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Beer in the Middle Ages


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------------ EH.NET BOOK REVIEW --------------

Published by EH.NET (January 2006)


Richard W. Unger, _Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance_.

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. xviii + 319 pp.

$45/£29.50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8122-3795-1.


Reviewed for EH.NET by Erik Aerts, Department of History, University of Leuven.


According to the French historian Fernand Braudel, Europe in the

medieval and early modern period was divided into a beer area and a

wine area, the north being "the land of beer and drinks made from

fermented grain." This beer area started in Scandinavia and European

Russia, continued over large parts of Germany and Eastern Europe,

covered the British Isles and expanded into the central European

plains and the territory of the Low Countries. But, as Richard Unger,

Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, shows in

his latest book, this beer area was by no means static. In the late

Middle Ages and the sixteenth century it spread southwards, reaching

the Alps, southern Germany and northern France. This fascinating

process, made possible by beer producers and beer consumers, is

described and explained in a book that spans a much wider period than

its title suggests. Unger starts his history in Mesopotamia where

archaeologists have found that beer was already the favorite beverage

of the Sumerians as early as 3500 BC. The book ends somewhere in the

middle of the seventeenth century when, for Unger, the golden age for

European brewers had ended.


The origins of this long period of growth and prosperity for brewers

are to be found in technological and organizational changes during

the Middle Ages. The introduction and spread of hopped beers

gradually transformed female-dominated household production first

into workshops with some commercial activity and then into bigger

"nucleated" workshops producing for export markets. The driving force

behind the process of expansion and development was technological

change. Unger in an earlier article (_Journal of European Economic

History_, 21, 1992, pp. 281-313) distinguished six phases of change.

In a preparatory phase a market and a production base were created;

in the second phase product innovation -- the use of hops in the

brewing process -- occurred while the success of this superior

product acted as an "external shock" to promote the diffusion of the

innovation by stimulating producers to adopt the innovation in the

third phase. The fourth phase was a long period of acclimatization of

the new product to local conditions resulting in a fifth phase in

which the new technology was fully mastered. In a final phase process

innovation optimized the product innovation and also saw the

consolidation of the earlier developments.


This phase model is more or less the framework of the book, which is

nicely divided into fourteen chapters that combine a chronological

with a geographic and thematic approach. In an introductory chapter

the making of beer is described, while chapter 2 discusses the

character of the early medieval beer before the introduction of

hopped beer. This beer was the gruitbeer, named after its most

popular additive, a combination of dried herbs. While the first

large-scale production of beer took place on the large estates of

Benedictine monasteries in the eight and ninth centuries,

professional and commercial brewing started in the new urban centers

between 1000 and 1300 (chapter 3). By 1300 a market had been created,

though at that time "in Dutch and English towns there was no sign of

innovation in the production of beer" (p. 52). That innovation would

come when thirteenth-century brewers in northern Germany, in Bremen,

Hamburg, Wismar, Rostock and other Hanseatic towns, started brewing

hopped beers for export by sea. The use of hops considerably enhanced

the durability of beer so that large quantities could now be exported

to the densely-populated and prosperous markets of the Low Countries

(chapter 4). Competition from abroad stimulated or even forced public

authorities and brewers in the southern and northern Low Countries,

England and Scandinavia to imitate the imported beers. With some

considerable time lags brewers in these countries also began to

produce hopped beers for the market and managed to realize a

remarkable import substitution (chapters 5 and 6).


By this point in the book Unger has given a detailed description of

four distinct, though not always subsequent, phases and has nearly

finished his chronological story. Chapters 7 to 10 are devoted to the

analysis of the new brewing technology as it developed into a mature

industry. Such mastery probably was achieved from around 1300 in

north Germany, one century later in Holland, in the last quarter of

the fifteenth century in Flanders and Brabant, and around 1550 in

England. Unger defines maturity through levels of production and

consumption, capital investment and technological development,

bringing together interesting figures on beer output and grain input,

the number of breweries, consumption per person, size of brews and

brew kettles, frequency of brews, etc. He discusses the conflicts

between brewers and bakers, the relationship between beer prices and

cereal prices, the high ratio of capital to labor, and pays a lot of

attention to the increasing size of the industry. After three

additional chapters on types of beer and their international exchange

(chapter 11), beer taxation (chapter 12) and guilds and brewery

workers (chapter 13), Unger concludes that by 1650 and because of the

increasing competition from brandy, spirits and colonial drinks

(coffee, tea and cocoa), the days of prosperity for European brewers

were over. But he prefers to end on an optimistic note: "beginning in

the late nineteenth century there was to be a second brewing boom"

(p. 246).


