The Wort at War

The Wort at War:

A History of Human Conflict and Its Impact upon Beer

By: Michael J. Slocum (April 2012)



“Sing Heav’nly Muse …  In the beginning how the heav’ns and earth Rose out of Chaos.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost   


Milton’s epic poem ties the very creation of the Earth and Man to the fabled war between the angelic armies of Lucifer and God.  Whatever one thinks of Milton’s historical accuracy, it does seem that war has been with us since time immemorial.  So too has been the making of beer, which dates back thousands of years to some of the earliest periods of recorded history.  And over the centuries, war has had many significant impacts on beer and brewing.…           

All Roads Lead to Rome, and Then to Beer

In the final century B.C., the Romans controlled a vast Empire encircling the Mediterranean Sea – from the shores of the English Channel in the north, south to the Strait of Gibraltar and the coasts of Africa, and spreading from west to east across Italy and Macedonia into Syria.  Although primarily oenophiles, the Romans were not unfamiliar with beer, having doubtless encountered it in their trade with the Egyptian kingdoms and among the Germanic tribes during Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (58-51 B.C.).[1] 

The Egyptians, on the other hand, had by this time been brewing for several thousand years:  there is evidence that the Egyptians of the Pre-dynastic era (5500-3100 B.C.) were brewing beers made from barley and a variety of herbs – including the psychotropic mandrake root – although hops were evidently not used.  And it seems that it was not until their conquest of Egypt, beginning with the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., that the Romans first encountered brewing on a large scale.   

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, the resulting power vacuum was the driving force behind much of Roman politics.  The two leading candidates to succeed to Caesar’s authority were his adopted son, Octavian, and his former officer, Mark Antony.[2]  Their rivalry brought Rome to the brink of civil war until they agreed, in the Pact of Brundisium in 40 B.C., to divide the empire between them.  Octavian took the western territories, Hispania and Gallia; Antony took the eastern, including Macedonia and the Asian Peninsula (modern-day Turkey) – he also took Octavian’s sister, Octavia, as his wife.

The peace was not to last long, however.  Through a series of political missteps – in particular his bigamous marriage to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra in 36 B.C. – Antony severely damaged his reputation in Rome.  By the end of the decade, Antony’s standing in Roman political circles had been destroyed.  Believed to be enthralled to the exotic Cleopatra, and branded a traitor to both his Roman wife and the Empire at large, he found himself the focus of Octavian’s military wrath. 

In September 31 B.C., their opposing navies – Antony and Cleopatra’s financed in large measure by a special tax on Egyptian beer, believed to have been the first beer tax in history – clashed off the shores of Actium, on the western coast of Macedonia (modern-day Greece).  Although Antony and Cleopatra managed to escape and flee to Egypt, their forces were obliterated.  Octavian chased his quarry to Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile, where he intended to subjugate all of Egypt to the Roman Empire.  By late summer of the following year, Octavian had succeeded in his task – and both Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide. 

Following Octavian’s conquest of Egypt, Roman literature increasingly referenced Egyptian brewing.  The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of Egyptian beer, or “zythum.”  Diodorus Siculus reported in his Biblioteca Historica that the Egyptians “make a drink of barley [and] for smell and sweetness of taste it is not much inferior to wine.”  As the years passed, the Romans increasingly made beer and its manufacture a part of their military culture – although their traditional predilection for wine appears never to have lost its hold.  Roman general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who commanded the Roman armies in their conquest of Britannia, personally employed several brewers of British descent.  And in the year 179 A.D., the Romans under Emperor Marcus Aurelius built a brewery to supply the legionnaires stationed at Castra Regina on the Danube River.                   

The Sun Never Sets on a British Ale

The chorus of a patriotic British song exhorts, “Britannia Rule the Waves!”  Fitting, as British influence in the world was in large measure founded not upon the relatively modest Royal Army – an army that, after all, failed to suppress a colonial uprising in the Americas – but upon the Royal Navy and its ability to project British power, and more importantly British commerce, to every corner of the globe. 

Nowhere, perhaps, was this better illustrated that in Britain’s dominion over India.  In fact, it was not through the application of brute military force that Britain came to control India, but rather through a series of diplomatic partnerships with key local figures.  As the imperial rule of the Moghul dynasties began to crumble, Britain carefully allied itself with numerous provincial leaders, playing one maharajah off the other and slowly extending its hegemony over the sub-continent.  By the time the India Act of 1784 established the Board of Control of the East India Company, Britain had assumed the role of benevolent caretaker, manning relatively few key positions with British troops and instead providing training and assistance to the local armies of its loyal clients.        

Among other “home comforts,” the troops in India craved British beer – and would for many decades to come.  In the autumn of 1896, for example, Winston Churchill, at the time a Second Lieutenant attached to the Fourth Hussars of Britain’s cavalry, was stationed along with the rest of his unit in Bangalore, India.  While there, he wrote to his mother, he was a “teetotaler … drinking lemon squash – or occasionally – beer – which after all is but a temperance prescription.”  Fortunately for Churchill and his fellow soldiers, their countrymen back in Britain were eager to quench their thirst. 

