The beer brewing in the Carolingian Empire (751-924).


Charles the Great's Empire at his death, in 814


In continental Europe, the Carolingian Franks rule with Charlemagne (747-814) a large centralised empire with its capital in Aachen. This policy follows the imperial strategies we have seen at work in other cultural areas: strong centralised administration and relative autonomy of the locally governed provinces. The crafts and trade are encouraged and protected. They are a source of wealth and, above all, of taxes that flow into the royal treasury. The empire has to finance its military enterprises, its central administration and the luxury of the court. The production and trade of fermented drinks (sicera) are the object of particular care. Of all the beverages and among those who make them, beer and brewers (siceratores) are especially concerned with the management of the royal agricultural estates.

The word sicera refers to every fermented beverage from this period (beer, cider, perry), apart the mead (medo, meda, meth), the blackberry wine (moratum) and the grape wine (vino). The Carolingian regulations illustrate the extreme diversity of the fermented beverages within the empire. Most often, they make an inventory of the fermented beverages in the various provinces of the empire. As for beer, these royal regulations serve several purposes:

  • To promote the brewing of good quality beer. Malt and beer must be made under good hygienic conditions, without specifying these latter conditions.
  • The " masters who know how to make good beer (siceratores) " must be retained to brew within the imperial estates[1].
  • The beer is both distributed to those who work on the estates and sold to the population or to merchants with the collection of a tax. The brewery is an economic activity sponsored by the imperial power, which finds in it a source of income for the treasury.
  • With the Carolingians, beer became an almost inexhaustible source of taxes, except in the event of a famine where brewing was suspended so as not to "waste" the grains.


The promotion of the brewery does not involve an alcoholic population. The empire respects a religious calendar. The bishop of Mainz states in a letter of 810 that the 6-7-8 days of December are lean, with abstinence from fermented beverage for everyone, children, sick and elderly included[2]. These rules remind us that the evolution of brewing throughout history is always subject to spiritual imperatives, as much as it complies with technical constraints and socio-economic contexts.

Alongside the royal agricultural estates, monasteries and abbeys have their own breweries. This has been the case throughout northern Europe since the 6th century. Over the centuries, monastic rules diverge depending on whether one follows St Benedict of Nursia, Columbanus or others rules. In Ireland, a rule for nuns states that beer is the standard beverage, wine the one for exceptional occasions[3]. Charlemagne wants to bring together all the monasteries of his empire under a unified rule (Council of Frankfurt in 794). Louis the Pious (778-840) convoks in 816-817 in Aix the council that unified the monastic rules to be soon applied throughout Europe. The plans of the brewery of the Abbey of Saint Gall (Switzerland, Konstanz lake) testify to this achievement.

Dedicated by Abbot-Bishop Heito to Gozbertus, abbot of St. Gallen between 816 and 836, these plans have survived. One building stores raw grains and malts, three others each contain a brewing installation (boiler, material tank, filters) dedicated to a single type of beer. One cellar shelters the barrels. The size of the abbey and its internal organisation (3 separate living quarters for the monks, guests of the nobility, and all the others respectively) explain why the plan was to triple the number of brewing rooms. St. Gallen Abbey was not rebuilt according to the plans forseen by Abbot Heito. However, they do indicate that brewing became a very serious matter in Europe in the 9th century, at least for the monasteries and the abbeys which at that time had considerable economic and material means at their disposal[4].


Maple wood flask with honeyed barley-beer remains found in the Alemannic grave 58 from 580 in Trossingen. Archäologisches Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg
A 150-page study of Carolingian beers, brewing ingredients, the evolution of brewing between 750 and 1200, and the role of monks.
It examines the preconceived ideas about beer during Charlemagne's time in the light of documents from that period.

The hierarchy of fermented beverages seemingly remains unchanged, however, despite the economic importance of the brewery under the Carolingians. Wine first, then perry, cider, or beer as a second choice, and water when there is no more choice! (Nelson 2005, 106).


Is this really the case?

The study of polyptics and censuses (inventories of the land resources, agricultural wealth and inhabitants available to an abbey) reveals that the volumes of beer brewed are much greater than previously thought. The annual volumes of beer consumed can be deduced from the volumes of malt that an abbey receives. In the 9th century, the abbey of St-Denis (Paris) brewed about 700 hl of brethern's beer each year. The abbey of St. Bertin (Northern France) brewed about 3,000 hl of beer per year, all categories combined, and the abbey of Corbie brewed 1,500 hl. The 4 breweries of the royal domain of Annapes alone have enough rye, spelt, oats and barley to brew 560 hl of beer per year.

These documents are discussed in a study dedicated to the Carolingian beer brewing.



[1] " Ut unusquisque judex in suo ministerio bonos habeat artifices, id est, fabros ferrarios, etc. Siceratores, id est, qui cervisiam, vel pomatium, sive pyratium, vel aliud quodcumque liquamen ad bibendum atum fuerit, facere sciant, etc. " (Capitulare de Villis, cap. 45, written around 800).

[2] Nelson Max 2005, The Barbarian's Beverage, A History of Beer in Ancient Europe, p. 99. L'une des meilleures études de la brasserie pour cette période de l'histoire en Europe occidentale.

[3] Selon le Concordia Regularum compilé par Benoît d’Aniane. D’après M. Nelson 2005, p. 100.

[4] The plans for an ideal Benedictine abbey drawn up under the orders of Abbot Heito (Hatton), Bishop of Basel from 803 to 823 and Abbot of the Reichenau Monastery, embody the new rules adopted at the Council of Aachen. Three separate breweries within the abbey brew beer for the three categories of population of a Benedictine abbey: the monks, the guests of the Frankish nobility, and the sick and needy pilgrims. St. Gall Abbey will not be rebuilt according to this ideal plan of St Gall Abbey.

02/05/2012  Christian Berger