I’m finding that there’s a certain Gulf Island brewery that is rapidly becoming known for its ability to experiment and keep it real. In case the title line hasn’t given it away, that brewery is Salt Spring Island Brewery! And in my most recent sampling from their wares, I came upon this, the Saturnalia Gruit, and instantly knew I had to try it. Not only is it new from this beer snob’s perspective, it is also special in that it pays tribute to an ancient and largely forgotten style of beer-making.
In short, the beer is named after the Roman festival which honored the deity of Saturn, during which time gifts were given, social norms were reversed or abandoned, and people feasted and partied for days on end. To help wash down their food and establish the right kind of “festive spirit”, people drank vast quantities of beer and wine. But since ordinary social norms were put aside, beer was not considered a plebeian drink on this day. The term Gruit, meanwhile, refers to the mixture of herbs which were used in ancient times to flavor beer, as hops had not yet been discovered as a stabilizing and flavoring agent.
So in the end, what you have with this latest addition to the Salt Spring Island lineup is a beer made with dark and rich malt, no hops, and a mixture of star anise, cinnamon and nutmeg as a flavoring agent. And what comes through is rather interesting, to say the least…
Appearance: Deep brown, opaque, mild foam retention and carbonation
Nose: Clear cinnamon and nutmeg traces, acidic notes, herbal infusion
Taste: Tartness, similar to mulled-apple cider, herbal notes reminiscent of Jagermeister
Aftertaste: Light finish, lingering tart apple and herbal notes
In sum, this beer is rather interesting and substantially different than anything your modern beer drinker has ever tried. In fact, there are those who could easily mistake it for something other than beer, were they to consume it in a blind taste test. And I have to admit, the flavor wasn’t exactly something I might ordinarily go in for. However, one has to expect that in cases like these, where styles veer away from the established norm and present something truly different, and in keeping with brewing trends that are no longer in use. So I give it high marks for authenticity, and recommend it for all beer snobs are required drinking!