A Barrel of Beer for the Benedictine Brothers
There were times when people told legends of saints and blesseds, of their great piety and their alleged miracles, to give people an example of how to heroically keep one's faith and stay in God's grace. Nowadays, some of these stories are being told to help sell beer. We've already talked about the legend of "Saint Piva of Warka". Today, on the 416th anniversary (give or take a few days) of his death, we're going to take a look at a certain Błażej Pęcherek (pronounced BWAH-zhey pen-HEH-rek), who lived in a region of what is now west-central Poland, known as Greater Poland. Better known as Father Bernard of Wąbrzeźno (pronounced vawm-BZHEZH-naw), he is famous for his legendary role in the creation of Grodziskie beer.
Here's the legend as told by Greater Poland's official tourist website:
|In 1599, Błażej of Wąbrzeźno joined the Benedictine monastery at Lubiń, taking the monastic name Bernard. At that time, Greater Poland was being ravaged by numerous plagues. One day, the monk arrived in the town of Grodzisk, which was affected by pestilence. What he saw there was terrible to behold. The entire town seemed deserted. The streets were littered with corpses with no one to bury them.
All of the town's wells had gone dry, even the largest one, from which local beer brewers drew water for their breweries. Those who hadn't succumbed to the disease now faced starvation. The monk took pity on the burghers, so he fell to his knees and began to pray fervently for God to have mercy on the town. When he made a sign of the cross over the well, it started to fill with water. What was particular about the water was that whoever drank it, would recover from illness, and that the beer brewed from it would become famous. After Father Bernard's death, the inhabitants of Grodzisk initiated yearly pilgrimages, bringing a barrel of Grodzisk beer to his grave at Lubiń. This tradition survived as long as Grodzisk beer was being brewed. The locals hope to revive it one day.
|— Podanie o Bernardzie z Wąbrzeźna, in: Region Wielkopolska, Wojewódzka Biblioteka Publiczna i Centrum Animacji Kultury w Poznaniu, own translation
As with every legend, so does this one bring about so many questions: who was this Bernard? Was the town of Grodzisk (pronounced GRAW-jeesk) really ravaged by an epidemic? Did the town well really fill with water thanks to Bernard's prayers and was the water really perfect for brewing beer? Is it true that the inhabitants of Grodzisk brought a keg of the beer each year as a votive offering to Bernard's grave in Lubiń? And was the beer really famous for its health-promoting properties?
The Life of Bernard
Let's begin with Bernard, referred to in some sources as "the Blessed Bernard" – even though his beatification process has never come to conclusion, so at best he gets to be styled "the Servant of God". Little is known about his life apart from what we can find in hagiographic sources, whose main aim is to present a case (so far, unsuccessfully) for his beatification. If we prune all the flattery about his "holiness which shines a light so bright as to compel all to worship and adore him" and the long list of miracles ascribed to him "with which he conquered even the eyes and minds of the enemies of monastic life", we'll be left with a biography no longer than a few sentences.
Błażej Pęcherek was born in 1575 as one of eight children of Paweł Pęcherek, a mayor of Wąbrzeźno (a town also known by the German name, Frideck), and his wife, Dorota. When Błażej was 11, his parents sent him to a Jesuit school in Poznań, the major city of Greater Poland. There he became acquainted with some Benedictine monks and he liked their way of life so much that he joined their monastic community just after graduating at the age of 24. A year later, in 1600, he concluded his novitiate and took his vows as Brother Bernard. He was ordained priest soon afterwards, thus changing from a "Brother" into a "Father". Only two years after joining the monastery, Father Bernard became a master of novices, responsible for training new monks. This promising monastic career was cut short not long after that, on 2 June 1603, when, after a brief illness, Father Bernard died at the age 28 in the odour of holiness.
It turns out, then, that even if the Grodzisk beer had the miraculous healing properties it's been claimed to have, then our Bernard must have never drunk it – otherwise, he would have lived a little longer. So what, if anything, did the Benedictine monk have to do with the beer? And what's so special about the beer brewed in Grodzisk anyway?
