Archive | January 2015

A Toast To … A spunky brewster

Here’s something new I learned this week.

In an article titled “How Did Hops Get In Our Beer?” in the January-February issue of Brew Your Own magazine, author Horst Dornbusch briefly covers the history of hops from ancient Rome to today. About midway through the article he references the medieval natural history text Physica by the noted Benedictine abbess, mystic, musician, scientist and Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). According to Dornbusch:

Perhaps the most consequential historical reference to hops in beer is a small passage in a book by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, physician, composer, brewster, and adviser to the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa … Hildegard describes the medicinal value and beverage application of the “hoppo” plant as “a hot and dry herb, with a bit of moisture,” which “is not of much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy.” Importantly, she observes that hoppo “putredines prohibet in amaritudine sua.” One Latin expert, Pricilla Throop, translates this as “its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added making them last longer.”

Hildegard’s name should be familiar to any devotee of medieval history, women’s history, or cultural history. As hinted by Dornbusch, she was an expert in disciplines as diverse as science, theology, philosophy, medicine, poetry, music, and linguistics, and left behind a vast body of writings related to the many subjects she studied. My introduction to her work was many years ago in college, when my girlfriend (now my wife) did extensive research on Hildegard for a senior thesis on medieval women mystics. Upon reading this article, I immediately asked my wife if she knew that Hildegard was a brewster*. She did not, although she was familiar with Hildegard’s scientific work on plants and animals.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The brewer-cum-mystic has been a part of beer culture since the beginning, from the hypothetical prehistoric brewer-shamans described by Dr. Patrick McGovern in his excellent book Uncorking the Past to the ancient Sumerian priestesses of Ninkasi, to the Trappist monastic brewing tradition that lives on today in Belgium and elsewhere. But I was unaware that Hildegard, who’s felt almost like a member of my extended family since my wife’s thesis on her years ago, had been part of that tradition.

Certain that Hildegard’s brewing accomplishments must have been as extensive as her accomplishments in every other field she delved into, I eagerly took to the Internet to find out more. But sadly, there wasn’t much to find. The reference to hops in the Physica is well-documented, and has earned Hildegard a place in inspiring brewers all over the world. But I’ve found nothing conclusive about any further contributions to brewing history: no recipes, descriptions, or anything like that. One questionable printed source credited Hildegard with being the first brewer to put hops in beer, but the BYO article would refute this; Dornbusch found references to hopped beer as early as 827 in the work of Saint Ansegisus of Fontanelle, an adviser to Charlemagne some three centuries before Hildegard was born.

Regardless of how deep her interest in brewing may or may not have gone, Hildegard was a true polymath, making significant contributions to every field she approached – at a time when few women had the opportunity to dabble in even one of these fields. As the new father of a little girl, she’s someone I want my daughter to know about. Honestly, she’s someone that everyone – brewer or beer drinker, woman or man – should know about.

And her testimony to the bitterness and antibacterial properties of hops in beverages should qualify her as an unofficial patron saint of that most revered of styles in the modern beer canon, a beer style as versatile as the great woman herself: the IPA. So next time I pour a glass of IPA, I’m raising a toast to St. Hildegard von Bingen: a Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance.

*Though it’s generally only heard as a surname today in non-beer history circles, within beer history circles the term brewster is widely known as a traditional English term for a female brewer, though Martyn Cornell pointed out on his blog Zythophile back in 2007 that it’s not quite that simple.

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2015 is the new 2014

New year, new beginning. 2014 was a good year, but an intense one; with my son Lucian celebrating his first birthday in spring, major changes at my day job in summer, my wife’s pregnancy, and then our baby daughter Vesper being born the first week of December.

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Behold the cooing, grunting adorable radiance of the newest sun at the center of my universe.

Mother and baby are doing great, and my son adores his little sister. I have no complaints. But now that all four of us have had some time to settle into our new family routine, I’m looking ahead to what’s next. And there’s nothing like a new year to start a new chapter in one’s life.

I love the idea of new year’s resolutions, but it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to instantly change a bad habit or adopt a good one – and keep it consistently – just because there’s a new calendar on the wall. So I approach my resolutions as habits to develop in the coming year, not all-or-nothing life changes to succeed at instantly. I like to spend the first week of the year reflecting on my resolutions before committing to them. So believe me when I say that by my schedule, this list of new year’s resolutions is timely.

My New Year’s Resolutions, 2015 Edition:

Write More. The need should be obvious to regular followers of this blog (if I still have any after publishing only one new post in the last eight months). I did spend time – not enough – on other writing projects not related to beer, but this blog hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I’ve been so busy just being a dad that I haven’t been doing much brewing or beer-geeking, so there wasn’t much for me to write about here … unless I want to start writing general parenting stuff. But I refuse to do that, primarily as a public service to advice-seekers on the Internet, because when it comes to parenting I have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing.

Read More. I have a tall stack of beer-related books I want to read. I have an even taller stack of non-beer-related books I want to read. I also have a thick folder of books on my Kindle I want to read. I won’t get through all of them in the next 360-odd days, but if I can hold myself to reading new things instead of revisiting old favorites, I’ll be off to a good start. So maybe now’s not the time to be rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion for the seventh time, which is exactly what I’m doing. But remember, these are habits to develop over the coming year.

Brew More. This was the first resolution I came up with, and the question I immediately asked myself was “More than what?” The answer: more than I think I can brew with two little ones in my life. Scraping together eight hours on the patio for a five-gallon all-grain brew session is not going to be easy. Anything I can do on the kitchen stove in 2-4 hours while keeping one eye open for little hands and feet going where they shouldn’t will be more feasible. So small batches may be the key to keeping my brewing skills up in 2015 while also providing ample fodder for these pages. Maybe I’ll work my way through the new 2014 BJCP Style Guidelines in small-batch brew-in-a-bag sessions. Maybe I’ll experiment with small-batch meads. And when the kegerator needs a restocking, if I can’t find the time for an all-grain brew session, I won’t be afraid to brew a partial mash batch with extract.

Drink More. Perhaps the first time these two words have ever shown up on someone’s new year’s resolution list; but I mean variety, not quantity. Like reading, I want to spend more time tasting new beers and less time drinking my old standbys. Even with kids in tow, there are many family-friendly brewpubs, restaurants, and tasting rooms open to me. And with my wife no longer expecting, it’ll be that much easier to pop open and share a 10% ABV bomber on a Tuesday night. So I’ll be catching up with some of the latest hot craft brews in 2015 (If you’d like to follow my progress, friend me on Untappd … my username is shawnbou).

Worry Less. Not all of my plans will come to fruition. Having two small children around means lot of variables out of my control. I won’t always get to brew when I want to. I won’t meet every self-imposed writing deadline. When I do brew or write, there will be lots on my mind and things won’t necessarily come out the way I want them to. But that’s okay. Plans are just plans. Target gravities are just targets. And deadlines are – for me, at this point in my writing career – more like guidelines. It’s time to learn to roll with the punches, do whatever I can whenever I can, and not worry about whatever falls outside the lines.

Enjoy the Little Things. I’ve emerged from two years of continual upheaval in my life with two beautiful, healthy children and a wife who is gorgeous, happy and spirited as the day I met her. My kids are getting bigger every day. It’s time to enjoy what’s in front of me. I’ll crack open a special beer when the occasion calls for it, and I won’t when it doesn’t. I’ll put down my electronic devices and interact more with the faces in the room around me. I’ll talk boldly and laugh loudly and not be afraid to be vibrantly, joyously alive right here, today, with the people I call my family and friends. After all, 2015 will only come once.