The East India Company quickly began exploiting the vast new market that the colonies represented, employing nearly six dozen ships to make regular runs to India.  George Hodgson, a British brewer and tenacious entrepreneur, had opened an east London ale brewery in 1752.  Almost forty years later, recognizing the potential new market for his product, he began shipping his ale to India and for a time dominated the scene.  Of course, Hodgson was but one of the first, and by no means the only, brewer to tap into this market.  Competitors such as Samuel Allsopp and William Bass would stake their own claims before long.    

The common challenge each of them faced was brewing a beer that could survive the roughly five-month sea journey to India – no mean feat in an age without refrigeration.  The answer was to add hops at a rate far higher than customary, thus increasing their preservative power.  The resulting beer came to be known as India Pale Ale, a style now widely recognized by the nickname “IPA.”       

Belgian Breweries – Both Blessed and Cursed

Belgians are (and have long been) revered in the brewing world, considered pioneers, artists and masters of the brewing sciences.  Belgium has been called “the Disneyland of beer,” and Belgian brews have been described as among “the most intriguing, mysterious and erotic styles of beer ever made” and “deserv[ing of] their association with mischief and devilry!”  But it’s said that no good deed ever goes unpunished, and over the centuries Belgium’s brewers have endured much punishment indeed.       

The French Revolution of the 1790s brought with it the sacking of many of Belgium’s monastic breweries, including those at Orval and Rochefort.  With the subsequent reign of Napoleon Bonaparte came the nationalization of (and consequent loss of monastic control over) many Belgian breweries, including that at Leffe (sacked in 1794 and declared state property in 1796).

Kaiser Wilhelm plunged the world into war by invading Belgium in early August 1914.  Before long, the German army would raid many of Belgium’s breweries to gain the precious copper found in their kettles and other equipment.  The fabled Trappist breweries of Achel, Chimay, Rochefort, and Westmalle – like many of their lesser-known brethren – fell victim to the Kaiser’s invading forces.  When German armies returned some twenty-five years later, this time on the orders of Adolph Hitler, many Belgian brewers buried their equipment in nearby fields rather than risk losing it again.  But not all managed to escape the renewed German onslaught – the breweries of Chimay and Affligem, for example, were among those to suffer destruction a second time.

German affronts to Belgian brewing did not end with ransacking of the breweries.  During both the First and Second World Wars, occupied Belgium faced German-imposed caps on the strength of beer that could be produced.  The Belgian spirit would prevail, however, championed by brewers such as those at Rochefort, who produced a modest volume of medium-strength beer for the sick throughout the Second World War, and later marketed their product to the public once peace returned.                              

Prohibition: How the Kaiser Turned America Dry

Brewing in the American colonies, and later in the nascent United States, was dominated by English beer traditions.  While relations with the English crown had been strained long before the outbreak of actual hostilities – in 1769, for example, George Washington had leant his support to a ban on the import of British goods, including beer – American appreciation for English beer persisted. 

The 1800s, however, witnessed a massive influx of German immigrants, who brought with them a passion for beer and brewing.  Unlike their British colleagues, who traded mostly in ales, German brewers specialized in lager beers, and the style proved immensely popular in the New World.  Brewer-barons like Adolphus Busch, John Straub, and David Yuengling built personal empires upon the sale of their lagers, and the hold of German traditions on the American brewing industry seemed firm – until the outbreak of the First World War.

On the morning of June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, was travelling with his wife, by car, through Sarajevo, a Bosnian city in the Empire of Austria-Hungary not far from the Serbian border.  Gavrilo Princip, a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist trained by the “Black Hand” terrorist organization, fired two pistol shots into the car as it made its way down a narrow street – he struck both passengers.  The Archduke soon bled to death, as did his wife. 

In the weeks that followed, Austria-Hungary made demands for Serbian penance that were calculatedly unacceptable, and on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary ultimately declared war on Serbia.  The response throughout Europe was precipitous – allies were pressed, treaty obligations were invoked, and within four days Russia, Germany and France had formally declared themselves at war.  When German troops invaded neutral Belgium in early August – the first thrust of the infamous “Schlieffen Plan” – Britain honored its pledge to defend Belgian neutrality and declared war against Germany.        

American opinion of the war ran the gamut – many of British descent favored the Allied cause, while those of German lineage were more swayed by the Kaiser’s claim for German ascendancy.  On the whole, however, American opinion was predominantly neutral – and ardently anti-interventionist.[3] 

Over time, however, as the stories of German atrocities and outrages (some true, many fabricated) began to mount, a growing anti-German sentiment gained steam throughout America.  Of course, the Temperance and Prohibition movements were neither founded upon nor initially inspired by anti-Teutonic sentiment.  But this sentiment proved a boon to the Prohibitionists’ cause nonetheless.  In February 1918, as the legislatures of the several States were just beginning to consider ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, the Milwaukee Journal quoted one dry politician as declaring, “We have German enemies across the water.  We have German enemies in this country too.  And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.”

