The “Paenhuys van Diepenbeek”

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)

A visitation report, in 1719, by a certain Cox informs us that a stone “paenhuis” stood in the centre of the village of Diepenbeek, by the Roman road. The old one, Cox says, burnt down. Cox was intendant for the Commandery Alden Biezen; his document outlines the situation in Diepenbeek. He does this by answering 36 questions set by the Commander’s administrative staff. The administrative staff – and therefore the Commander himself – were thus kept abreast of all the latest comings and goings, profits and losses on all possessions on the estate of Diepenbeek: farms, smallholdings, mills, paenhuys.

We may not know the actual questions, but we can deduce from the answers, which begin with a brief geographical or historical description, that Commander Hendrik van Wassenaer (1690-1709) ordered the Paenhuis to be built somewhere around 1701. It was a “brauhaus” without house, farm, garden or estate. He himself was not even a brewer. Cox kept the keys, managed the building, kept the installation in good working order, and handed over the key (against useful consideration) to such persons as wished to brew beer there. A car wash or a juke box before its time. With the difference that the villagers were obliged to brew their beer in the Paenhuys; that was how they were taxed on their beer.

The villagers would bring their own brewing ingredients; equipment and water was included in the hire price. The water was drawn from the “Fonteyne” in the next street, from a lake, or from rainwater collected in a “bricked-up lump of stone”. The intendant paid for the regular cleaning of the lake and the rain pit.

The local farmers presumably malted their grain at home, in the loft, if indeed at all. Beer was also brewed on unmalted wheat or barley . Brewing observed the principle “first come, first served”. All the intendant required was prior notice. This was also on the understanding that the brewing would yield a minimum quantity of respectively 10 and 8 barrels of beer, to avoid damage to the coppers. The maximum capacity of the Paenhuys usually ran to three big and three small coppers per week. 18 to 20 batches would be brewed during the Summer, and 7 to 8 during the Winter. The villagers would pay 2 Liège guilders for a big copper of 21 aams, or 18 barrels of beer (3 000 litres); the price for a small copper – 14 aams (10 barrels) of beer – was 1.5 Liège guilders. By way of comparison: the construction of the Paenhuys itself cost the commander 7 000 Liège guilders out of his own pocket.

Why was there no resident brewer, like in the towns, or tenant taking the brewing franchise? A tenant-brewer who, as in other rural districts, could brew and sell beer as well as offering accommodation for the passing trade . Diepenbeek, with its 1 500 souls, was hardly a small village in 1719. And it was situated on a major highway. The answer is probably to be found in the meagre profits. Cox himself wrote that efforts had been made to rent out the Paenhuys, but no-one was interested. Profits for Alden Biezen eventually seemed so modest as not even to be able to repay the initial construction costs.


The French occupation after the French Revolution put paid to the system of excise, which the people of Diepenbeek were incidentally late in adopting. Late because, unlike other domains where the villagers were obliged, ever since the early Middle Ages, to brew their beer in the “bannale Paenhuys”, this was not the case in Diepenbeek until during the 18th Century. This came to pass because the original owners of Diepenbeek, Isabella Francesca de Merode and the de Gavere family were unable to assert their rights. However, the Teutonic Order did as much, after acquiring the manor during the last quarter of the 17th Century. Until 1700, the people of Diepenbeek were able to brew their beer, as it were, under their own steam (i.e., at home). Regional Commander Van Wassenaer asserted his right to knock down all brewing installations in Diepenbeek and oblige the local population to have their beer brewed in the newly-built Paenhuys so as to collect the revenue himself (for Alden Biezen).

After the French Revolution, the estate was sold to the public. The Paenhuys now became the property of the gemeente. However, the accounts show that brewing went into gradual decline from 1835, and that there was no income whatsoever from brewing in 1865. The local council therefore decided on 18 January 1866 to close the Paenhuys as a working brewery and to sell off all the furniture and fittings. The building was now used as a communal storage depot and, later, as a “remand centre”. Later still, there were plans to use the building to accommodate a library and, more recently, attempts have been made to protect the building as a monument . In the end, relocation to Bokrijk Open-Air Museum seemed to offer the ideal solution.

The building was in a sorry state of repair on relocation. Unfortunately, no foundations had been laid and, by the time of reconstruction, almost all traces that may otherwise have helped us today gain a better idea of the state of the building in the 18th Century had been completely erased. The demolition report mentioned the fact, among other things, that the left side of the door frame was set 80 cm deeper into the ground than the existing doorstep. The curator at the time, Weyns, suspected that the ground was built up over the years. Judging by the position of the windows, this conclusion now seems premature . No answer is forthcoming. Not even as to purpose of the square hole discovered reaching 80 cm into the east frontage. A mill post? A mechanism for animal propulsion? A water run-off? A hatch? To send the sodden malt draff direct to a nearby cowshed? Educated guess. Idle speculation. Too few clues.

Work on reconstruction in Bokrijk began in 24 October 1955. The report mentions that the original dividing walls were left out to create a single inner space, “perhaps its original form in earlier years, …” The ommission of the interior walls and the creation of big, open spaces still seemed to suit Weyns’ purposes in the beginning of the construction of the Open-Air Museum. Why is not altogether clear. Come to mention it, he did the same in Sint Gummarus; the interior walls came a-tumbling down to create a great banqueting hall.

Closer examination of the archives of Alden Biezen, of the ordinances of Diepenbeek, of the writings of J. Weyns, of those of the Ridderschap van de Roerstok , should lighten the relative darkness. It would appear from the memo by architect Kristien Ceyssens that restoration of the interior fixtures and fittings likewise presented serious problems. Wort boiler, stirring vats and cooling vessel came from the Tomsin brewery, Hoegaarden. They were set in their spatial context on flights of romantic fancy. The request of the Orde van de Roerstok, who financed the installation, to make the Paenhuis a “living tableau” of a bygone age, when “guildsmen made important decisions”, was resisted at the last gasp by Weyns himself.

Closer research should further reveal whether the Paenhuys, being a semi-public building , also had other functions. Examples include court sessions and information rounds for the local population. Perhaps the brewhouse also had a role in the social fabric of the village, like the village pump, where men and women came not only to work and to brew, but also to swap the news and share the general scuttlebutt. Maybe there were rules and regulations forbidding the use of grain for brewing in times of shortage etc.


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