Before the widespread use of hops, herbs were used to stabilize beer, to retard spoilage, to increase palatability and cover brewing failures, to imbue the beer with medicinal qualities, and finally to make beer “stronger” or even hallucinogenic. In Europe herbs had previously been collected, dried, ground, and often blended and traded as a mixture called gruit, (Gruit is the low-German word for herbs) which was usually added to the kettle during wort boiling. Today, more and more craft brewers are returning to using herbs in order to develop unique flavor profiles.
There are many ways to define an herb. In the botanical sense, an “herb” is an herbaceous plant that lacks a woody stem and dies to the ground each winter. Another definition describes herbs as any plant or plant part that has historically been used for culinary or fragrance purposes. And a broad definition of an herb is defined as a “useful plant” but one has to wonder what is meant by useful.
Herbs can be classified as being either annual, perennial or biennial depending on whether they need to grow from seed each year or come back from overwintering crowns, roots, or bulbs. There are many herbs classified as tender perennials that are sold in parts of the country that do not allow them to overwinter successfully outdoors. These herbs are often grown in containers during the summer months and moved indoors before cold weather where they are overwintered in a sunny location of the home. Then next season they are moved back outdoors.
Herbs can also be classified as either robust or fine (mild) herbs. Robust herbs are full bodied, rich in flavor and are often used alone or mixed with a few other herbs. Robust herbs stand up to cooking and may be used in dishes that are roasted, braised or grilled. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and garlic would be classified as robust.