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Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

By Richard W. Unger

Publication Year: 2011

The beer of today—brewed from malted grain and hops, manufactured by large and often multinational corporations, frequently associated with young adults, sports, and drunkenness—is largely the result of scientific and industrial developments of the nineteenth century. Modern beer, however, has little in common with the drink that carried that name through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Looking at a time when beer was often a nutritional necessity, was sometimes used as medicine, could be flavored with everything from the bark of fir trees to thyme and fresh eggs, and was consumed by men, women, and children alike, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance presents an extraordinarily detailed history of the business, art, and governance of brewing.

During the medieval and early modern periods beer was as much a daily necessity as a source of inebriation and amusement. It was the beverage of choice of urban populations that lacked access to secure sources of potable water; a commodity of economic as well as social importance; a safe drink for daily consumption that was less expensive than wine; and a major source of tax revenue for the state. In Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Richard W. Unger has written an encompassing study of beer as both a product and an economic force in Europe.

Drawing from archives in the Low Countries and England to assemble an impressively complete history, Unger describes the transformation of the industry from small-scale production that was a basic part of housewifery to a highly regulated commercial enterprise dominated by the wealthy and overseen by government authorities. Looking at the intersecting technological, economic, cultural, and political changes that influenced the transformation of brewing over centuries, he traces how improvements in technology and in the distribution of information combined to standardize quality, showing how the process of urbanization created the concentrated markets essential for commercial production.

Weaving together the stories of prosperous businessmen, skilled brewmasters, and small producers, this impressively researched overview of the social and cultural practices that surrounded the beer industry is rich in implication for the history of the period as a whole.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3


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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

List of Tables

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

The mention of the history of beer always brings a laugh or at the very least a snicker. The history of beer for most people is not a serious topic of study. It seems to them frivolous and hardly worth more than a few diverting minutes of anyone’s time. Beer, after all, is a drink for leisure, for young people, generally men, and associated with sports and student life. ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xvii-xviii

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1. Introduction: Understanding the History of Brewing

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pp. 1-14

Beer at the start of the third Christian millennium has little in common with the drink that carried the same or variant names through the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is true that beer was and is an infusion of germinated grain, made to ferment after being cooled, and then by some means clarified before consumption. ...

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2. Early Medieval Brewing

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pp. 15-36

Brewing was important to society long before there was even the idea of Europe. It found a prominent place among early settled agricultural regimes. It is not likely that those settlements were started to generate grain for making beer. Other more compelling reasons existed for abandoning at least part of the hunting and gathering life, ...

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3. Urbanization and the Rise of Commercial Brewing

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pp. 37-52

The pattern of change in commercial brewing in late medieval and sixteenth-century northern Europe falls into six loosely defined phases or periods. First, there was a period of preparation typified by development of a market for the good and development of a production base. ...

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4. Hopped Beer, Hanse Towns, and the Origins of the Trade in Beer

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pp. 53-73

Europeans cultivated hops (Humulus lupulus L) for centuries before hopped beer became a trade good and then became the beverage of choice for brewers and drinkers in the Low Countries, France, and England. The word hops had Ural-Altaic as well as Turkic origins. It appeared first in Slavic languages before it surfaced in north Germanic ones. ...

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5. The Spread of Hopped Beer Brewing: The Northern Low Countries

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pp. 74-88

The first phase in the development of northern European brewing was achieved by 1300 with an urban brewing industry in place, and the breweries in towns producing beer for a commercial market. There was a distribution network and regulations at various levels of government covering production and selling. ...

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6. The Spread of Hopped Beer Brewing: The Southern Low Countries, England, and Scandinavia

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pp. 89-106

Once Dutch brewers began to make hopped beer and sell it outside the county, the use of hops became popular, and even necessary, not just in Holland but also in nearby jurisdictions. The count of Holland made concessions on the use of hops rather early compared to his counterparts in the region of the lower Rhine where gruit was in widespread use. ...

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7. The Mature Industry: Levels of Production

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pp. 107-125

The years from around 1450 to the early seventeenth century were a golden age for brewing. Though levels of output as well as the number and size of breweries varied—from Flanders to the Celtic Sea to northern Scandinavia to Estonia and Poland to Austria to the upper reaches of the Rhine River—brewing expanded in those years. ...

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8. The Mature Industry: Levels of Consumption

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pp. 126-142

A certain sign of the success of the adoption of brewing with hops and perfection of the technique in northern Europe was the high level of beer consumption in towns. Consumption and production in most towns were closely tied, the exception being the few places that specialized in export. ...

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9. The Mature Industry: Technology

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pp. 143-165

Trying to identify and isolate the process innovation that formed the sixth stage of development in brewing in northern Europe is even more difficult than trying to establish when people mastered the new technique. At least it is certain that the pace of process innovation was slow. ...

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10. The Mature Industry: Capital Investment and Innovation

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pp. 166-183

By the standards of the sixteenth century, breweries already involved a sizeable investment in fixed capital. Brewing, like leather working, was different from most contemporary economic activities on land in that it had a relatively high ratio of capital to labor, a fact dictated by the technology and by continuing efforts to exploit existing technology more effectively. ...

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11. Types of Beer and Their International Exchange

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pp. 184-194

Over the course of the sixteenth century, the number of beer types increased and the number of names multiplied. Brewers, in response to rising grain prices, lowered the quality of many beers. As a result there were rising complaints about beer being thin, and not just in north German towns like Wismar.1 ...

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12. Taxes and Protection

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pp. 195-206

The great flood of legislation on brewing was still to come, but in the first half of the fifteenth century the topics and the pattern for regulation were already clear. Governments would set the size of the brew, the frequency of brewing, the size and marking of the casks, the use of grain in brewing by type and quantity, and the ability to enter the trade. ...

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13. Guilds, Brewery Workers, and Work in Breweries

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pp. 207-230

In fifteenth-century northern Europe, guilds were not the common vehicles for regulating brewing. Associations of brewers had existed for a long time but, compared to groups of other skilled craftsmen in medieval and Renaissance towns, they were very slow to become legally recognized guilds which protected the members and regulated the trade. ...

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14. Epilogue: The Decline of Brewing

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pp. 231-246

The consolidated, relatively capital-intensive beer brewing industry of the seventeenth century was firmly established as an integral feature of the economy and of the social life of northern Europe. Drinking ale, beer, or mead had a long history which stretched back far beyond the Middle Ages. ...

Appendix: On Classification and Measurement

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pp. 247-250


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pp. 251-294


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pp. 295-312


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pp. 313-319

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203745
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812219999

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 23 illus.
Publication Year: 2011