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Monastic Brewing

Early references to clerical drinking come from the continent of Europe and it is clear that ale (an unhopped brew) was widely drunk in medieval ecclesiatical circles. The rule of St Benedict of Aniane (ob.822) stipulated a ration of ale in his monastic houses that was twice as much as the wine allowed and on fast days rations were a little bread and salt ‘cum aqua et cervisa’ (with water or ale). At the Council of Aix Chapelle (813) the canons were allowed four litres of ale a day while some nunneries allowed their sisters up to seven litres per diem.
The monastic orders with their large estates and educated members became innovators not only in learning but also in agriculture, manufacturing and technology and, so, like cheese, wine and liqueurs which were all improved in quality by various monasteries, beer too, was developed. An example of a monastery with a reputation for fine brewing was Orgeval, west of Paris. Schmitz (1) has pointed out that ‘brewing was one of the leading monastic industries. Except in the south of France, almost all monasteries had breweries, called cambae, even, curiously enough, in cider-making areas.’
Some monasteries brewed beer on a commercial scale and this was a good source of income to the houses. The old charters of St Gall in Switzerland mention three breweries within the monastery’s jurisdiction, only one of which provided drink for the community itself. These breweries each had a malthouse and a ‘cold’ room for fermentation. In some places there was competition between ecclesiastical manufacturers as in France where the bishops of Liège and Cologne fought to get hopped ale (beer) banned as it was competing with their own ales which were flavoured with other, very secret, ingredients. (2) The monks knew a good deal about medicinal herbs added to ales as part of various secret recipes and they were very likely responsible for the use of hops.
Hops were a considerable technological advance since they resulted in a clarified brew and turned ale into true beer. Monastic brewers also pioneered the invention of the double-bottomed vat which allowed two successive infusions of the mash. The second infusion produced the cervisa sedilis, the small beer, the drink of novices, poor pilgrims and, very often, nuns.
In England and Wales, evidence for monastic brewing for in-house consumption is both documentary and material. We have, for example, descriptions of the buildings of small Yorkshire monastic establishments (3), eleven out of twelve of which have brewhouses, and a number of brewhouses have been recognised in the ground plans of various monastic sites that are still extant. It is, therefore, probably true to suggest that all such establishments in Britain would have produced their own ale or beer.

We have references to commercial brewing in Wales (4) at the Cistercian abbeys of Basingwerk, Margam, Strata Florida and Llantarnam but the only excavated commercial brewery is in the grain processing complex at Castle Acre in Norfolk (5) where there is evidence for the use of the double-bottomed vat and for the production of three kinds of brew. It is these characteristics as well as its greater size and combination with a malthouse (combined size 23 by 13.7m) which have Castle Arce Priory
Malt house and Brew house at Castle Arce Priory

prompted its identification as a commercial manufactory. And there is a possibility that it was beer rather than ale that was being made. It would be interesting to hear of examples elsewhere, either as documentary references or actual building remains on ground.

(1) Dom Philiber. Quoted by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat: History of Food (1992)

(2) Ibid

(3) William Brown: Description of the Buildings of Twelve small Yorkshire Priories in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society ix (1886)

(4) David H Williams: The Welsh Cistercians (1984)

(5) Wilcox: Report on Excavations at Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk Archaeology (1986)

Castle Acre
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