hist-brewing: Roman Brewing

Martyn Cornell atrectus at blueyonder.co.uk
Tue Jan 7 03:34:14 PST 2003

>From: "Owen Hutchins" <owenbrau at earthlink.net>
>To: <hist-brewing at pbm.com>
>Date: Sun, 5 Jan 2003 18:06:50 -0500
>Subject: hist-brewing: Roman Brewing
>I've been trying to find some info on the ale of Roman Britain, anyone got

The following is adapted from "Beer: the Story of the Pint", due to be
published in the UK by Headline in August 2003 and is posted here as a small
gesture of thanks to the site and its contributors for providing me with
much highly useful information on medieval brewing. However, it is
copyright, so if you're thinking of reproducing it anywhere else - don't.

Martyn Cornell

Numerous references make it clear that, away from wine-making areas, the
Romans made and drank beer in considerable quantities. It was a sufficiently
important product to be included in the list of goods and services laid out
by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in an edict of AD301 setting maximum prices
in the empire, an (unsuccessful) attempt at curbing price inflation. Among
dozens of different goods and services, three types of beer were named in
the edict, which was written on stone pillars erected in important cities
around the empire. The beers were cervesia and camum, to be sold at four
denarii the ³Italian pint², and zythum, Egyptian beer, to be sold at two
denarii a pint. For comparison, the very best Falernian wine, the finest the
Romans knew, was priced by Diocletian at 30 denarii a pint, and ordinary
wine, ³vini rustici², was eight denarii a pint. Other prices included cheese
at 12 denarii a pound, and beef at eight denarii a pound.

Beer was universal among the Celts of Britain, and it was very popular in
Celtic Gaul and Celtic Spain as well. Their brewing grain was bracis,
normally identified as emmer, a type of bearded wheat, and the main brewing
grain of the ancient near east as well. Bracis is the root of the French
words for brewer, brasseur, and brewery, brasserie. However, since bracis is
linked to early words for malt, it may be that the Celts simply called emmer
³the malting grain².

What flavourings went into this ale has to be a matter of conjecture, since
no contemporary writings seem to have mentioned anything except honey, to
make braggot, which fell halfway between beer and mead in price in
post-Roman times. The Picts, the un-Romanised tribes in the north of
Britain, brewed with heather, according to mythology,though there is
considerable doubt about how they used the heather and what exactly they
made with it - a flavoured fruit wine, rather than a beer, is a possibility.
The Anglo-Saxons used bog myrtle or sweet gale (Myrica gale) and alehoof or
ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea), and it is not impossible the Celts and
Romano-Britons did too.

The Celtic word for beer was curmi, which seems to be linked to a word that
occurs in Latin, cremor, meaning a thick broth (which is just what a barley
mash is), itself linked to cremo, to burn or boil (as in cremate), and an
old Slavonic word krma, meaning nourishment or food. Around the first
century of the Christian era a pronunciation change took place in Britain
and among the mainland Gauls in which m became v, so that the word for ale
changed from curmi to something closer to *corvi or *corev. In medieval
Welsh the word was spelt cwrwf (single f is pronounced v in Welsh), today
altered to cwrw, while in Cornish it became coref or cor¹f (and coreff in
Breton, the continental version of Cornish). It is from this late Celtic
word that the Latin for beer, cervisia or cervesia (several spellings exist)
is derived, and it is from the Latin, of course, that Spanish gets the word
cerveza, meaning beer, and the Portugese get cerveja. In French cervoise
means (unhopped) ale. The Romans, being chauvinists, and believing all other
languages were merely debased versions of their own, tried incorrectly to
derive cervisia from Ceres, the harvest goddess.

In the 1980s archaeologists found the evidence that Rome¹s soldiers in
Britain sustained themselves on Celtic ale. A series of domestic and
military accounts written on wooden tablets were dug up at the Roman fort of
Vindolanda, at Chesterholm in modern Northumbria, dating to between AD90 and
AD130. They reveal the garrison at Vindolanda buying ceruese, or beer, as
the legions doubtless did throughout the rest of Roman Britain, almost
certainly from brewers in the local area.

One list of accounts from Vindolanda mentions ³Atrectus the brewer²
(Atrectus ceruesar[ius), the first named brewer in British history, as well
as the first known professional brewer in Britain. The accounts also show
purchases of bracis or braces, that is, emmer wheat (or malt), doubtless for
brewing. Quite possibly the garrison bought the malt, and hired a local
brewer to make beer from it for the troops.

In Roman Britain, brewing, both domestic and retail, must have been
widespread: remains indicating the existence of Roman-era malting or brewing
operations have been found from Somerset to Northumberland, and South Wales
to Colchester. In the third and fourth centuries AD Roman ³hypocaust²
technology, for supplying central heating to homes, was adapted in Britain
to build permanent corn dryers/maltings, and the remains of these
double-floored buildings, with underground flues, are found in Roman towns
as well as on Roman farms.

Most archaeologists have insisted on calling them ³corn dryers². However,
when a replica of a fourth-century example that had been excavated at a
gravel quarry at Foxholes Farm, near Hertford in the late 1970s was built
and tested, it showed that the design made it a poor dryer of large
quantities of grain but an efficient maltings. The temperature in the
³dryer² reached an average of 60 to 70C, and would have been able to produce
an amber malt perfectly capable of making good ale.

Copyright Martyn Cornell 2003

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