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Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

Author(s):Unger, Richard W.
Reviewer(s):Aerts, Erik

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 ?ge au XVIIIe si?cle,” 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 bi?re 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 hypotheses.

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.

Subject(s):Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval