What Beer Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages

March 11, 2020

By Diana Hubbell, March 11, 2020

In 2018, AB InBev produced an ad in which a king in a candlelit castle’s banquet hall roars, “Bud Lights for everyone!” only to be disrupted by a whiny, hipster-type asking for an “autumnal” mead with a specific flavor profile. After some eyeball-rolling, the branded Bud Light Knight throws the offender in the stocks and the rest of the people carry on drinking. It’s an obvious dig at craft connoisseurs, with the desired takeaway being that, back in the good old days, life was simpler and people worried less about the pronounced hop character in their double IPA. 

The world’s largest brewing conglomerate (which is an investor in October) is not the only company to use stock medieval imagery to sell beer. After a series of Super Bowl commercials featuring the same characters mocked Miller Lite for using corn syrup, Molson Coors Beverage Co. hit back with its own highly effective ad campaign. And neither company stumbled upon the idea by chance—craft breweries had been successfully using similar imagery for years.

“Those Budweiser ads are using a caricatured version of the Middle Ages to position craft as exclusionary and to show an idea of the period in which everyone wants to drink the same thing,” says Noëlle Phillips. “I see the engagement in Medievalism as an attempt to capture part of the craft industry after seeing that same technique used by craft successfully.”

Phillips is something of a modern-day Renaissance woman. The medieval scholar, professional belly dancer, avid homebrewer, and author of the recently published Craft Beer Culture and Modern Medievalism has spent serious time studying the real Middle Ages, but much of her fascination lies in our warped reinterpretation of them. Medievalism refers to the campy vision of the period knights, castles, kings, peasants, lords, and maidens found at every Ren Fair or outpost of Medieval Times. It’s a mythologized vision of a historical period that owes as much of a debt to Monty Python, Tolkien, and A Knight’s Tale as it does to early Europe. 

“Medievalism allows you to imagine the Middle Ages as whatever you want it to be,” Phillips says. “It tells you more about what we think about ourselves and what we want to be than the past."

Medievalism allows you to imagine the Middle Ages as whatever you want it to be. It tells you more about what we think about ourselves and what we want to be than the past.”

Craft breweries and brewpubs have long turned to Medievalism for promotional purposes, but have used it in a different way than their macro counterparts. Rather than lament the loss of the days when ordering a beer was a binary choice, these microbreweries fixate on a longing for pre-industrialized times and small-scale production.

“Craft brewers tend to use it to create a feeling of nostalgia,” Phillips says. “They focus on the idea that we’ve lost these older methods of production, that we’ve lost distinction and uniqueness in a time when big beer produces a homogenous version of beer.”

During the course of her research, Phillips went from Viking-inspired brewpubs like Muninn’s Post in British Columbia to monastic-themed brewpubs like The Lost Abbey in California, where customers can “confess” their sins, and The Black Abbey Brewing Company, housed in a gothic cathedral-like structure in Nashville, Tennessee where the only decoration is a copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Though none of these venues take themselves too seriously, underneath all the goofy pageantry was an idealization of a fictionalized past. 

While most of that is harmless fun, Phillips warns that there can be real problems with these sorts of false historical narratives once they begin to take over. At a certain point, if we see specific imagery repeated enough, we cease to question it—or what it might be omitting. 

“I had seen Medievalism in the beer industry for years, but it never occurred to me the extent of what was being erased,” Phillips says. “It flattens history. It plays to our sense of modern superiority and makes us feel more advanced and complex than they were back then.”

One of the elements that both macro and craft brewers miss when representing the Middle Ages is that women often ran the show when it came to brewing. Alewives were women who oversaw quality control and production across the Continent. Yet with rare exceptions, pointy-hatted brewing lady bosses somehow never make it to our modern-day Medieval beer marketing.  

Courtesy of Nöelle Phillips

“Modern beer has been branded as a masculine drink, which forgets the role that women played in the brewing industry,” Phillips says. “Women were incredibly central, essentially until beer became more profitable and more regulated. Medievalism allows us to forget about that. Instead, it focuses on monks, which is all about the monastic brotherhood.”

That’s not to say that the Trappist and Paulaner monks weren’t busy brewing away, but it ignores the reasons why women were driven out in the first place. As hops allowed ales to last longer and travel farther, beer suddenly became bigger business. Rather than allow these women brewers to step up their entrepreneurial game, the patriarchal society quite literally slut-shamed some of them out of it.

“As an industry becomes profitable, women historically are pushed out,” Phillips says. “Alewives were all of a sudden treated with misogyny and derision. There were poems saying they put chicken shit in their beer and they’re whores and they’ll seduce you and corrupt other women.”

Women were incredibly central, essentially until beer became more profitable and more regulated. Medievalism allows us to forget about that.”

Another facet of the Middle Ages that Medievalism gets wrong is the overwhelming whiteness of it all. Critics of Medievalism often point to the fact that it’s regularly used as an excuse to portray a more ethnically homogenous world, be that in Game of Thrones or in beer marketing.

“Our idea of Medievalism is often informed by our idea of whiteness, because it’s been represented that way since the 19th century,” Phillips says. “I made an attempt to examine how craft beer is a predominantly white industry and how it has attached to this ideal of this period. I think this is an ever-shifting landscape and most brewers are not doing this intentionally. It all ties back to the assumptions we make about beer, in terms of both the whiteness of it and the masculinity of it.”

More ominously, white nationalists from Richard Spencer to historic members of the Ku Klux Klan have historically co-opted medieval imagery. The heavily idealized concept of Scandinavian Vikings and noble Anglo-Saxon knights resurfaces again and again as evidence of an ethnically pure, superior “white” civilization stretching back to Greece and Rome.

“The field of Medieval Studies is incredibly fraught right now because of the way that white supremacist groups use the period to defend fascism and racism,” Phillips says. “It was not white or homogenous. They didn’t even conceptualize whiteness in the way that we do. It’s deeply problematic and not at all true.”

Just as actual Roman emperors bore little resemblance to the Caucasian, British-accented actors who often play them in movies and TV, the real Middle Ages were a whole lot more diverse than your average beer commercial might have you believe. Even after the fall of the Roman empire, which at its peak stretched well into Africa and the Middle East, lingering trade routes ensured human migration across its old territory. Meanwhile, the real Vikings weren’t all like the blue-eyed, red-bearded conquerors we consistently depict them as. 

“Vikings from the beginning were intermarrying with every country they encountered,” Phillips says. “Viking culture was inherently ethnically diverse, as was merchant culture once shipping developed.”

That’s not to say that Phillips will never set foot in a Viking-themed brewpub again. If anything, she finds these spaces especially interesting because of the sense of camaraderie they foster. Medieval archetypal tropes have become so ingrained in our culture that everyone recognizes them. A stylized historical backdrop provides a sort of common ground for beer-drinkers that everyone can enjoy. As far as Phillips is concerned, however, the Middle Ages are one time period when the truth is even more fascinating and bizarre than fiction. Rather than wallowing in nostalgia for something that never really existed, brewers could embrace the more complex reality.

“It’s interesting to see how these places use Medievalism to foster connections and community,” Phillips says. “Medievalism works because it’s a cultural touchstone, but I do think it could also be a good entrance into introducing people to some of the nuances of the period that are often overlooked.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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