06-26-2016, The BeerVibe Crew
Do you remember Friar Tuck, Robin Hood’s friend? He was a pious brewer of beer. The business o
Christian monks brewing beer may stretch back to the days of Benedict of Nursia (480-543 or 587), who
has become known as the Father of Western Monasticism. He founded a number of communities of
monks in Italy, and he formulated rules for monastic living. Monasteries were to be as self-contained as
possible, that is, they grew most of their own food, and made their own beer. They were to be
hospitable to strangers and travelers, sharing their simple food, and beer.
In 724 the Franconian missionary Corbinian went looking for converts and built a chapel on
Weihenstephan Mountain, near Munich. By 1040 the chapel had become a Benedictine abbey, and
obtained the right to brew and sell beer for a profit. The same brewery exists today. It is owned by the
state of Bavaria, and holds the distinction of being the oldest continually operating brewery in the
Depending on the monastery and whose rules they lived by, the monks copied old books, wrote books,
grew their food, and in their otherwise austere manner of life, made and drank beer. Because water
was so bad and the practices of sanitation were rather rudimentary, each monk might receive a daily
ration of up to four liters of beer, about a gallon. It was healthier than drinking water. Well-made beer
was also nutritious. As the monks often went through periods of fasting, in which they abstained from
solid food, beer was acceptable to consume, as it was liquid. It was like liquid bread.
The Irish missionary Columban made up his own rules for monastic life, and among them he prescribed
a monk getting six lashes for forgetting to say Amen or for bad singing. Also, while they might drink
great quantities of beer, they were not permitted to get drunk, (so it seems that if a gallon of beer got
them drunk, they still had to look sober to avoid punishment), and if a monk spilled beer he would have
to stand still and upright all night long as penance. Beer might have been one of the very few pleasures
they ever received in their austere lives.
Monasteries were centers of learning and stability and the only real public institutions in the loosely
organized feudal system. Secular rulers early saw the benefit of aligning themselves with the church,
and beer was one way to do that. For example, Otto the Great (912 -973) garnered the favor of the
church of Liége, in modern day Belgium, in part by granting the church generous amounts of land for
foraging gruit. While anyone could brew beer, the privilege of accessing land for picking gruit was
limited to what was granted by the crown, and the crown granted gruit rights to lords and monasteries.
That left many home-brewers out, but monasteries could get all that they needed. Some monks, and in
convents, some nuns, became specialists in brewing, raising the practice of brewing to a professional
Monastic brewing became big business, and monasteries got into something of the hospitality business
for travelers, and for those who just wanted to drink good beer. They kept good records of their work
and gradually improved on the art and science of brewing. During the 10 th and 11 th centuries in Germany,
there were about 500 monastic breweries, each with its own distinctive beer. It is reported that one
such brewery in Nuremburg produced about 2,500 barrels of beer in a year, and in Bavaria another
served about 10,000 guests a year.
And all of this was before anyone gave serious thought to putting hops in beer.
NEXT: We will begin to discuss HOPS.
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