When it comes to beer-brewing traditions and to variety of beer styles, Poland is certainly far behind such beer powers as the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium or England. Only a decade ago, about the only beer that was brewed and drunk in Poland was various brands of so-called international pale lager, produced by giant corporations and as similar in taste as possible to the one beverage quaffed by absolutely everyone in the world – water. This is how the Polish beer market was described back in 2011 by Mr. Ryan Gostomski, the U.S.-imported president of the Namysłów Brewery in southwestern Poland, writing for The Oxford Companion to Beer:
|Today, the market is 95% controlled by four large brewers: SAB Miller, Heineken, Carlsberg, and Royal Unibrew. Beer drinkers have shunned their local brewers for the brands of global players who introduced marketing tactics from the Western world. For those seeking Polish beers with more flavor, there are some beacons of hope. Notable styles that have survived the market upheaval are the Baltic Porter and Kozlak beers.|
|— Ryan Gostomski: Poland, in: Garret Oliver: The Oxford Companion to Beer, Oxford University Press, 2013
However, the koźlak is nothing more than a Polish version of the German Bock, while the Baltic porter is brewed – as the name of the style implies – throughout the Baltic Sea basin. Does it mean that Poland hasn't made any original contribution to the world of beer? Not exactly. The one unique native style that Poland has to offer is Grodziskie (pronounced graw-JEESK-yeh), also known as Grodzisz (GRAW-jeesh) or by its German name, Grätzer (GRATE-sir). The only problem is that this beer style, well… it went extinct.
Let's go back to Mr. Gostomski's article:
|A style often written about is a smoked wheat ale from the former Grodzisk brewery. This style has died out, although a Polish businessman has purchased the land where the former brewery was located and plans to resurrect the brewery and Grodzisk beer. The worldwide brewing community eagerly awaits this revival. Grodzisk beer was characterized by effervescence, smokiness, and a dry finish, and could be dubbed Poland’s “Champagne of Beers.” The beer was relatively light, ranging from 2%–5% ABV. Although this beer is no longer brewed commercially, Polish homebrewers organize a yearly competition to brew this style in its hometown of Grodzisk. The beer writer Michael Jackson once listed the Grodzisz ale as a “world-class beer.”|
Yes, it's that Michael Jackson, the famous connoisseur of beer and whisky (just making sure it's clear, because I've heard there was some other Michael Jackson too). Anyway, coming back to Grodziskie, it's a top-fermented beer that is brewed from oak-smoked wheat malt. You can see it's an old style; in the past all malt was made in open-fire kilns, so practically all malt was smoked. Once brewed, the beer is clarified with isinglass, or a kind of glue made from fish swim bladders (another time-honoured practice), then bottled and allowed to referment in bottles (just like Champagne), which gives it a distinctively large head of foam when poured.
The name comes from the town of Grodzisk (or Grätz in German), where it was brewed from as early as the 17th century until 1993. That year, during a period of rapid privatization and consolidation of Poland's beer market (it had been only four years since the fall of Communism), the last active brewery in Grodzisk was acquired and promptly shut down by the larger brewing company, Lech Browary Wielkopolski (or "Lech Breweries of Greater Poland"), which now belongs to Kompania Piwowarska ("Beer-Brewing Company"), which in turn has been owned by SAB Miller, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Asahi. And this is how Grodziskie became a historical beer style.
The United States, a country which until not so long ago was known for its distinctively tasteless beers, also happens to be the home of the Beer Revolution. It was the American beer drinkers who first said "enough" to the adjunct-infused pale lagers mass-produced by multinational breweries and began brewing their own beers – first at homes or in garages and then increasingly in brewpubs and craft breweries. The number of U.S. breweries skyrocketed in the 1990s and again in the 2010s; by 2015, the 1873 record of 4,131 breweries, had been broken.
Home and craft brewers looking for new flavours eventually reached for historical recipes – the more exotic, the better. The first attempt to recreate the extinct Grodziskie beer (which got Jackson's seal of approval) took place in America as early as 1997. With time, the Beer Revolution spread across the globe, reaching Poland in the early 2010s. Bringing Poland's only native beer style back from the dead became the Holy Grail of Polish brewers (although quite a lot of this style is also being brewed in America, perhaps even more than in Poland). The task was relatively easy as Grodziskie had only become a historical style less than two decades before. Drinkers who remembered its taste and brewery employees who remembered the recipe were still around; the Grodzisk strain of yeast had been preserved as well.
