The history of beer in early Christianity was closely tied to the influence of the Church. The Church saw alcoholic beverages as good gifts from God. After the fall of Rome, it was Church monasteries that maintained knowledge of good brewing practices.
With the Renaissance came geographic discoveries and the beginnings of science. Change was in the air and civil authorities began to influence brewing practices.
Beer in Early Christianity & Beyond.
Beer was brewed at a Roman outpost (Casta Regina) on the Danube in Bavaria (now part of Germany).
Late 4th Century – Early 5th Century.
Some Christian sects rejected alcohol and called for abstinence. But the Church advocated the moderate use of alcohol. It rejected its abuse as a sin. Those who could not drink in moderation were urged to abstain. Although Christians could abstain, it was heresy to ‘despise” alcohol.
The Roman Empire collapsed. Monasteries became the repositories of brewing knowledge and skill. Rustic beers continued to be brewed in homes. But the art of brewing became largely maintained by monks, who guarded their secrets. Monks brewed virtually all beer of good quality until the twelfth century. The successful history of beer in early Christianity depended heavily on the Church and its institutions.
• Polish kings had a monopoly on brewing beer.
• Beer was used for tithing, commerce, and taxes.
• The staple for commoners in England was ale. It was a food for them. Men, women, and children had ale for breakfast, with their afternoon meal, and before they went to bed at night. A gallon per person per day was the usual consumption.
• Consumption in medieval England was very high compared to the present.
• In the early Middle Ages, mead, rustic beers, and wild fruit wines became increasingly popular. This was especially the case among Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Germans, and Scandinavians. Beer in early Christianity served many roles. But wines remained the beverage of choice in what is now Italy, Spain and France.
Gregory of Tours reported that wine had replaced ale as the most popular drink in the taverns of Paris.
Beer recipes included such ingredients as honey, sugar, mushrooms, aromatics, bay leaves, poppy seeds, butter and bread crumbs.
• Charlemagne appointed brewers.
• Beer was brewed in France.
The first significant brewery in Switzerland was built by the monastery of St. Gall. Each monk had five quarts of beer each day.
Germans used barley and wheat in brewing beer.
Hop growing flourished in Bohemia.
The use of hops did not become widespread until the tenth century.
The word ‘beer’ largely disappeared from the English language for about 500 years. This may have been because beer was an upper-class beverage that was stronger and more expensive than ale.
• The most popular festivities in England were known as ‘ales.’
• Ale and beer were given to lords for rent.
St. Hildegard of Bingen wrote “If one intends to make beer from oats, it is prepared with hops.”
• In England, alewives brewed at least two strengths of beer. Monks brewed three. The alcoholic strength was indicated by single, double, or triple Xs.
• German towns were granted the privilege of brewing and selling beer in their immediate localities. Many towns took great pride in their beer.
The first national tax imposed on ale in England was to support the Crusades.
Cir. 13th Century
• In Germany, Austria, and England, beer become a commercial enterprise.
• English liked mild temperature ales (top-fermented).
• Hops became a common ingredient in some beers, especially in northern Europe. Hops both flavor and preserve beer.
• Ale soured quickly and was made for local consumption. It was often a soupy, nutritious beverage.
•The very high demand for ale in England was met by many thousands of brewers. Most were women (brewsters).
• In the mid-1200s, cider (fermented apple juice) became more popular in England as new varieties of apples became available.
Ale was so important to the diet of the English population that its price and quality was regulated by King Henry III.
King Wenceslas granted brewing rights to the city of Pilsen in Bohemia.
• Beer consumption in Bavaria was probably about 300 liters per capita each year. That compares to about 150 liters today.
• Drinking one or two gallons of ale per day by adult males was not uncommon in England.7
In one English village, an estimated 60% of all families were connected in some way with brewing or selling ale.
Because of a scarcity of wheat in England, a proclamation was issued prohibiting its use in brewing.
A law was enacted in England that required that wine and beer be sold at a reasonable price. However there was no indication of how to determine what a fair price might be.
Exporting beer and ale from England required a royal license.
The rising price of corn in England led to a rising price of ale. This led to a concern that the poor would be unable to afford the beverage. Therefore, the mayor of London decreed price controls on ale.
We’ve seen something of the story of beer in early Christianity. Now let’s turn to the History of Beer in the 15th Century.
Books on the History of Beer in Early Christianity & Beyond.
Bostwick, W. The Brewer’s Tale: a History of the World According to Beer. NY: Norton, 2014.
King, A. Beer Has a History. London: Hutchinson’s, 1947.
Nelson, M. The Barbarian’s Beverage: a History of Beer in Ancient Europe. London: Routledge, 2005.
Smith, G. Beer: a Global History. London: Reaktion, 2014.
Smith, G. Beer: a History of Suds and Civilization from Mesopotamia to Microbreweries. NY: Avon, 1995.
Watley, J. Beer is Best: a History of Beer. London: Owen, 1974.