With Beer On Their Side

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 6
January 1, 2002 By

All trades, causes and passions have their patron saints, of course, but few have gathered up as many as brewers and beer lovers. No disrespect to Jesus: Water into wine was a pretty mean feat. But the 20 or so patron saints of all things beer related were to go much further–converting bath water into beer, conjuring mugs full of the stuff out of thin air, multiplying infinitesimal amounts into gallons, and even using the magic brew to end plagues, put out fires and convert the heathen masses.

On a more earthly plane, the “beer saints,” who were mostly monks and nuns, pioneered brewing techniques and promoted beer consumption among the malnourished.

Official saint making, or canonization by the Vatican, did not start until the 11th century, but as early as the 2nd century, the veneration of virgins, confessors, martyrs, monks and miracle makers by the ex-pagan populace was in full swing. Cults grew up and spread, embroidered truths and ancient legends wove together, and groups of people claimed particular saints as their own.

But why so many patrons of beer and related professions like hop pickers, brewers, bartenders and innkeepers? The New Religion was important. Beer was important. Together the patron saints made a holy alliance, reaching where other religions and beverages couldn’t reach. In a world where clean water supplies and balanced diets were unknown, beer provided a safe and healthful food-like drink. And for the men and women in the new monastic orders, with their austere, one-meal-a-day, stone-for-a-pillow, pray-till-you-drop regimens, such a nourishing substance was particularly welcome–and necessary.

Saint Benedict (480-547), the father of monasticism and unofficial “beer saint,” ruled that monks had to be self-supporting in every way. Since they were allowed to imbibe up to a generous 5 liters a day, this naturally included the provision of alcohol. The Benedictine rules also required monasteries to double as inns, where weary travelers could rest and partake of whatever the monks could provide. As the monasteries grew, their brews became more well known and in demand. That, and the drive for self-sufficiency, pushed the monks into the small businessman mode. They started selling their high-quality brews to the public and, suddenly, there were “beer saints” everywhere.

No Moderation Here

Some, like Augustine of Hippo (353-430), became patrons of beer simply because of the vast quantities they knocked back. In his youth, Augustine explored all avenues of the “wine, women and song” variety and flirted with the many philosophical and theological “isms” of his day. Catholicism got him in the end. He gave us his sin-filled Confessions and about-faced into an ascetic hardliner, a reformed unbeliever, womanizer and drinker. Sounding not unlike an early Oscar Wilde or Groucho Marx, Augustine captured the essence of his pre-conversion philosophy with these words, “God, give me chastity and continence–but not just now.”

Other beer-loving saints showed greater moderation but no less enthusiasm for the grain. The Irish saint, Brigid (457-525), founded an abbey at Kildare and was well known for her generosity and compassion. She was also famed for her love of ale and her powers of spontaneous beer production. From her monastery, it was said, she kept 18 churches in beer from just one barrel, from Maundy Thursday to the end of Easter. But transformation of matter was her real specialty. One day, she was working in a leper colony that found itself without beer. Taking pity on the thirsty lepers, she prayed hard and succeeded in changing their grubby bath water into cool, refreshing ale.

A poem attributed to her, in praise of beer and God, begins: “I should like a great lake of ale, for the King of Kings. I should like the family of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal.” Amen.

Miracles of Transformation

Water-into-ale miracles and bottomless barrels of beer were par for the course for Brigid, whose legend merged with that of an earlier pagan goddess of plenty. Her cows reputedly gave milk three times a day, she caused wells to spring forth, and once during a famine, she threw into the river armful of rushes that abra-cadabraed into fish a few days later. But female saints did not have a monopoly on multiplication miracles. The three Arnolds–Arnold of Metz (580-640), Arnold of Soissons (1040-1087) and Arnold of Oudenaarde (died c.1100)–all came up with their own variations on the old loaves-and-fishes, wine-into-water routine.

Throughout his life, Arnold, Bishop of Metz, lectured the peasants on the benefits of drinking beer, which was made safe by boiling and processing. “Don’t drink the water,” he urged, “drink the beer.” So strong was his faith in beer power that, in the midst of a plague, he plunged his crucifix into a brew kettle (what a great symbol for the beer-religion connection!) and persuaded the locals to drink only from that “holy” vessel. His action stopped the spread of illness.