Still, it wasn't smooth sailing from the start. In the U.S., there were debates regarding the correct definition of the style; for some time, Grodziskie was erroneously classified as a sour beer! And the use of inappropriate kinds of smoked malt sometimes resulted in a cigar or sausage-flavoured beer, which is not what real Grodziskie should be.
Eventually, the Polish Home Brewers' Association set up a special commission in 2011 to come up with guidelines for brewing a beer that would best reflect the historical Grodziskie style. The commission has manged to pinpoint most details of the recipe: 100% oak-smoked wheat malt, the preserved Grodzisk mix of top-fermenting yeast, aromatic Nowotomyski hops from the Greater Poland town of Nowy Tomyśl (which may be replaced with other Central European aromatic hop varieties, like Lublin, Saaz or Hallertauer), clarification with isinglass, refermentation in bottles, etc.
And last, but not least, the mineral profile of the water. Even if good beer should not taste like water, water is still the principal ingredient of beer; its quality and chemical composition have a tremendous impact on the quality and flavour of the beer that is brewed with it. For Grodziskie, the water should come as close as possible to that from the Grodzisk town well – or the wells that were used by local breweries once the town well proved to be insufficient to sustain production on a larger scale.
|The very hard water drawn from these wells may be considered good for beer-brewing purposes, although not for brewing a Pilsner-style pale lager. The high calcium and magnesium content helps the processes of mashing and fermentation, while the high concentration of sulfates brings out the bitterness in beer. The large amounts of chloride and sodium ions serve to enhance taste perception, which is particularly important for light beers.|
|— Andrzej Sadownik: Projekt „Grodziskie redivivus”: Raport nr 2 ze stanu prac komisji PSPD ds. piwa grodziskiego, Polskie Stowarzyszenie Piwowarów Domowych, 2012, own translation
From Plague, Pestilence and Shortage of Beer
So let's return to Father Bernard and how he supposedly saved Grodzisk from an epidemic that befell the town. This is how it happened according to his hagiographer, Father Marcin Chwaliszewski:
|In the year 1620, remembered for the Polish defeat at Țuțora and other great calamities, including the pestilence which ravaged the entire nation, when this terrible disease betided the town of Grodzisk in the Diocese of Poznań and when its inhabitants […] for 40 days joined in processions and public prayers, they saw a person surrounded by a bright light, rising above the town in heavenly clouds, holding a cross and clad in Benedictine garb. Enlightened by Divine instinct and by Father Andrzej Karsznicki, who had known Bernard well since their school years, they understood that it was a sign from God that the entire town should piously visit the tomb of this Venerable Servant of God in the Lubiń monastery. […] Every year, the thankful town of Grodzisk made a voluntary offering of a keg of beer to the Lubiń monastery and a candle for Bernard's tomb. These offerings continued until the monastery's dissolution in 1835.|
|— Marcin Chwaliszewski: Żywot i cuda wielebnego sługi Bożego o. Bernarda z Wąbrzeźna, Poznań: nakładem autora, 1881, p. 40–42, own translation
Well then, what about the well? Did Bernard miraculously fill it with water or not? Even if he did, it couldn't have happened in 1620, as this would have been 17 years after his death. According to the hagiographic account, Bernard helped deliver the town dwellers from pestilence only as a ghost. The only detail that checks out is the keg of beer given to the monastery each year. Where, then, does the story about the well come from? The oldest version of that legend I found is the one told by Count Edward Raczyński, who thus described his visit at the Lubiń Benedictine church in his Memories of Greater Poland:
|While admiring the sepulchers, I looked with reverence at the monument to Bernard, a monk of this monastery, who is counted among the blessed and whose tomb stands close to the church door. […] One day, as I have been told here, the Blessed Bernard went to Grodzisk, where he encountered its residents greatly distressed because the well whence they drew water for the brewery, which was the sole source of income for the town and the local hospital, had run completely dry. The monk took pity of the hapless populace, said a prayer to God and blessed the well, in which, as if from beneath an Artesian drill, a spring rose up immediately. The brewers got to work at once and what was their surprise when, having tasted the new batch of beer, they found it inimitably better than ever before.