Unger's bibliography is impressive and based on extensive reading of

the specialized literature in Dutch, English, German and Scandinavian

historiography. Some of his ideas could be further developed or some

of his figures supplemented from a couple references in French that

escaped him: R. Van Uytven, "Le combat des boissons en Europe du

moyen âge au XVIIIe siècle," in S. Cavaciocchi (ed.), _Alimentazione

e nutrizione secc. XIII-XVIII_ (Istituto Internazionale di Storia

Economica "F. Datini". Serie II - Atti delle "Settimane di Studi" e

altri convegni, 28), Prato, 1997 or E. Aerts, "La teneur en alcool de

la bière dans les Pays-Bas, 1400-1800," in Th. Riis (ed.), _A Special

Brew ... Essays in Honour of Kristof Glamann_ (Odense University

Studies in History and Social Sciences, 165), Odense: Odense

University Press, 1993. It is very difficult to detect errors or

misinterpretations in Unger's nuanced and careful reasoning, but one

might quibble with his statement that bottom yeast in the Middle Ages

was only known in Bohemia (pp. 6 and 153) or that "everyone" in the

court of Holland and Hainault drank beer in the first half of the

fourteenth century (p. 76). Beer consumption certainly did not

decline everywhere in Europe after the sixteenth century, as

suggested on p. 2. My own data for the southern Low Countries and

some older evidence for southern Germany show a more complex pattern.

And if it is true that eighteenth-century brewers were crippled by

rising grain prices after 1750, why did these rising prices not

affect the brewer's sharpest competitors, the gin distillers, even

more since they were using an even larger grain input?


Though all chapters will be a mine for future beer historians, it is

clear that chapters 3 to 6 are the most innovative. For Unger the use

of hops was by far the major innovation in the pre-industrial history

of beer, making possible the rise and long-term growth of a new

industry, the success of a new beverage, and the gradual decline of

the market for wine. Few will contest the logic of his argument. But

some questions remain, even when all available evidence is presented

so elegantly as in this book. A few examples: Hopped beers were known

in the Low Countries in the Carolingian period (pp. 53-54). Then why

did it take so long ¬-- almost 500 years -- before every brewer in

this highly industrialized and progressive region started making

them? Why did it require an "external shock" from foreign hopped beer

being imported in the fourteenth century if brewers were already

familiar with the new beer in the ninth century? Of course, public

authorities -- lords and urban magistrates -- who raised taxes on the

old beer types without hops had to give their permission, but they

usually did so very quickly. Brewers had to adopt the new technology,

but why should it have taken centuries? And what about consumers, did

they have to be convinced as well? Was hopped beer not better than

the old gruitbeer? Here even Unger hesitates, calling beer made with

gruit "more than acceptable" and serving "the purpose of an alcoholic

beverage of some purity and good taste" (p. 56), but also qualifying

it as "a drink for the poor and the sick" (p. 64) "to satisfy poorer

consumers who could not pay for the better quality" (p. 82), although

the new hopped beer and the old gruitbeer were "not so dramatically

different" (p. 78). Still, the popularity of the hopped beer already

in 1323 forced the count of Holland to lift the ban on its import (p.

77). Taking into account the popularity of the hopped beer and a

series of brutal "external shocks" in the fourteenth and fifteenth

centuries it becomes even more difficult to explain why several

breweries in the southern Low Countries and the prince-bishopric of

Liege continued producing the gruitbeer throughout the seventeenth

and eighteenth centuries. Unger refers to an old technology remaining

in place "_for some time_ [italics are mine] perhaps to satisfy

conservative demand or to satisfy poorer consumers" (pp. 82 and 151).

It could be a good argument, except that consumers with less

purchasing power had other beers at their disposal after 1500 and

that we simply do not know whether gruitbeer was cheaper than hopped

beer or not. So perhaps all beer historians (myself included) have

been focusing too much on the introduction of hopped beer and by

overestimating the importance of this invention have neglected

another historical reality? By this I mean the sharp decline in the

grain prices in the fourteenth century. Since grain accounted for at

least 70 percent of the production cost of a brew, beer became much

cheaper in the late Middle Ages and perhaps this change in prices --

together with other phenomena such as the expansion of seaborne trade

-- was more important for the promotion of the beverage, the growth

of the industry and the erosion of the wine market than the "new

kind" of beer, already known centuries before?


Richard Unger has produced a well-documented and highly readable

synthesis of a major industry, replacing as such the older work by W.

Hoffmann, L. Sillner, E. Urion and F. Eyer, and others. He brings

together a wealth of quantitative data and qualitative evidence and

gives a new, often thought-provoking interpretation of the origin and

diffusion of a medieval technology. While admitting himself that this

is not the definitive history of European brewing, his ideas on late

medieval and early modern European brewing will serve as a very

useful framework for future research and certainly stimulate new




Erik Aerts has been Director of the Antwerp State Archives and is now

Professor at the History Department of the University of Leuven where

he teaches medieval and early modern economic history. His main

interests are the history of brewing, the history of money, credit

and financial institutions, and the development of archival science

in nineteenth-century Belgium.


Copyright © 2006 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be

copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to

the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the

EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net; Telephone: 513-529-2229).

Published by EH.Net (January 2006). All EH.Net reviews are archived

at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

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