For the Bishop’s crowning beer miracle, though, the citizens of Metz had to wait until after his death. It was well worth the wait–at least for those who bore his bones from the monastery where he died back (by popular demand) to the town of Metz. According to one version, the worn-out porters stopped off at an inn for a pint. With ale enough for only one glass, Arnold kindly interceded from his casket. As the men passed the mug around, it miraculously refilled until the thirsts of all had been quenched.

In the second version, the thirsty porters appealed to God for refreshment en route. Via Arnold, God complied, shooting lashings of icy ale out of the casket and soaking all present. It’s raining beer, hallelujah! As if that were not enough to endear the Bishop of Metz to beer lovers everywhere, he is also credited with the famous words, “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”

Arnold of Soissons is the patron saint of hop pickers, probably because he preached in the hop-growing region of Brabant, in what is now Belgium. He pulled his beer proliferation number after a monastery roof collapsed in Flanders, destroying the monks’ supply of beer. With only a few sad barrels remaining, Arnold asked God to lend a hand. The barrels multiplied, the monks and townsfolk rejoiced, and Arnold was popularly canonized on the spot. Ingenious as well as miraculous, he also came up with the idea of using straw cones (the kind used in bee keeping) as a filter to clarify beer.

Arnold number three worked his magic on the battlefield. Before becoming a Benedictine monk, he belonged to a military order, making a name for himself as “Arnulph the Strong of Oudenaarde.” He fought with God, and beer, on his side. Once during a battle in Flanders, he magicked mugfuls of cold ale out of heavenly thin air to revive his flagging soldiers–who, of course, went on to win. Later, he founded the Abbey of St. Peter in Oudenburg, where he learned the art of earthly brewing.

Both Arnold number two (Soissons) and Arnold number three (Oudenaarde) lived in the 11th century, preached in Flanders, wrought numerous miracles, promoted beer and became patron saints of Belgian brewers. These similarities perhaps explain why their stories and legends are sometimes attributed to one and sometimes to the other, depending upon the source.

Sainthood through Science

Performing beer-based miracles was not the only way to end up a beer saint. Other holy men and women made the beer canon due to their contribution to the brewing process. One such woman was Hildegarde von Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine nun, and one of the wisest and most exceptional human beings to have ever lived. In between composing music, writing poetry, advising the Pope, and analyzing the scriptures, she found time to write two scientific studies on medicine and nature. In one of these, Physica Sacra, she describes the use and value of using hops in beer making, writing, “[Hops], when put in beer, stops putrification and lends longer durability.”

Although Hildegarde was the first to write about the use of hops in brewing, other sources suggest that the Brabant monasteries were flavoring their beer with hops in the 9th century. Perhaps you’ve passed bars or pubs named “King Gambrinus,” still today one of the most popular patron saints of beer? Gambrinus, the King of Brabant, set himself up–falsely–as the inventor and “king of beer,” declaring: “Be I called Gambrinus, King of Flanders and Brabant. I have made malt from barley and first conceived of the brewing of beer. Hence, the brewers can say they have a king as master brewer.”

Another hop connection comes from 10th century Bohemia, where Wenceslas (yes, that Wenceslas from the Christmas carol) worked to spread Christianity. Less well known is his contribution to the hop-growing business. When “a poor old man came in sight, gathering winter f-u-u-e-l,” the Good King may have showed Christian charity, but when he caught his countrymen trying to smuggle highly valued hops out of the country, he sent them straight to the gallows. Wenceslas’s hard-line stance made him a hit with local growers and brewers. His crown became a symbol of Czech nationalism, and he earned the title of patron saint of Bohemia and Czechoslovakia–and, of course, Czech brewers.

Beer Converts

Some saints used beer to win over converts. With beer on God’s side, anything was possible. Saint Columbanus (c. 543-615), an Irish missionary on assignment to Germany, was walking through the woods one day, when he came upon a group of misguided Wodan worshippers. Just as they were about to commit the sacrilege of sacrificing a cask of ale to their god, Columbanus stepped in, rather, blew in, shattering the cask with a mighty crack using only his breath. He explained to the Wodanites the error of their ale-wasting ways. He told them that the Christian God loved beer, but only when drunk in His Name. Suitably impressed, many converted on the spot to the new, beer-friendly religion.

