What did medieval people drink?

What did medieval people drink? It wasn’t just alcoholic beverages, though alcohol was so commonly drunk at every meal that it was almost a food rather than a beverage.

Water–Yes, people drank water in the Middle Ages! https://io9.gizmodo.com/no-medieval-people-didnt-drink-booze-to-avoid-dirty-w-1533442326

All over the internet, sources say that water was not drunk in the Middle Ages due to impurities. Certain sources question that, in large part because people didn’t know where disease came from, so how would they have pinpointed water as the source of the problem?  Maybe because it didn’t taste good? Other sources indicate that water might not have been drunk often, but that it may have been more of a class thing, rather than a health issue. Poor people drank water, since they couldn’t afford wine or beer. Medieval people did have access to well water, which was a relatively clean source of water.

Regardless, while water was readily available, even if a person might choose wine, beer, or mead over water if he could. This is a list of possible water-based and non-alcoholic drinks that medieval people might have drunk:  http://mbhp.forgottensea.org/noalcohol.html

Milk–among the Celts and later the Welsh and English, milk was drunk as well as eaten in great quantity as cheese, butter, cream, etc. The Welsh in particular were herders of sheep, goats, and cattle, so milk was a widely available cheap (if not free) food for all classes of people, and an important source of protein. http://www.medieval-recipes.com/medieval-food/milk/

Wine–Wine was drunk all over France and the Mediterranean  where grapes were grown. It was less common in Britain where it would have had to have been imported. The wealthy did import it, however, and particularly as the centuries progressed, lords and kings would have drunk wine as a matter of course. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_wine

Mead–a common beverage in Wales made from fermented honey. Essentially, it is honey wine. The Welsh were herders, not farmers, so they didn’t grow grains in the same quantity as the English. I talk about what mead is here:  http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/what-is-mead/

Cider–a less common beverage, but derived from the fermentation of fruits, usually apples.  http://www.archiveofciderpomology.co.uk/origins_of_cider.htm

Beer— an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. It is a generic term that includes other fermented beverages such as ale. Nowadays, beer includes hops, which weren’t added to beer until the 16th century. “Beer was the first alcoholic beverage known to civilization, however, who drank the first beer is unknown. Historians theorize that humankind’s fondness for beer and other alcoholic beverages was a factor in our evolution away from a society of nomadic hunters and gathers into an agrarian society that would settle down to grow crops (and apparently drink). The first product humans made from grain & water before learning to make bread was beer.” http://inventors.about.com/od/bstartinventions/a/beer.htm

“As the cultivation of barley spread north and west, brewing went with it. As time passed, the production of beer came under the watchful eye of the Roman Church. Christian abbeys, as centers of agriculture, knowledge and science, refined the methods of brewing. Initially in the making of beer for the brothers and for visiting pilgrims, later as a means of financing their communities. However, there was still very little known about the role of yeast in completing fermentationBeer brewing played an important role in daily lives. Beer was clearly so desired that it led nomadic groups into village life. Beer was considered a valuable (potable) foodstuff  and workers were often paid with jugs of beer.

By the fifteenth century, there was a record of hops used in Flemish beer imported into England, and by the sixteenth century hops had gained widespread use as a preservative in beer, replacing the previously used bark or leaves. Perhaps the most widely known event in brewing history was the establishment of German standards for brewers. The first of these regulations was the inspiration for the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 – the most famous beer purity law. This pledge of purity states that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malted barley, malted wheat and hops. Yeast, though not included in this list, was acceptable, as it was taken for granted to be a key ingredient in the brewing process. The “Reinheitsgebot” was the assurance to the consumer that German beers would be of the highest quality in the world and acknowledges the European disdain for adding adjuncts such as corn, rice, other grains and sugars.”  http://www.alabev.com/history.htm

Ale–an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast. Certain web pages claim that what English people really drank in the Middle Ages wasn’t beer, but Ale, which is a drink without hops.

