Bottoms up: beer as medicine

Over the years, I have encountered quite a few early modern recipes based on or consisting entirely of a drink still commonly used today, such as medicated wines and tea. In 2013, I heard James B. Sumner speak at ICHSTM Manchester about his excellent book, Brewing Science, Technology and Print, 1700–1880, on how beer brewing rapidly developed from an oral culture derived from home-based skills, into an industry with an extensive trade literature, based increasingly on the authority of chemical experiment in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. My curiosity was sparked, especially as beer was often seen as a safe alternative for contaminated drinking water, and I asked Dr. Sumner on Twitter whether he had encountered any recipes for beer as a medicinal drink, to which he replied he had not.

Front page of Van Lis's 1747 Pharmacopea
Front page of Van Lis’s 1747 Pharmacopea

As medicinal drinks are not the prime topic of my research, I forgot about this until last week, when I was skimming through eighteenth-century Dutch apothecary handbooks for mineral-based recipes. Suddenly a paragraph caught my eye: not a mineral recipe, but one for beer! Wouter van Lis, who gained a doctorate in medicine from Utrecht University in 1745, in his 1747 apothecaries’ handbook, Pharmacopoea Galeno-Chemico-Medica… = Meng- Schei- … / Wouter van Lis Meng- Schei- En Geneeskonstige Artseny-Winkel, describes various ways to prepare medicinal beers, similar to medicinal wines. The first way consists of simply letting some mashed herbs soak in beer for two or three days. According to Van Lis, this way the full powers of the herbs would be used, much more efficiently than in meads (fermented honey-herb brews), as ‘nature in these Lands is more used to such drinks [beers], the stomach will receive them with more lust, and digest them fully.’

Cheers! Photo © theNerdPatrol, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
Cheers! Photo © theNerdPatrol, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Another option was to add the herbs during the brewing process, either when boiling the malt, or just slightly heating them in the beer after the boiling has taken place. Van Lis mentioned over fifty kinds of herbs to prepare medicinal beer, ranging from ginger, lavender, cardamom, hyssop, cinnamon, aniseed, rosemary, nutmeg, gentian, juniper and lemon grass to plants such as absinth leaves, sweet flag, germander sage, and eye worth. He does not advise which kind of herb-infused beer should be used for particular ailments; this was after all supposed to be at the discretion of physicians. However, Van Lis does advice that ‘Joopen beer’ (which he says literally means ‘juicy beer’ in old Dutch) heats, moistens, and nourishes the body, but causes infected blood, bad digestion, sore eyes, fevers, and gout when drunken in excess.[1]

It might seem strange that I have only found one reference to medicinal beer so far, but it makes much more sense when we look at Van Lis’s career. Before he gained his medical doctorate in 1745, he already ran an apothecary shop in Rotterdam, and also owned… a beer brewery. Apparently it ran in the family: his mother ran a beer trading company, and in the year Van Lis graduated, he also published a treatise on beer brewing, dedicated to his promotor, the Utrecht professor Oosterdijk Schacht. However, beer consumption was decreasing steadily in the eighteenth century, and in 1748 Van Lis sold all his property in Rotterdam, including his brewery with a loss, and moved to Bergen op Zoom to make a career as city physician and apothecary and doctor of the diaconate.[2] As far as I can tell medicinal beer never really took off – although I do remember older female family members telling me that a glass of dark beer should be given to women after giving birth to stimulate the flow of breast milk.

Please do let me know if you have encountered other examples of medicinal beer!

 

[1] There is still a Dutch brewer called Jopenbier, which advertises with ‘recipe 1407’. Although they use a recipe from 1407, as their own website states, this beer was called Koyt back then; the current name has been given to the beer in 1994 and refers to the 112 litre tuns in which beer used to be transported, which were called ‘jopen’.

[2] Peeters, F.A.H., ‘Wouter van Lis: Apotheker, Bierbrouwer En Stadsmedicus’, Kring Voor de Geschiedenis van de Pharmacie in de Benelux. Bulletin, 73 (1988), pp 1 – 21.