A Beer From the Middle Ages Is Making a Serious Comeback

Hop-forward beer is all the rage today, but in the middle ages many imbibers preferred brews that skewed towards the sweeter side. Now, centuries after it fell out of fashion, Atlas Obscura reports that gruit ale is making a comeback.

Gruit beer is any beer that features botanicals in place of hops. The ingredients that give the drink its distinctive sweet, aromatic taste can be as familiar as ginger and lavender or as exotic as mugwort and seabuckthorn. The herbs play the role of hops by both adding complex flavors and creating an inhospitable environment for harmful microbes.

It may be hard for modern beer lovers to imagine beer without hops, but prior to the 16th century gruit was as common in parts of Europe as IPAs are in hip American cities today. Then, in 1516, that style of beer suddenly vanished from pint glasses: That was the year Germany passed a beer purity law that restricted beer formulas to hops, water, and barley. Many of the key botanicals in gruit beer were considered aphrodisiacs at the time, and the rising Puritan movement helped push the brew further into obscurity.

Hops have dominated the beer scene ever since, and only in the past few decades have microbrewers started giving old gruit recipes the attention they're due. In 2017, the Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois released their seasonal Scratch Tonic, made from a combination of dandelion, carrot tops, clover, and ginger. The Põhjala Brewery in Estonia brews their Laugas beer using Estonian herbs, caraway, and juniper berries. Get in touch with your local microbrewery to see if they have their own version of the old-school beer in their line-up.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?
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by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine
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by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of vino. Here, the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma spills some of the best.

1. DIGITAL EYES ARE EVERYWHERE IN VINEYARDS.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like an army base—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. At $68,000 a pop, the Scancopter 450 is about twice as costly as a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon!

2. THERE ARE ALSO LOTS OF COW SKULLS.

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. FEROCIOUS FOLIAGE IS A VINTNER’S FRIEND.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. WHAT A CANARY IS TO A COAL MINE, ROSES ARE TO A VINEYARD.

Vintners plant roses among their vines because they get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. VINTNERS EXPLOIT THE FOOD CHAIN.

A trio of wines
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Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. THE BIG PROBLEMS IN TASTING ROOMS ARE VERY SMALL.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bugeating predators make for terrific fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. WINE NEEDS CLEANING.

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. ATOMS HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. FINE WINES GET MRIs.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. Not planning any $20,000 wine purchases? This is still good news for the consumer. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. THERE’S A TRICK TO AGING YOUR WINE.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

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