Pro-temperance activists also cited more pragmatic considerations following America’s entry into the European theater of war.  Arguing that the barley used in the nation’s breweries would be better reserved for feeding the troops, William Jennings Bryan asked, “How can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor when men are crying out for bread?”  Theodore Roosevelt, although not pro-Temperance on principle, echoed the cry:  “When we must feed our army and help the armies of our allies, not a bushel of grain should be permitted to be made into intoxicating liquor.”

A series of Senate hearings and Congressional inquiries, and the reports they produced, portrayed brewers like Pabst and Schlitz as beholden to German interests.  The popular outcry against anything German grew steadily louder, and the Prohibitionists harnessed this energy in furtherance of their cause.  The result was the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in January 1919, while U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau were attending the first days of the Paris Peace Conference.

Prohibition would not last long, however, and in December 1933 ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment brought legal brewing back to the United States.  Of course, war’s impact was still to be felt.  Less than a decade later, America had entered a Second World War, which was to prove considerably more costly than the First.  Even after the formal declaration of peace in 1945, the toll taken by the two World Wars on both materials and energy rendered production of strong or otherwise resource-intensive beers economically difficult (if not impossible).  Not surprisingly, the beers that best survived these challenges were relatively light, both in body and strength, and heavily reliant upon adjuncts such as rice and corn for their sources of fermentable sugars.  It would take several decades before “craft beer” could regain a meaningful foothold in the American market.


“Give me a woman who truly loves beer,” Kaiser Wilhelm is said to have boasted, “and I will conquer the world.”  Whatever opinion his wives may have had on the subject of beer, the fact remains that it did not deliver him dominion over the globe.  Still, the Kaiser’s military ambition had an undeniable impact on beer and the brewing industry throughout the world. 

And so it has been throughout the centuries.  Man’s wars – with their geographic relocation of populations, their capacity to inflame animosity toward opposing cultures, and their sheer devastation of resources – have greatly influenced his beer.            


Selected Sources

100 Years of Brewing: A Complete History of the Progress made in the Art, Science and Industry of Brewing in the World, particularly during the Nineteenth Century, (H.S. Risch & Co. 1903) (Arno Press reprint 1974)

Actium 31 BC: Downfall of Antony and Cleopatra, Si Sheppard (Osprey Publishing Ltd. 2009)

Brew Like A Monk: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition, Stan Hieronymus (Brewers Publications 2005)

Churchill: A Life, Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt & Co. 1991)

The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, Charlie Papazian (Harper Collins Publishers 3d ed. 2003)

The Complete Story: World War I, Robert Ryan (narrator) (CBS DVD, Timeless Media 2008)

Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate Guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles, Ray Daniels (Brewers Publications 1996/2000)

The First World War: A Complete History, Martin Gilbert (Henry Holt & Co. 1994)

The Homebrewer’s Recipe Guide, Patrick Higgins, Maura Kate Kilgore & Paul Hertlein (Fireside/Simon & Schuster 1996)

The Isles: A History, Norman Davies (Oxford University Press 1999)

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent (Scribner/Simon & Schuster 2010)

More Homebrew Favorites, Karl Lutzen & Mark Stevens (Storey Publishing 1997)

Napoleon: A Biography, Frank McLynn (Arcade Publishing 1997)

The Oxford Companion to Beer, Garrett Oliver (editor) (Oxford University Press 2012)

Pale Ale: Classic Beer Style Series, Terry Foster (Brewers Publications 2d ed. 1999)

Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan (Random House 2003)

Porter: Classic Beer Style Series, Terry Foster (Brewers Publications 1992)

A Practical Companion to the Constitution, Jethro K. Lieberman (University of California Press 1999)

Radical Brewing: Recipes, Tales & World-Altering Meditations in a Glass, Randy Mosher (Brewers Publications 2004)

The Wars of America, Robert Leckie (Castle Books 1998)

[1]More than one hundred years later, the Roman scholar Publius Cornelius Tacitus would write of the Germanic tribes that they “drink a juice from grain, but fermented, which somehow resembles adulterated wine.”

[2]Antony had been a celebrated officer in the Roman cavalry, and a member of the First Triumvirate.  It is Antony who, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, opens his funerary oration with the famous lines, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”  Julius Caesar, Act III, scene II.  

[3]This is not to suggest that America merely sat idle and watched Europe burn.  When, at the very outset of hostilities in the summer of 1914, German occupation of Belgium led to the specter of widespread famine, Americans, under the leadership of future-President Herbert Hoover, were at the vanguard of a colossal humanitarian relief effort to feed the Belgian people.