Saint Columbanus also gave us this gem of a beer lover’s blessing: “It is my design to die in the brew house; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring, so that when the choir of angels come, they may say: ‘Be God propitious to this drinker.'”

Most of the beer saints “make sense”: they either promoted the healthful and spiritual benefits of beer, were experts and innovators in the brewing process, or went in for beer-multiplication miracles. Some, however, earned their beer patronage for reasons more obscure. Saint Laurence (died 258), archdeacon of Rome, was tied to a huge gridiron and roasted alive during the Valerian persecutions. It should have been an agonizing way to go. According to eyewitnesses, however, Laurence radiated calm and serenity, and instead of the smell of burning flesh, a sweet, saintly aroma filled the air. More improbably (but don’t you just want it to be true?), he told his executioner to turn him over to broil with these words:

“This side is toasted, so turn me over tyrant, eat, And see whether raw or roasted I make the better meat.” His wit did not desert him. When he was “done,” he informed the “chef,” “It is cooked enough; you may eat.”

One can only applaud the early church’s mixture of reverence and black humor in revering the barbequed Laurence as patron of cooks, bakers, comedians and restaurateurs. But beer? What did his death have to do with beer? Hang onto your sense of irony and think malt. Brewers liked Laurence because his slow-roast-over-an-open-flame death reminded them of how malt is dried. The Bamberg brewers’ guild in Germany adopted him as their particular patron saint, and on his feast day, all apprentices were required to carried his image in processions and make donations to the church.

Spurious Saints

But there were even uglier ways to die than Laurence’s, and even more spurious ways to beer sainthood. Florian (died 304), a Roman officer and a secret Christian, came out of the closet during the Diocletian prosecutions. His executioners flogged him, flayed him, tied a stone around his neck and threw him in the river. This time there are no eyewitness accounts of serenity and wit. And there is no clue to Florian’s credentials as a beer saint in his death. Instead, Florian is most remembered for “saving” the city of Nuremberg during a great fire. The quick-witted saint headed straight for the local brewery, where he knew water would be stored. With just the one bucket, he put out the raging fire, winning applause from firefighters, barrel (and bucket?) makers and brewers everywhere.

Coopers and brewers find common ground, too, in adopting 4th century Nicholas of Myra (a.k.a. Santa Claus) as one of their patrons. We are, however, starting to reach the bottom of the barrel with Saint Nick, who was all things to all men and women, chalking up some 60 patronages, including everyone from pawnbrokers and prostitutes to shoe shiners, judges and newly-weds. Still, the story that gives us the barrel-beer connection is one of the myth makers’ best.

One evening after a hard day’s do-gooding in his capacity as Bishop of Myra, Nicholas stopped off at an inn. There was famine throughout the land, so when the innkeeper offered him meat and drink, he was suspicious. He snuck into the kitchen, and there, floating around in a tub of brine, he found his “meat”–the chopped up bodies of three young boys. A lesser saint might have despaired, but the resourceful Nicholas promptly turned his dinner back into three live boys, endearing himself for ever more to children, (honest) innkeepers, barrel makers and brewers.

Nowadays, it is hard to think of a godly connection between beer and Christianity. At best, we conjure up images of be-cowled Belgian monks that time forgot, showing foreign tourists around ye-olde-worlde breweries, or lending their portraits to bottles of industrially produced beers. But in times past, when brewing was centered in the monasteries, members of religious orders promoted the healthful nature of their brews, and people needed a safe, nourishing, everyday drink, beer formed an intrinsic part of secular and religious life.

After the 12th century, the courts gradually granted more licenses to non-monastic brewers. Then with the Reformation and the weakening of the church, the beer industry moved firmly into the public domain. Beer no longer had “god” on its side. The days of the beer saints were over.


Theresa O'Shea
Theresa O'Shea is a freelance writer living in the South of Spain. She writes mostly about all things Spanish, naturism, folklore--and saints. You can read more of her work at www.worldsapartreview.com, a website for expat writers to which she contributes.