The Demise of the Brewster, Part II or Men and Institutions Take Over

06-12-2016, The BeerVibe Crew


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The role of the brewster didn’t end everywhere all at once. Neither was there just one cause for the ale-brewing cottage industry to decline into oblivion. We have seen how monasteries, emperors and lords got into the brewing business. Governments and regulators and the tax man had something to do with it. For example, before hops as a flavoring and preservative of beer became king, brewers needed their gruit. They just can’t brew it without the gruit, but kings apportioned land for foraging the herbs needed for brewing, giving the monks, estate brewers, and other favored ones exclusive gruit rights, which often left the poor home brewer out. In 822 in the Benedictine monastery at Corbie, in France, Abbot Adalhard prescribed the gathering of wild hops for the brewing of beer. Can it be that the gradual acceptance of hops in beer contributed to the downfall of the brewster?


It occurred that the scholars at Oxford University, in the 1300s, knew the importance of a dependable source of ale for themselves, the townspeople, and for the poor. In 1355 King Edward III awarded the university the sole brewing rights in the town. The university, in turn, stiffly regulated brewing in Oxford. (Similar regulations spread around England after that) In the 1400s and 1500s the popular image of the woman who brewed and sold beer tumbled, and quite a few were mistaken for witches. A little earlier in 1342 the London Brewers’ Guild was founded, and in its history few women ever became members. Around 1360 the very first beer brewed with hops was imported into England from the Low Countries, and in 1390 hopped beer flowed in Holland.


During this period the ale industry generally transformed from a female- dominated cottage industry to a male-dominated commercial and professional industry. Before the Black Plague, running from 1347-1350, most ales were brewed at home and either drunk at home or in alehouses. The aftermath of the Black Plague, however, saw a greatly reduced number of both brewers and drinkers. It was much easier for better-financed institutions and wealthy families to get into and thrive in the beer making business than it was for the poor home brewer.


The year 1516 saw the famous Reinheitsgebot law enacted in Germany, which demanded that beer have only these ingredients: water, barley, and hops. (Yeast would be entered later after it was discovered) In 1511 or 1524 (historians disagree on the exact year) England saw the first hops grown locally, in Kent.


Now, hops are great for bittering beer, but it is also a great preservative. Unhopped beer before the invention of refrigeration spoiled quickly and had to be either consumed or discarded within two weeks. Hops extended the shelf life of beer by a considerable amount, so the wealthier brewers with enough capital investment could brew a lot of it and ship it off, export it, and sell it wholesale to alehouses who in turn could sell it to their thirsty customers before the brew had a chance to go bad.


Which was, in the long run, bad news for the small batch making home working brewster, who just could not compete with the big male-run operations, in either quality or quantity. She too could use hops when it became available, but she just could not survive the regulations imposed and still compete well enough with the big players to survive in the business. She might have given up brewing and found work in an alehouse selling beer as a tippler, which in Late Middle English meant someone who retailed alcoholic drinks.


These are very significant developments in the history of the beverage we enjoy. The next time you pop open a cold one, don’t take it for granted. Give a little thought to the brewsters, most of whom are unnamed and unknown to history, but who lived through and saw these important times in beer history.

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