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16th Century Antwerp Pubs

Beer history researcher Rowel Mulder, in his blog Lost Beers, talks about the many pubs in Antwerp in the 16th century and the variety of beers and wines you could try there.

Peasants having fun at the Swan Tavern
Painting by Peter Brueghel the Younger, “The Peasants Having Fun at the Swan Tavern” (c. 1630). Source: Wikimedia Commons
There are many cities in Belgium where you can spend the whole night moving from one pub to another. There is everything here: dark places hidden behind narrow medieval portals, and brightly lit eateries for simple hard workers. But the best place to walk around the pubs is Antwerp: here you will find sailors, students, the elderly hippies, workers and drunken Dutch. In the sixteenth century, the situation was not much different from the modern one, according to someone who knows a lot about booze: Bacchus himself, the god of winemaking.

Today in Antwerp there are about 870 pubs. It will take you more than a year to drink a pint of beer in each of them, and the damage that such a journey will cause to your liver is hard to evaluate. Most institutions, of course, are located in the center, this maze of streets and alleys, now and then cut by wide avenues. How often I wandered here, visited the legendary Kulminator, the De Vagant gin bar and the lively Den Engel. I recall the case when my friend and I accidentally ended up in a cafe where Flemish nationalists gathered (the big yellow flags on the wall spoke about this), and with all our innocence asked: “Is Stella really a Flemish beer?”

According to the “Prescription of Bacchus”, a satirical text dated 1580 and dedicated to the drinking culture of those times, Antwerp has long been a city of pubs. Those who are interested in the history of Belgian beer should read this document. At the time of its writing, Antwerp was the largest city in the Historic Netherlands with a population of 100,000. Amsterdam and Brussels were at least three times smaller. Antwerp was going through a real golden age: it was the most significant trading city in the northwestern part of Europe and did not stop growing rich. In addition, in 1577 the Spaniards hated by the Belgians were expelled, freedom of religion was proclaimed in the city and Calvinism was officially allowed, which, however, did not prevent the nightlife from flourishing …

Prescription of Bacchus
Fragment of the booklet “Prescription of Bacchus”
In 1580, an eight-page booklet called The Prescription of Bacchus (Het mandement van Bacchus) was released. It was a parody of judicial summons: in this document, the god of winemaking Bacchus urges his subjects to appear in “courts”, that is, in pubs. He accuses them of abusing alcohol and spoiling fox hides, which were apparently used in pubs to protect themselves from the cold. Next is a listing of 32 wines and 30 beers in descending order of quality. In addition, Bacchus mentions 92 pubs from at least 376 public institutions that existed in the city at that time. The real author of the work is still unknown – perhaps this is one of the furriers mentioned in the text.

What wines could be tasted in Antwerp? First of all, wines from the Rhine Valley in Germany are worth mentioning – the most common quality wines in the Historic Netherlands at that time. And this is understandable, because Germany was pretty close. Then Bacchus names several Mediterranean wines: Malveseyen, Romenyen, Muscadellen. These are sweet, liquor-like wines from the Greek islands. They are followed by French wines from Gascony, Alsace, Anjou, Poitou and Burgundy. Of all these areas, with the exception of the latter, it was not difficult to deliver wine to the port of Antwerp by sea.

An interesting fact is that at the end of the list there are several wines from the province of Brabant: from Leuven, Aarschot and … Hoogarden. Yes, some cities in South Brabant, today known mainly because of beer, were once famous for their wine. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the XVI century, winemaking in them began to fade. Here they made mostly simple house wines, which over time began to lose popularity. The high cost, temporary cooling and hostilities subsequently permanently wiped these wines from the face of the earth. Bacchus only tasted a few sweet wines from Roselberg Hill and the “Ducal Wine” (Tsertogen wijn) from Leuven. Subsequently, these wines also forever sunk into oblivion.

Belgian winemakers
Belgian winemakers. Fragment from the “Calendar of the Shepherds” (Troyes, 1529)
With local beer, things were much better. At the very beginning of his beer list, Bacchus mentions several foreign varieties: Jopen heavy beer from Danzig, oriental beer from Hamburg, English beer and Mumme dark beer from Braunschweig. They are followed by beer from Hugarden and Leuven, who also appeared on the list of wines. The beer brewed in these cities (apparently the best that could be found on the territory of modern Belgium) was valued more than their wine!

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