Hildegarde de Bingen, this medieval nun who revealed the virtues of hops

Millions of jars filled to the brim when the rhythm of popular songs in a marathon of drinking… Oktoberfest starts this weekend in Munich, Germany. Oktoberfest marks the start of a series of festivals in Europe and around the world dedicated to this alcoholic beverage made from water, malted barley, yeast and hops. But among these fans of little mousse, how many know that we owe this recipe to a German nun from the Middle Ages?

Church doctor, preacher, musician, poet, healer… Hildegarde de Bingen’s CV is impressive. She was born in 1098 in the Rhineland and entered the monastery at the age of 8. This mystic, inhabited by divine visions since she was 3 years old, receives a solid medical and botanical education. Became abbess only 38 years old, she enriched this knowledge with her careful observation of nature, distributed various funds and wrote two naturalistic books (Physics and Causae and Curae). Wondering what that has to do with beer?

Well, among the plants that will hold Hildegarde’s attention are hops. In his Encyclopedia of the Living, physics, the abbess writes “the bitterness of hops combats certain harmful fermentations in beverages and allows them to be stored longer”, cites Aubrée Gaudefroid, curator and director of the Maison des Mégalithes de Wéris, a Belgian museum which is holding an exhibition for Hildegarde de Bingen this autumn. “His writings have been consulted, she continues. That’s what made the monks plant hops and use the hops.” in their cervoise to prolong its preservation.

Hildegard of Bingen was not the first to discover the benefits of green hop cones. According to several historians, Pliny the Elder had already described the gustatory virtues of the plant in the 1st century. But it was indeed the German abbess who revealed – in writing – its preservative and disinfecting powers. At that time, in the 12th century, beer was also used to conserve water.

“It’s a very light base drink, about 1%, 1.1%. So it wasn’t really drunkenness that was wanted. It was really an alternative to water”.

Aubree Godefroid

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Visitors to Megaliternes Hus will be able to experience this, as the museum has brewed its own cervoise as part of the exhibition.

In terms of taste, we are far from the bitter Indian pale ale (IPA), the star beer of the bars in recent years. The monks did not skimp on spices – especially star anise and tripe – to reduce the taste of the hops. “There are no blonde beers that you can find today, they are cloudy amber beers”, explains Aubrée Godefroid. The Quest for Bitterness”coming later, she specifies, like the word beer. It was Philippe II of Burgundy who in 1434 appointed a fermented drink made from grain, flavored with hops. Before, hops were not used as a flavoring.”

The beer has been filled with alcohol and bitterness for centuries, while the writings of Hildegard of Bingen have almost fallen into oblivion. “She came back into favor in the 80s”, welcomes Aubrée Godefroid. Not for his praise of hops, but for another grain: spelt. The German nun described the nutritional benefits of the “wheat of galls”, but also recommended many plants and aromatic herbs to treat certain pains or ease digestion. A dietician ahead of her time, she has thus become a reference for followers of a healthy and rustic diet.

Hildegard of Bingen, an environmental icon in a way, but also a feminist. “She is someone who is very inspiring, a woman who had power in her time, says Aubrée Godefroid. She is one of the first to talk about women’s bodies. We came to consult her for problems that today we would associate with gynecology, which is quite fundamental and quite innovative at the time. We owe him a lot.”

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