A recent article in Reuters said that Belgian monks will soon reopen a brewery destroyed by French troops in 1795. The Grimbergen Abbey, north of Brussels, will rebuild its brewery, which was initially constructed in the 13th century. Beer history is surprisingly linked to human history the world over.
In an interview with Reuters, Father Karel Stautemas specifically referenced the heritage and tradition of ancient monks brewing beer and why it’s important to him to bring that tradition back to Grimbergen. “Brewing and religious life always came together,” he said. According to the article, he recently completed a brewing course in Copenhagen and will be one of about six employees at the brewery, which is expected to open next year. So where did our fascination with beer come from, and why has it endured as persistently as it has?
Beer is said to have been discovered by accident around 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, which is in modern-day Iraq. “Grain crops flourished in the Near and Middle East region around the time of the advent of agriculture,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “When our ancestors first began experimenting with cultivated grains, they made an important discovery. When gruel that had been made with malted grain was left out for a few days, it became fizzy and intoxicating—it became beer.”
Dr. Crittenden said that accidentally fermenting fruit, which made wine, and accidentally fermenting honey, which made mead, likely happened around the same time. “But fruit easily perished, and honey was not always viable,” she said. “So, it was beer that became the most popular beverage.” Eventually, experiments with different ingredients resulted in different flavors. As its popularity skyrocketed, beer not only became the default beverage in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but it also permeated every aspect of their lives and was even seen as a gift from the gods.
Belgium, Monasteries, and Beer
As the seemingly magical process of fermentation became linked with religion, beer brewing in monasteries such as Grimbergen boomed. “By the Middle Ages, there were 400 monasteries brewing beer in Germany alone,” Dr. Crittenden said. “And it was monasteries that first documented the use of hops in brewing, but they weren’t used in earnest until around 1,000 years ago.”
Dr. Crittenden also explained that many nations’ naval trade routes filled the areas neighboring Belgium, and none of them left their beer at home. “Several seaborne empires were established on the shores of the North Sea based on powerful navies and international trade—first, the Vikings, followed by the German Hansa, the Dutch, and finally the Britons,” she said. “For all four, beer was a health requirement for sea voyages, and became a trade commodity that brought them great wealth.”
Now, Belgium is one of the premier beer countries in the world. In fact, Belgium goes so far as to serve many different types of beer in different kinds of glasses, which are said to enhance flavor. “Some estimates suggest that there are about 1,500 different types of beer in Belgium,” she said. “Their devotion to the beverage is integral to their national identity and cultural history. In 2016, Belgian beer culture was recognized by UNESCO as part of its intangible cultural heritage.”
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.