Nothing -- Nothing! -- is New

Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

by Richard W. Unger

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004

$45.00

ISBN 0-8122-3795-1

(A slightly different version of this review appears in the Dec/Jan 2004/5 issue of Ale Street News.)

This book took me back. I did a masterís in history 20 years ago, and for my historical statistics course, I managed to find a trove of data on commercial brewing production in Antwerp in the 1400s. I got a B- in the course, the worst grade I got in the whole program, but I still remember the fascination with the idea of brewing information from so long ago.

Richard Unger found that information and truckloads more for Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and makes the fascination real for the serious student of beer. This is not a book of homebrew recipes for gruit beers, or speculation about hop use or barrel aging. Ungerís book is a scholarly work on how beer went from home-brewed health drink to commercially brewed commodity and valued export, and how beer fell from its lofty status with the advent of spirits and improvements in wine. You should expect nothing less from the University of Pennsylvania, where scholarly work in beer and brewing history (and beer-related archeology and paleo-archeology) has been taken seriously for years.

One of the most interesting things about reading this book as a student of contemporary brewing business is how familiar so much of it is. Contract brewing? Well-established in the 13th Century. Wildly bitter ales? Complaints about them (from Englishmen!) in the 8th Century. Brewing in the home forbidden by the state? See the Hanseatic League, who wanted to be sure they got all the taxes coming to them. Importers and brewers selling the same beer under different names, and changing them every so often? An established practice by the 1600s. There is truly nothing new under the sun!

One of the most basic improvements in brewing in the Middle Ages was the copper kettle. Wooden brewing vessels, while cheap and easily constructed, had obvious limitations. It was almost impossible to bring the wort to a boil in a wooden vessel, leaving the beer more vulnerable to infections and spoiling. Metal vessels, usually copper, made beer more sturdy, and for the first time, gave it a real "shelf life." This, in turn, made commercial breweries viable.

The role of the ecclesiastical and court breweries in the commercialization of beer is well-documented. As strong, hopped beer became a valuable export commodity for Hanse Cities like Hamburg and Bremen (beer was for a time the linchpin of the Hanseatic Leagueís trade), the church and the nobility took advantage of their solid capital positions and built breweries, establishing themselves in the market. The rise of these breweries, and the lives of the people who worked in them, make for some of the most interesting reading in the book.

But beerís success was doomed by the arrival of distillation and the "tropical drinks," tea and coffee. Cheap distillation brought the gin craze that swept Holland and England. Tea and coffee became the preferred drinks of the middle class; still safer than water and milk because of being boiled, still with a buzz, but not the woozy buzz of beer. Wine and brandy became more common as winemaking technology developed. Beerís dominance came to an end as the 1600s closed.

Ungerís book is not for everyone; it is an academic historical study of an international business. There are times, such as during the discussion of the taxation of gruit, that the book becomes hard slogging. But the look at beerís historical roots is priceless and well-researched, and artfully hung on a framework of economic reasoning. This is an excellent addition to a serious beer reference library, and I look forward to referring to it many times in the future.

Copyright © 2004 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 10, 2005