Ale's history trail

02:40, Mar 03 2014

OPINION: When you drink a beer you are consuming one of the oldest drinks in human history.

But it's to a particular bit of history, a bit many people think was backward and primitive, that we owe our culture of brewing.

I'm talking about the Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages get a bad rap for being dark and primitive and violent. There's some truth to that. But it was also a time of immense change and innovation, and, crucial point, people were no different to us.

They were just as intelligent as we are. They did not, contrary to popular belief, think the world was flat. They also loved to drink and beer, or rather ale, was a huge part of their society.

The level of alcohol consumption in Medieval society was extraordinary even compared to Courtenay Place on a Saturday night.


Because water was dirty and unsafe to drink, ale was a staple across England.

Medieval people knew fermented drinks were healthier than town and village water supplies, although they did not understand germs.

Ale brewers, mainly women, were skilled and played an important role in society. Most villages would have had a brewer - later they came to be called alewives - to turn harvested barley into ale, and most peasants would have understood how to do it in a pinch.

They knew enough about the process of brewing to vary the amount of alcohol in a batch, and would flavour the ale with gruit, a mix of readily available herbs such as ground ivy and yarrow.

Gruit recipes varied - some would only use herbs, while others might add honey or seeds to the mix.

It was only later in the middle ages that hops began to be used instead. People noticed hops tended to both flavour the beer and make it last longer.

By the 16th century, the English distinguished between ale, which was made in the old way, and beer, which was hopped. That divide doesn't exist today.

Made with gruit, ale tended to spoil quickly, which meant brewing was a very localised industry - every village had its own craft brew, if you want to look at it like that.

The main drink was ''small beer'', which had a low alcohol content - just enough to preserve it - and was drunk by almost everyone, from children to old men, instead of water.

The average working man could drink a gallon a day quite happily. This is one of the reasons, believe it or not, modern Europeans process alcohol faster than people from other places.

Proper ale had a much higher alcohol content, and was used for celebrations. The average village ''tavern'' was the home of someone who had just brewed a batch of ale, with public houses not common until much later.

We may think of pubs as a male space only recently invaded by women, but most medieval tavern keepers were women: they were the ones who brewed the ale everyone drank.

Nobles generally preferred wine, which was out of reach to English commoners due to the expense of bringing it up from France.

However, brewers were employed by many noble households, and ale would be served at feasts.

Monks also brewed and drank diluted ale, but the famous Trappist breweries (monasteries making high-quality beers to this day) were not founded until the 17th century.

There were other drinks too.

Mead, which is made by fermenting honey, was popular wherever bees were kept. One monastery in northern England, at Lindisfarne, still makes mead today.

With alcohol consumption so high, it is not a surprise to find plenty of evidence of drunkeness in the archives. There were fights, mishaps and puking - remember, these people were just like us, with the same failings and the same stupidity.

Occasionally, alcohol could have momentous consequences.

In 1042, for example, the Viking king of England, Harthacnut (son of the more famous Cnut or Canute, who tried to turn back the tide) drunk so much at a wedding he had a stroke and died shortly after.

In 1120, William Adelin, the only son of King Henry I, died when his ship sank in Barfleur harbour in France. The crew and most of the people on board were in the middle of a riotous drinking party and didn't realise they were about to hit a rock.

William's death left England without a male heir and led to a disastrous civil war between his sister Mathilda and Stephen of Blois, who claimed the throne.

So maybe the next time you take a sip of beer, think about all the human life and suffering which has gone into perfecting your favourite brew!

Alex Fensome is a Dominion Post reporter with a degree in Medieval History from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. He continues The Beerhive's summer series of guest blogs.

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