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The History of Beer and the Monks that Made it
Saturday, 21 January 2012 05:47


Who would have thought that behind the most popular alcoholic beverage in the United States—beer—there would be a history that involved, nay depended on monks. Yes, that’s right, monks.


Benedictine monasteries began appearing in Europe in the 6th century. St. Benedict ordered a life that was self-sustained, and that the monasteries would provide for passing visitors and pilgrims food and drink.

These rules, combined with the fact that water was not typically drank during this time because it was unsanitary (people would often use streams and rivers for sewage disposal), led virtually all of the Benedictine monasteries to brew their own beer.

Not that hard to imagine. As already mentioned, water was unsanitary and beer was actually the most consumed beverage already—drank by children, nursing mothers, the old the sick and everyone in between.

So monks brewed. But what made monastic breweries different than the “common brewer” (the term used in England for those who brewed commercially) was that the monks brought study, patience and dedication to the practice.

monk-beerThey recorded their recipes, and then worked to improve them. They studied and selected the best ingredients, washed their equipment and created sanitary conditions for brewing.

All of these things we take for granted today. But in the Middle Ages (roughly 800 AD—1300 AD), these were revolutionary.

Sanitation for example was completely foreign to many people. Pots used to cook stew in one day, were used to brew in the next, usually without being cleaned. The water used was poor, and brewers (brewsters actually, most brewers of the time were women) would put a number of poor ingredients in the ale (little money, after all to purchase good ingredients).

Another contribution was the addition of hops. This in itself was perhaps one of the most important contributions. The oils in the hop flower act as a natural preservative, which extends the life of the beer and help prevent it from spoiling.

Before the addition of hops, ale (which is what it was, it’s not beer without hops) spoiled quickly and so had to be consumed quickly. Hopped beer, however, could last much longer, opening up the possibility of export.

The first known record of hopped beer is the writing of a German Abbey in 822 AD who noted his addition of hops to beer. By 1200 many monasteries were doing the same, and in certain countries—Holland for example—hopped beer became common.

Not so in England, though. Hops were resisted by many, and hopped beer was actually banned by law in 1471. By the late 1500’s, though, hops won out and people preferred hopped beer to the sweet, thick ale they drank previously.

The monks themselves used the beer they brewed for a variety of purposes. Records show they used it as a way to pay taxes or to pay for labor or other services and supplies. They also sold it commercially to locals and the surrounding populace.

And, in keeping with the founding rule of their order, they gave it to visitors and pilgrims. In one Abbey in Germany, monks were tasked with brewing beer for the surrounding population because the water was so bad, and so their beer became a public health matter.

Finally, they drank the beer themselves. They drank a lot of it too. Some records show that most monks got a daily ration of upbeer-monks to 4 liters of beer per day. And why not? Beer supplied them with important nutrition and was inexpensive compared to other food products. This was especially important during the Lenten season, when they fasted (during this time, many monasteries doubled the rations).

They made all types of beers, but they generally came in two varieties, strong and weak beer. The strong beers were typically drank by the monks themselves and could have very high alcohol contents—as high as 10-11%. The weak beer, on the other hand, would have very low alcohol content—2% or so—and would be given to the local population, visitors and even to nuns.

So there we are—a whole population that contributed to what we now pick up in six-packs on a daily basis. For about 7-800 years monks worked at and improved brewing. What we have now is the benefit of all their hard work.

So enjoy your beer, and if you can, try to remember all the hard work that went into making it.

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