Monks and beer (1/3)

“Here already (the water of the river) is near the building. It fills the boiler. And it gives up itself to the fire which cooks, to prepare the drink of the monks” (anonymous, thirteenth century, describing the abbey of Clairvaux)

In the Middle Ages, the Church, with a certain opportunism, adopted beer, a popular and profitable drink. This was to attract moneyless pilgrims, and also provide a healthy drink to the tenants of its abbeys, the monks. Indeed, it was not unusual that water, even coming from a source, became contaminated in various ways. Beer, needing the water to be boiled, constituted a drink which was easy to manufacture and rather healthy from a biological point of view.

Over the centuries, the quality of beer improved so much so that it brought fame to the convents which manufactured it. It is estimated that in the year 1000, there were approximately 500 monastic breweries.

Monastic beer is the fruit of a long transmission of father brewer to father brewer, and of continuous improvement, rigorously cited in the writings of the monks.

Saint Benedict himself wrote that monks must produce themselves all that they need to live, and evoked the moderate consumption of wine for the monks. However, not everyone could produce wine, because a number of monasteries were established in areas unfavorable to vineyards. Thus, wine remained a product mostly reserved for visitors of prestige, and the monks quickly understood they had to make a daily substitute: barley beer, which was easier to produce. Beer requires mainly only water and cereals, which can be found under all latitudes. In addition, the cereals can be stored and the beer can thus be manufactured, upon request, almost in any season.

Thus, the detailed plan of the abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland, from the ninth century, indicates the presence of three breweries inside this convent and brings a lot of technical information on the brewery installations. Three beers were brewed in this abbey: the “PRIMA melior” reserved for the hosts of mark, the “cervisia” reserved for the brothers, and the “tertia”, consumed by pilgrims.

One also credits the monks with discovering the use of hops in beer, and also of the production of the first beers of low fermentation, according to documents of the fifteenth century discovered in a Bavarian convent of Munich. The hopped barley beer (cervesia lupulina) appears for the first time in a charter of the abbey of St-Denis during the year 768. It’s the Benedictines who introduced the manufacture of hopped beer in Lorraine (France). One then distinguished beer for the fathers (potio fortis), strong beer intended for the monks, and a weaker beer for the nuns.

It is through centuries of tradition, improvement, and innovation that one can consider that the monks had a major influence in the evolution of the trade of brewer.

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