic drinks, similar to what we call beer today, were already intensely scented with herbs, honey and spices.

The number of flavorings was huge, varying according to place and the time of the year in which the beer was produced. Driving the brewer was not imagination or the desire to amaze, but the need to preserve beer and  conceal any imperfections (very common at a time when there was no way of keeping the beer cold). For a long time, before hops became the main flavor, a blend of different herbs called gruit was used in breweries in much of Europe.


The role of gruit was central: much of the tax on beer depended on its use, and the sale and gathering of the plants required to make it were state-controlled and granted only to a narrow circle of people, often ecclesiastics or noble families.

Much changed after the twelfth century, when the studies of the abbess Hildegard Von Bingen showed how hops, more than any other plant, possessed properties suitable for brewing and storing beer. Within a couple of centuries, breweries abandoned gruit and started using hops only. The plant, often used as an ingredient in gruit, was not only an excellent flavoring agent, but also possessed antioxidant and antibacterial properties useful for the quality of a delicate product like beer.

The use of spices and herbs has never disappeared altogether, and a number of classic styles are characterized by a particular flavoring. Think, for example, of Belgian blanche in which, besides wheat, coriander seeds and Curaçao orange peel are added, born around the city of Leipzig and characterized by a spicing with salt and coriander.


Italian brewing has made extensive use of products from the forests and meadows surrounding breweries since the early years. This was one of the first ways to characterize production and make it Italian, sometimes with a sense of place.

At the Hops Plus: Herbs and Spices and the Art of Brewing workshop, you’ll be able to taste five different beers that show how brewers can play with spices to achieve balanced, elegant results. Hence products containing lots of herbs and medicinal plants, some enhanced with seawater others, with cardoons, a symbol of the town of Nizza Monferrato, near Asti. The workshop will take you on a delicious journey to the most creative regions of Italian beer. It will be held on September 15 at 4 pm.

Eugenio Signoroni

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