Science happening in Bokrijk

Brewing beer toan 18th-century recipe  Objectives
The brewing process
Science happening in Bokrijk
Science is not always dry as dust
The “Paenhuys van Diepenbeek”
Scientific analysis of a historic brewing process (dating from 1750)

During the Science Happening of 13 October 2001, beer was brewed in Bokrijk for the first time by researchers from Antwerp University. They staged a demonstration of the brewing process in the then newly restored 18th-century Paenhuys. The purpose of the exercise was to demonstrate, through the medium of simple brewing equipment, that the rather “mysterious world” of biochemistry underlies our everyday life (for those of us who appreciate the good things of life, at any rate). The event proved to be such a popular success that the curator, Mrs. Boesmans, and head of the educational department, Mrs. Vaes, of Bokrijk Open-Air Museum immediately suggested to us brewing, not only in the Paenhuys, but completely in the Paenhuys, … It had not occurred to anyone to use the restored brewery, including the infrastructure (from a Hoegaarden brewery), also 18th-century, for the very purpose for which it was originally intended: the brewing of beer. The fact that the brewery was wood-fired, that 1 500 litres had to be run over, filtered and pumped by hand, that the stokers would start work at 6 in the morning and that they would work until around midnight before the wort was ready frightened many away. For the brewing process to be authentic, use of modern equipment was not allowed. The challenge seemed just too much for all comers, …

That was all the reason Antwerp University needed to come and try their hand! Where, in October, the accent was mainly on the biochemistry of brewing, the 2002 experiment also focused on the history behind the brewing: the central question this time is “what happened first, second, third, … in the old brewing process, and how can we rerun it as authentically as possible?” Professors Bouwen and Clauwaert, Patrik Claes and Ludwig Callaerts began to dig and delve, to ferret and rummage around. Together with Prof. Derdelinckx (KUL), and with the scientific support of Prof. Van Uytven, they immersed themselves in old recipes.

The many contacts with the brewer family Martens from Bocholt, and the gift of 300 kilos of malt by the brewery “Het Anker”, Mechelen, got the project off to a flying start. Our thanks go out to the Martens and to “Het Anker”, helping us as they did in both word and deed, as well as making this historic brewing process possible with their creative contributions in the form of modern installations and methods. Shovelling crushed malt into the round coppery belly of the boiling vessel of the brewery “Het Anker” gave us plenty of time to reflect. To reflect … about what? Perhaps about divine or wonderful inspiration.
Antwerp University saw this history as a challenge, and threw its weight behind a project that drew together history and science. This instructive experiment has taught me that ‘trubzak’ is not a Limburg accordion, that ‘koelschip’ has nothing to do with our Antwerp merchantmen or with frozen food, and that ‘draf’ – draff – is more than the trip-trap of our heavy Brabant drayhorses.

Pasteur, a famous 19th-century chemist to whom we owe the microbiology course, was first to demonstrate the existence of yeast cells and bacteria. Thanks to his first steps, we now know that the processes of baking, beer brewing and wine-making have a common biochemical denominator: yeast. Beer has excellent keeping properties and is a healthy drink, free of harmful bacteria. Besides the fact that, to start with, the formed alcohol protects the beer against infection with microbes, the brewing process also involves a long boiling dwell that kills any bacteria that happen to be present. Although nobody knew any of this before Pasteur, trial-and-error use was made of it during the cholera and plague epidemics. In the days of the cholera and plague epidemics, it was noted that beer-drinkers did not fall ill. The monasteries doled out beer (naturally reserving the stronger versions for home consumption), and decrees were issued urging the townsfolk to drink beer instead of water, measures designed to contain the menace of cholera and the plague, … a Golden Age! The wonders of this divine process would not be revealed until much later, …

All this knowledge is now to hand in the Biomedical Department: besides its role in the cloning of genes, the mapping of protein structures, the unravelling of disease processes, etc., biochemistry, as it happens, also forms the scientific basis for the brewing process, although, much to the chagrin of some of us, Antwerp University has not yet founded a Department of Brewing Technology, …

Now at last, biochemistry, the history of the 18th Century and craft tradition come together in a historic context, here in the Paenhuys; a tradition that traces its origin back to the numerous abbey breweries. As you no doubt already know, part of the University of Antwerp consisted of the University Faculty of Saint Ignatius but, unfortunately, this Jesuit Order contented itself with the study of the history of the matter, … The fathers preferred pure water, holy mass wine and scientific knowledge. The interest of some of our students is somewhat different and is directed more towards the end-product …that is, towards the practical learning and ‘inward digestion’ of the adage: “Beer brewed with TLC should be drunk with a certain IQ”.


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