Book Review: A History of Brewing in Holland 900 – 1900

hbhI started reading my copy of A History of Brewing in Holland 900-1900: Economy, Technology and the State by UBC professor Richard W. Unger, published in 2001. Careful readers will recall that I had ached after this book ever since I reviewed his 2004 publication Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance but was a bit depressed about the sticker price of this one. Divine (or at least professorial) intervention, however, landed me the prize of a review copy.

I am only about 70 pages in – up to the 1400s – and am fascinated all over again by the precision and detail of the research yet also by how readable Unger makes understanding his work. So far, in a nutshell, he has taken medieval tax and shipping records and then traces how the semi-autonomous cities and towns within and neighbouring the Low Countries produced traded and consumed beer. He shows how Holland’s success in leveraging the new fangled hop that arrived from the south-eastern North Sea shipping trade in the 1300s led to the replacement of gruit as a flavouring in beer, triggered a shift in taxation and public regulation while expanding commerce through the ability of hops to stabilize the beer to allow it travel farther while maintaining its good condition. This portion of the book mirrors some of what was included more detail in his other book – for example, how taxes were based first on granting a monopoly to supplying an ingredient (ie counts farming to local towns the right to control the gruit trade) then on the production of beer (excise tax based on production provided more than 50% of Lieden’s revenue in the early 1400s) then on control of shipping of beer (through tolls, holding periods for trans-shipped casks and special import duties). The general information on the medieval economy is also interesting – like the fact that the Black Plague led to the marketplace for labour after it passed through as the survivors could decide what to do with their skills and thereby their lives.

I will add to this post as I move through the book but, again, I am struck how I would love to find a current text of this detailed quality in relation to the economics of English, American or any other region’s brewing but, other than Hornsey’s more scientific and encyclopedic A History of Beer and Brewing, know of none.

One thought on “Book Review: A History of Brewing in Holland 900 – 1900”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Lew Bryson – May 14, 2007 10:31 AM
    Sounds great. Loved the earlier book Unger did, and I did a paper on Dutch brewing in the early Renaissance back in grad school. I’ll have to find a copy of this sucker. Thanks for the tip, Alan.

    Lloyd Bierstaker – June 2, 2007 10:05 PM
    Dear Alan,

    I have to find this book,”A History of Brewing in Holland 900-1900: Economy, Technology and the State,” at a reasonable price! My family name–Bierstaker, originally Biersteker–is from the medieval guild name of Biersteeker, the Dutch guild which transported beer from the country side into Amsterdam, and probably other cities as well. As I understand it, beer was originally brewed from the canal water in Amsterdam(!) Of course, before long, that water was too polluted for brewing, so beer was brewed in the countryside and transported by the Biersteeker guild members into cities. When that occurred is probably when my ancestors adopted the guild name as their surname.
    Do you happen to have any information as to when these guilds were formed?

    Lloyd Bierstaker

    Bob Schneider – June 25, 2007 11:37 PM
    I realise that this is a review of a book but I was wondering if you could satisfy my curiosity. When I was brewing professionally in Holland, MI, I was trying to come up with a beer name and tagline that connected with the Dutch East India Trading Company (correct name?) similar to India Pale Ale shipped to British troops stationed in India. I did some research but ended up making an IPA with our house German ale yeast. When I put the beer on tap at the brew pub, the owners renamed it anyway. It was still one of the best IPAs I have made.
    So my question is; Did the Dutch traders ship beer as a commodity in trade for Asian goods? If yes, what years, what style? Were hops used in any manner then?

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