“Historically the terms beer and ale respectively referred to drinks brewed with and without hops. It has often now come to mean a bitter-tasting barley beverage fermented at room temperature. In some British usage, however, in homage to the original distinction, it is not now used except in compounds (such as “pale ale” (see below)) or as “real ale“, a term adopted in opposition to the pressurised beers developed by industrial brewers in the 1960s, and used of a warm-fermented unpasteurised beer served from the cask (though not stout or porter).

Ale typically has bittering agent(s) to balance the sweetness of the malt and to act as a preservative. Ale was originally bittered with gruit, a mixture of herbs (sometimes spices) which was boiled in the wort prior to fermentation. Later, hops replaced the gruit blend in common usage as the sole bittering agent.

Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition in the medieval world, particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects. Small beer would have been consumed daily by almost everyone in the medieval world, with higher-alcohol ales served for recreational purposes. The lower cost for proprietors combined with the lower taxes levied on small beer led to the selling of beer labeled “strong beer” that had actually been diluted with small beer. For many medieval people, ale was healthier than the local drinking water, which was often contaminated by bacteria, whereas the ethanol in ale kills bacteria. In some places even children drank it.

Brewing ale in the Middle Ages was a local industry primarily pursued by women. “Brewsters,” as they were called, would brew in the homestead for both domestic consumption and small scale commercial sale. Brewsters provided a substantial supplemental income for families; however, only in select few cases, as was the case for widows, was brewing considered the primary income of the household. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ale




What is Mead?

Although the nobility of Wales imported wine from the Roman period, and perhaps before, mead was the primary drink served throughout the country for thousands of years.  Because of the climate, grapes, many fruits, and even grains at times do not grow well in Wales, though wine production did (and does still) exist: “Wine has been made in England and Wales since Roman times. By the time of the Norman Conquest vines were grown in a number of vineyards, many of which were attached to monasteries. In fact the Domesday Book (1085-1086) records vineyards in 42 places. The main areas of production at this time were the coastal areas of the southeast, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century there was a decline in vineyards and the reasons cited for this have varied. They range from the Black Death that caused the depletion of labour and lead to many landowners renting out land rather than working it themselves, the breaking up of the monasteries in 1536, change in climate and increased volume and quality of wine imports from France.”  http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodfarm/food/industry/sectors/alcohol/wine/industry.htm

Mead,  however, was a local product, made in Wales as well as in native cultures throughout the world.  “The first meads were most likely made simply by taking honey and water and letting them ferment with the naturally occurring yeasts found in the honey. Evidence of early meads has been found in Egypt and on the island of Crete, and it was drunk in Greece throughout the Golden Age. In many early cultures, bee goddesses held central roles in the pantheon, and many have postulated that this was because of the intoxicating effects of mead harvested from local bee hives.”  http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-mead.htm

“Despite what most people think, mead is not a kind of beer, as the definition of a beer is an alcoholic beverage made from grains. In Europe beers were made from barley and wheat. In Japan beer is made from rice (this beer is called Sake) and for the ancients of Mesoamerica beer was made from Maize (Corn). Mead is made from water, honey and yeast; as such it is not a beer. Neither is it a ‘wine’ as the sugars involved in fermentation are not derived from fruit.

Mead is mead, an ancient drink much beloved of the Celts and the peoples of Europe during the Middle Ages. For mead brewing, the initial mixture of water, honey and yeast is termed a must and the yeast converts the sugars in honey into alcohol at which point the must becomes mead. It is possible to create different flavors by adding ingredients such as fruit or spices into the Must, or by putting them into the Mead when Fermentation has stopped.”

Indications that mead was drunk in Wales, along with wine, is found in the Y Goddodin, a 6th century poem by the Welsh poet, Aneiron.   The poem tells of the ill-fated soldiers who were selected by Mynyddog Mwynfawr, the ruler of the Gododdin, for the battle.  While they prepare, Mynyddog housed and feasted the men with food and mead.  In addition, there are also other references in early historic poetry to ‘talu medd’ – payment of mead, in which soldiers became obliged to fight for the leader of the battle in order to repay his hospitality.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/arts/sites/early-welsh-literature/pages/aneirin.shtml

Although I don’t drink myself, here’s a relatively medieval recipe for mead: https://digventures.com/2015/04/tasty-medieval-tipples-make-your-own-mead/