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Brewing Beer in Pre and Mid Medieval Europe

“Brewing Beer in Pre-and-Mid-Medieval Europe” – Man and Beer Progress – As the Roman Empire sought to invade and conquer western Europe, the east to west migrations of the Persians, Parthians and Greeks into Eastern Europe continued to develop over time. As a natural result of the convergence, or collision, of differing cultures, wars broke out. People and lands were conquered, surrendered and reconquered. Long-established tribal societies were blending and mixing with the new. Technologies developed, languages merged. The cuneiform alphabet (the Hammurabi Code of Law which by the way outlined rules of brewing and serving beer is an example of the cuneiform alphabet), which migrated from east to west and Latin from south to north, facilitated the introduction of the written word where none previously existed.

Trade and commerce expanded as communications between different cultures grew. Small tribes merged with others to become townships; some towns, because of their natural resources and location, became cities. And along with all this progression of mankind, came the progression of beer.
In around 70 AD, wine-drinking Roman naturalist, writer, cavalry officer and advisor to emperors, Gaius Plinius Secundus, the man we know as Pliny the Elder, mentioned Egyptian beer (grain soaked in water) and openly wondered why Egyptian brewers, “would waste so much skill on the production of that kind of beverage”, adding that “the Egyptians had invented a method to make water itself produce intoxication” What would Pliny have thought about American, mass-produced light beer? In Spain, in 77 AD we again find our friend Pliny who appears to have softened his opinion of beer. He notes that the process is quite advanced. “Celia is a beverage prepared form the juice of wheat. The process is as follows: By the action of heat, that well-known germinating power of the grain, previously soaked in water, is animated, and then the grain is dried, and after it has been ground to flour it is mixed with a mild juice to which the heated intoxication is imparted by fermentation.” Pliny further noted that celia improves in taste by aging.

As Caesar’s Roman Empire swept into southern England, they found brewers making a beer from barley and wheat. Noticing the potential of this beverage, the Romans set about improving the methods of brewing and increasing production. Brewing became a fairly big business along Burton-On-Trent and beyond.

Brewing was developing rapidly in Germany as well. Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote in his book, “Germania”, about men going about their business in a drunken state, frequently quarreling and often wind up inflicting wounds or killing each other. Tacitus wrote, “Their beverage they prepare from barley or wheat, a brew which slightly resembles an inferior quality of wine. Their food is plain without luxury, without delicacies, they are satisfied to appease their hunger. But their temperance is not proof against thirst; whoever plays upon this weakness of the German and supplies him with drink to his heart’s content, will be able in future days to subdue him by his own vices with the same ease as by force of arms.”

Ceremonial customs and beer drinking traditions continued even as Christianity spread throughout the land. In fact, breweries were being established in many monasteries throughout the land. Poorly educated monks and priests allowed the old pagan practices to coexist with religious ceremonies. It wasn’t uncommon for a church festival or a Christian wedding to become an old-fashioned beer bash, sometimes lasting eight days. A death of a relative brought about a custom called “death-meals” or “heritage-meals.” On the seventh and thirteenth day after the death, the mourners celebrated with bouts of drinking during the mass. When word of these pagan revelries reached Bishop Hincmar of Rheims in 852, he decreed harsh interdictions to any priests who preferred chasing worldly pleasures to praying.

In Germania, which encompassed an area that included Austria and Switzerland, we find St. Gallen’s; in what is now northern Switzerland. Founded as a church in the mid 600s and converted into an abbey in 720, this cluster of buildings stood as the cultural center for all of southern Germania. Along with the church at its center, St. Gallen’s housed dormitories for monks, classrooms, a library and a rectory. Side buildings and additions contained an inn, stables, a bakery, blacksmiths, sculptors workshops, a hospital, a torture chamber and, of course, a brewery. Interestingly, the brewery was named Domus Confisiende Celia, and celia was the Spanish name for beer. But what makes this particular brewery special is that it served as a blue print for future breweries throughout Europe.

Breweries and brew-houses began sprouting up all over Germania. The town of Wartburg had a brew-house measuring 30- by- 50 feet. All the larger courts and castles of nobility and royalty built their own brew-houses. Beer became a luxury beverage of not only the lowly masses, but a serious drink of the upper classes. Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, took an active interest in beer and even brewed some of his own. He developed brew-making techniques and personally trained the realm’s brew masters. Although he did imbibe beer himself, he found it necessary to take active measures against excessive drinking which at times was becoming a social problem.

A more complete history of German beer can be found in the informative and fun to read book, Prost!’ – The Story of German Beer, written by my friend, Horst D. Dornbusch.

Meanwhile, back in England, the introduction of grapes and winemaking cultivated a wine-drinking culture that surpassed the popular mead and beer-drinking culture for a time. Eventually the cultures merged and the first taverns began to appear. Excessive inebriety was a way of daily life. This effect on society made it necessary for laws to be enacted against public drunkenness.

Irish Saint and brewer, Brigid, (457-526) was made famous by her compassion for the poor lepers, whom she delighted by turning their filthy bath water into refreshing ale. She is also said to have supplied beer to 18 churches from just one barrel. You just don’t find those kinds of miracles happening these days!

Any decent history of beer would be incomplete without the mention of the oldest surviving epic in English literature, Beowulf’. Surviving destruction of religious artifacts of the monasteries of King Henry VIII and a fire that destroyed the library that housed the original copy of Beowulf’, this story concerning Scandinavian warriors is of major significance into portraying the importance of beer to people of the 6th century AD. Beowulf’ is about a Danish King, Hrothgar, who sets out to build “Herot”, the greatest Meade and Beer Hall in the land. Shortly after completion, the demon monster, Grendel, descends upon Herot and begins to kill all of the brave warriors guarding the halls. Our hero Beowulf arrives to battle Grendel in order to save Herotand and the people of the kingdom too, I suppose. To think of how many junior high school students attempted to convince their teachers that this was a book best abandoned. We now can fully appreciate the historical significance of this old English book and are enlightened and awed by the author’s regard for beer.

An interesting real-life reference to beer is made in a biography, The Life of St. Columbanus’ (St.Columban) by 7th century biographer Monk Jonas; “When the meal-time came, and the latter was ready to serve out the beer (which is boiled down from the juice of corn or barley, and which is used in preference to other beverages by, all the nations in the world-except the Scotch and barbarous nations who inhabit the ocean-that is, in Gaul, Britain, Ireland, Germany and the other nations who do not deviate from the customs of the above) he carried to the cellar a jar, called a tybrum, and placed it before the vat in which the beer was – having drawn the plug, he permitted the beer to flow into the jar.” – And we’re quite certain, the beer was promptly consumed!

It makes me wonder what the people of those times would think of the unbelievably vast selection of beer styles we have available to us today. I feel a bit sorry for them, actually. Then again, I have to raise a glass in their honor for all the hard work and sacrifices they endured for the progression of mankind and for beer!

Cheers! Quote: “I (recommend) bread, beef, vegetables and beer.” Sophocles – 496-406 BC