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Wreath for wine and straw for beer

Horse-trams, telephone and electricity come to Minsk: all thanks to beer
By Lyudmila Minakova

Belarusians’ ancestors used to drink up to 700 litres of beer a year. However, its consumers were mostly the nobility, as villagers were prohibited to brew alcoholic beverages and, accordingly, drank less. If the situation had been different, Belarusian brewing traditions would have arrived at modern times with only minor changes. As a result, we know little of the history of Belarusian beer. However, the beverage was extremely popular, and our forefathers even drank it in the morning instead of tea.

‘Gramatka’ vs coffee
Belarusian beer was first mentioned in 14th century chronicles confirming old brewing traditions. In the past, beer was as popular as bread. In the times of the Rzech Pospolita, a nobleman drank up to 3 litres of beer daily (almost 700-1,000 litres a year). Our forefathers could easily rival modern record setters, the Czechs, who drink about 160 litres of beer annually per capita.

However, our ancestors were not drunkards. Beer was considered to be a light beverage and was used, not only as a beverage, but as a food ingredient. Sausages, for example, were cooked in beer. In addition, beer was also served hot, jointly with honey or milk. Beer soup was also common, made with raw yolks, cream, cottage cheese and a range of spices. An expert in cultural matters, historian Ales Bely, has investigated the Belarusian beer traditions. He writes: ‘Such a soup (called ‘gramatka’, byarmushka’ or ‘faramushka’) or pure beer (warmed, and served with stale bread or cottage cheese) was eaten with toast. In the Rzech Pospolita period, beer soup replaced coffee or tea and, although they were gaining popularity in the 17th century, ‘gramatka’ still remained popular’.

Radziwills’ glassware
In the past, beer was drunk in ‘banyas’ or ‘tavernas’ which could be easily found in any village or town. A system of secret signs existed; enabling tavern visitors to learn what beverages were sold there. Those selling beer, placed a batch of straw (called a ‘vekha’) nearby. A saying even existed those times. ‘A wreath stands for wine and a vekha stands for beer’. A phrase ‘to move from one vekha to another’ was in common use. Horse drivers were aware of the places selling beer, and could easily lay their routes from one ‘vekha’ to another. Beer was mostly served in clay or wooden mugs, with glassware appearing in the 17th-18th century. The Radziwills’, Uretskaya and Nalibokskaya manufactures produced extremely popular glass cups.

As already mentioned, beer was brewed primarily by the nobility and townsfolk, as villagers were only allowed to brew beer for marriages. However, those paying the so-called ‘beer rent’ could brew for their own needs.

Home brewed beer was not good quality, and city beer was tastier as professional maltsers brewed it. Every city was eager to receive the privilege to run breweries, as beer brewing and selling brought in high profits. Mr. Bely notes in his paper: ‘A famous civil figure and Minsk’s Head, Duke Karol Czapski (who developed a Minsk brewery — now known as Alivariya) used his own funds (including those earned from beer brewing) to replenish the city budget. Owing to this, a horse-tram, telephone communication system, electricity and many other amenities were introduced to our city’.

Belarusian beer brewing traditions are yet to be studied in detail, yet this page of our history is no less interesting than song or dance folklore. Its study is truly exciting and useful. Modern domestic brewers could learn much from our forefathers.
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