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Perhaps the most consequential historical reference to hops in beer is a small passage in a book by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, physician, composer, brewster, and adviser to the German Emperor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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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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