Bog myrtle (Myrica gale) has long been used in gruits, ales, and beers. Although archaeological evidence (see below) indicates a similar use of this shrub by northern Europeans in periods contemporary with ancient Greece and Rome, Greco-Roman literary sources are lacking for this plant and such beers. In fact, it is even difficult to identify a Latin or Greek word with this plant. The genus of bog myrtle, myrica, suggests a connection to a Greco-Roman word: Greek μυρίκη and, from there, Latin’s myrica. However, myrica refers broadly to a shrub that grows in wet or marshy areas. Although this description applies to bog myrtle, there is little indication in the ancient literary corpus that word refers to bog myrtle, because that plant does not grow in Mediterranean climes. Instead, dictionaries typically ascribe the word to tamarisk or a similar shrub. After the Greek warrior Diomedes attacks and kills the Trojan spy, Dolon, in the Iliad (i.e. near Troy [found in modern Turkey]), for instance, Odysseus lays their spoils on branches of myrica/tamarisk: ὣς ἄρ᾽ ἐφώνησεν, καὶ ἀπὸ ἕθεν ὑψόσ᾽ ἀείρας θῆκεν ἀνὰ μυρίκην: δέελον δ᾽ ἐπὶ σῆμά τ᾽ ἔθηκε συμμάρψας δόνακας μυρίκης τ᾽ ἐριθηλέας ὄζους, μὴ λάθοι αὖτις ἰόντε θοὴν διὰ νύκτα μέλαιναν (Homer Il. 10.466-4.69) to mark the spot. Because of the location of Troy, it would make little sense for these branches to be of bog myrtle.
Evidence for bog myrtle beers/ales/gruits in the Bronze Age and Middle Ages suggests (though, by no means, proves) a continuous tradition for the plant’s use in such beverages. The Bronze Age Egtved burial that contained a birch bark beer(?) bucket that we describe in an earlier post (meadowsweet) contains traces of bog myrtle, along with honey, (fermented?) grain, and other plant-based additives (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 81; Nelson 2001, 133). The earliest secure literary references to bog myrtle beer are traced to the 10th-11th c. CE texts from Belgium, the Netherlands (Utrecht) and northern Germany (Van Vilsteren 1994; Behre 1999, 41-43). Nearly contemporaneous with these sources is a large quantity of bog myrtle recovered from a site in northern Germany that was likely used for beer brewing (Behre 1999, 36, 39).
If we accept a continuous tradition of use, we must account for a 2500+ year gap in the record. Recently, however, bog myrtle fruitlets have been recovered from an Iron Age (pre-Roman ca. 1st c. BCE-1st c. CE) settlement in the northern Netherlands near the Rhine estuary (Geervliet) (Brinkkemper 1993; Behre 1999, 39). It has been suggested that these botanical remains were originally intended or used for beer. During the Roman period, bog myrtle was found at 8 sites in northern Europe in the form of fruitlets, leaves, and buds. It is also probable, therefore, that there was a robust local tradition of fermented beverages with the addition of bog myrtle (Behre 1999). These finds also indicate that bog myrtle beers/ales/gruits were produced in Europe at settlements that are contemporary with the Romans. There is no indication, however, that the Romans were aware of such beers, nor that they were produced in regions after occupation by the Romans.
Behre, E. 1999. “A History of Beer Additives in Europe – a review.” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8:35-48.
Brinkkemper, O. 1993. “Wetland Farming in the area to the South of the Meuse estuary during the Iron Age and Roman Period: An Environmental and Palaeoeconomic reconstruction.” Analecta Praehistorica Leidensia 24.
Dickson, C. and J.H. Dickson, 2000. Plants and People in Ancient Scotland. Brimscombe Port.
Nelson, M.C. 2001. “Beer in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Ph.D. diss., U. of British Columbia.
van Vilsteren, V.T. 1994. “In de beginne… De oorsprong en techniek van het brouwen tot de 14de eeuw.” In Bier! Geschiedenis can een volksdrank, edited by R.E. Kistenaker, 7-19. Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw.
Wikimedia Commons. Lis Burke, from https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/482608