The History of Booze
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Pour Me Your Beers
Or - What did the Romans Ever Brew for Us?
You would be forgiven for thinking that Romans were too busy extolling the virtues of the grape to even notice the more humble beer. Indeed, such was the distaste of beer amongst the higher ranks of Roman nobility that the Emperor Julian penned a poem in which he describes wine as nectar and beer as having the distinctive whiff of goat
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Given that Romans were head over heels with a foul smelling fish sauce, we should perhaps be more suspicious about their taste... The Emperor Julian wasn’t the only Roman with a low opinion of beer; Roman historian, Tacitus, remarked that: “To drink, the Teutons have a horrible brew fermented from barley or wheat, a brew which has only a very far removed similarity to wine.” It is generally accepted that beer, as we recognise it today, was developed in Germany and spread across Europe thanks to the Roman Army - but the history of German beer is for another issue. There became a huge demand for beer across the Roman Empire, and some historians argue that beer could have caused the fall of Rome. This is where B&C pick up the history of beer for this month.
There is an interesting link between brewers, the growth of the Empire and the military, which partly explains the expansion of the empire and the spread of beer to many nations. The armies of Rome were notorious for many things; their discipline, their sheer numbers and their rumoured ability to march for days on rations of water, hard tack (dried meat, like jerky) and very little else. When the legions would pause at outposts or towns, they would supplement these rations with whatever was available. Behind the legions was another army of sorts; the legion/camp followers. An army needed lots of things; bread, women, and brewers, to name just the essentials! The addition of hops as a preserving agent had not been discovered at this time, so beer did not travel well. Instead, the military train would bring its grain with them and the brewers came too; part of the legion/camp followers.
As the Empire expanded, it would build garrisons to control their new territories; once the army stopped marching and put down roots, so did the followers, including the brewers, which is evidenced by the finds such as those on the Danube in Regensburg, Germany. This was known as Casta Regina, a Roman military outpost, which was constructed not long after the community was established in 179AD by Marcus Aurelius.
Grain was critical, not only to feed the army, but also to make beer. Initially the army might have brought supplies with them, but once this ran out and they became more permanent residents, rather than just passing through, they would take grain from local farms. Outposts became towns over time and when armies were so far from Rome, it was not exactly easy to rotate the personnel; soldiers stayed often long after their term as a soldier was finished. Given that the term of service was 20 years for a volunteer, many had put down roots, married, had children and it was not surprising that vast numbers chose to stay in their adopted country. It has been suggested that with outposts providing all the comforts of home, including beer, soldiers settled and Rome was left exposed as its army grew smaller.
So how did the Romans brew their beer?
The breweries in the Roman settlements had it made because they had everything they needed for a prime brew. Fresh water was critical and the Romans were experts at bringing fresh water to their settlements via aquaducts. The process would start with water and local grains being cooked in a copper pot before being transferred to a clay pot where the ‘wort’ would be allowed to ‘rest’ in the open for a few days. The Romans, although smart in may ways, had yet to understand how yeast functioned in the beer making process. Being left in the open, the Romans prayed the God of beer would ‘kiss the wort’ thus starting the fermentation process. Nice to know they hadn’t got everything figured out! Heat, or course, helped the process and clay pots sitting on warmed Roman floors assisted fermentation. The brewers were fiercely protective of their methods and would only share this knowledge with great care and only within the brewers’ guild. Trade secrets were worth their weight in gold. As well as having their own techniques and ‘secret ingredients’, each brewery would also be using local produce and this would vary from one location to another, so areas had their own taste signatures.
Beer In Roman Britain
Romans invaded Britain in 54AD and found that beer was far more readily available than wine. British brewing grew from strength to strength under Roman rule as they developed a taste for beer. Archaeologists know this to be the case thanks to evidence uncovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, located in modern Northumbria, and dates between AD90 and AD130. Wooden tablets were discovered with accounts of military and domestic life. They provide evidence of the garrison purchasing beer from local brewers. We even know the name of the brewer; Atrectus, the first named professional brewer in Britain. There is no reason to believe that this was not replicated up and down the country at Roman garrisons. The Romans connected their outposts with their trademark roads and thanks to these roads, it has been argued, we have the origins of the modern pub. Locals were quick to realise that travellers, be they army or otherwise, required refreshment on their journeys - the pub was born.
If you fancy a taste of a modern Roman brew, here are a few you could try. Available now from Beers of Europe.
Birra Moretti is a genuine beer produced using a traditional process that has remained almost unchanged since 1859. To produce Birra Moretti, only the highest quality raw materials are used and a particular mixture of valuable hops, that gives the beer its aroma and unique fragrance, intensifying the slight bitter flavour. It is a low fermented beer that has a golden colour, the tone of which is given by the quality of malt used. The alcoholic content is 4,6% volume that make it suitable to drink at any time of the day. In fact it is a perfect accompaniment to both dinner and lunch or to drink in the evening with friends. Please note this product is now
brewed in the UK.
LaZiaAle is a speciality beer, a project of the craft brewers of Latium, associated to the A.B.I. Lazio, to enhance the use of barley malt and agricultural ingredients typical of the region and using them as the base ingredients in the recipes for their beers. Each member produces their LaZiaAle based on their own inspiration.
They have added rosemary and artichoke to their interpretation, typical products of the Latium coast, they give aromatic and balsamic notes that strongly characterise and make it a good pairing of the traditional dishes of Latium.
A well-balanced beer with a marked floral fruitiness coming through from the aromatic yeasts used in its production. Pale yellow in appearance, moderately light bodied
and mild bitterness.