Beer in the Middle Ages

Beer passed from Egypt to Europe following the Crusades. The knights returned to their countries taking beer with them. From the 7th and 8th centuries, monastic communities began to make and consume beer.

At that time, the monks lived as the villagers but more isolated from the village. The water, unhealthy by the hygienic conditions of the moment, was a permanent transmitter of infections. Boiling it with cereals resulted in a healthier drink. As it was produced and consumed in the day to day, the beer hardly had alcohol, and it is estimated that the average town consumed about 6 liters of beer per person daily.

For the years 816-837 a monastery is known in the locality of St. Gallen in Switzerland that owned facilities for brewing. Following strong frost that affected vine crops, Benedictine monks (and many others) found the ideal substitute for beer. By that time, the monks used aromatic herbs and wild plants to modify the flavor and aroma. It is said that Santa Hildegarda, abbess of Ruperstberg, around the year 1,079, was the first to mention the benefits of the use of hops in beer. Although it seems, it was the Finns, according to the epic poem “Kalewala”, who first used it.

Following the use of hops and its conservative properties, beer became an important object of trade. In the twelfth century, John Primus king of Flanders and Belgium, and better known as “Gambrinus” was a protector of barley crops and therefore is considered the unofficial patron of beer. In the medieval and modern history appears the German tradition, which is very old.

At that time, by the year 1000, the Germans had about 500 cloisters in which the beer was made and marketed, which was the exclusive privilege of the monks and nuns. In Germany, too, the conditions of the North differed markedly from those of the South. In the North, brewing was a civic right and took place in the major breweries of Bremen, Hamburg or Einbeck. In the South, the passage from home-made to industrial production gradually took place in the fourteenth century, where the government influenced notoriously, and it was the sovereign who granted the right of manufacture, leading to greater development than in the North.

On the other hand, the first Belgian abbeys had their own brewery. This is the case of Villers-la-Ville, where the monks settled in 1146. The architecture of the immense abbey was inspired by that of Citeaux (birthplace of the Cistercians) and the brewery, Romanesque style, was built during the first half of the thirteenth century.

The monks managed to improve the appearance, flavor, and aroma of the drink. Soon, a conflict of interests was established between the lay producers who had to pay taxes of all kinds and the secular processors who had raw material in large quantities and very advantageous conditions and various fiscal exemptions. A blatant case of unfair competition. By the fifteenth century, secular processors had to invent a new type of beer, cheaper, to allow them to survive despite the competition of the monks. Here lies the historical difference between the beer made by friars and monks – a denser, more flavored, and more expensive, and the beer of the laity, less nutritious, more refreshing and cheap, flavored simply with hops.

The first trade union organization of brewers was born in Paris in 1258, and 10 years later, the regulation to produce the drink was inscribed in the book of trades. In 1290, in the city of Nuremberg, a decree was issued that prohibited the use of oats, spelled, rye and wheat in the brewing and allowing only the use of barley. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, breweries multiplied, and the first large breweries emerged, among which are those of Hamburg and Zirtau.

Beer became one of the most popular drinks. At that time, it was advisable and healthy to drink beer, since during its manufacture the pathogenic germs were eliminated from the water which was often the vehicle of transmission of epidemics such as cholera or plague.

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