I shall not vouch for the veracity of this account, but what I am sure of is that the beer of Grodzisk has been famous throughout the region for centuries and that until a few dozen years ago the inhabitants of Grodzisk marched in yearly procession to Lubiń, where they left a keg of beer on the Blessed Bernard's tomb as an offering to the monastery.
|— Edward Raczyński: Wspomnienia Wielkopolski, to jest województw poznańskiego, kaliskiego i gnieźnieńskiego, vol. I, Poznań: Drukarnia Orędownika, 1842, p. 246–247, own translation
Again, the amount of beer offered to the monks checks out – but that's it. There's no mention of any epidemic in Raczyński's story. The calamity that Father Bernard miraculously resolved (in this version, during his lifetime) was the lack of water for brewing beer. It seems that it was only much later that someone combined these two legends into one; perhaps they thought that a story about the dried-up well should be made more dramatic by adding pestilence into it. As if shortage of beer weren't a disaster terrible enough!
Healthful Grodziskie Beer
In any case, the legend thus pieced together served, on the one hand, to justify the very important (from the monks' point of view) custom of giving the monastery a keg of beer every year and, on the other hand, it reinforced Grodziskie's reputation as a beer to cure all ills. In the past, beer (in general) was indeed safer to drink than water – firstly, because the process of brewing required good-quality boiled water and, secondly, the alcohol and the hops had additional antiseptic properties. But even with all this in mind, Grodziskie beer stood out as a beer style that could be even used as medicine.
|Grodziskie grew in fame throughout Greater Poland to the point that any nobleman who had no Grodziskie beer in store was considered either a pauper or a miser. It owed much of its esteem to doctors who valued it as highly as mineral waters. It is a light and tasty beer which doesn't spin your head around; doctors, who in all kinds of ailments forbid you to take any other liquors, allow you to drink Grodziskie and indeed prescribe it in some cases.|
|— Jędrzej Kitowicz: O trunkach, in: Opis obyczajów i zwyczajów za panowania Augusta III, Poznań: 1840, p. 214–215, own translation
A beer style so famous commanded an adequately high price, set by the guild of maltsters and brewers together with the Grodzisk town council. In the 17th–18th centuries, the beer was not only offered to the Lubiń monastery, but it was used a kind of virtual currency; mayors of Poznań received part of their payment in the beer and the hatters' guild in a nearby town specified a barrel of the beer as a penalty for price undercutting.
The belief in Grodziskie's health-promoting properties flourished well into the 20th century, when its advertisements stressed that "Grodziskie beer is often prescribed by physicians to convalescents and those suffering from stomachache and even diabetes." What made it an unlikely medicine was that it was also tasty and refreshing. According to an 18th-century source, in Poznań the beer was drunk "more for its taste than out of need".
One can say that Grodziskie, formerly brewed in only a single town and then – for some time – nowhere, is now an international style (even if still a rather niche one). In 2015, this style's production finally returned to a newly opened brewery in Grodzisk itself, where it is now brewed under the "Piwo z Grodziska" ("Beer from Grodzisk") brand. Like in the past, it is still light-coloured, low-alcohol, effervescent, refreshing and (perhaps) healthy.
- Marcin Chwaliszewski: Żywot i cuda wielebnego sługi Bożego o. Bernarda z Wąbrzeźna, Poznań: nakładem autora, 1881, p. II
- Ibid., s. 40
- Ibid., s. 3–4
- Ibid., s. 6
- Ibid., s. 15
- Ibid., s. 20
- Ibid., s. 22–23
- Ibid., s. 25–26
- Ibid., s. 33
- Tomasz Kopyra: Piwo: wszystko, co musisz wiedzieć, żeby nie wyjść na głupka, Otwarte, 2016
- Mapping The American Brewing Renaissance, in: VinePair, New York City
- Ron Pattinson: Why do I bother, in: Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, Blogspot, 5 December 2013
- Wiktor Szmelich: O historii i sposobie wytwarzania unikalnego piwa grodziskiego, in: Przemysł Fermentacyjny i Owocowo-Warzywny, 1, Wydawnictwo Czasopism i Książek Technicznych SIGMA-NOT, 1994, p. 8
- Stare reklamy piwa grodziskiego, in: TVN24, 2013
- W. Szmelich, op. cit., p. 8
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