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Beer in Medieval England: A History

Beer: students’ most favoured drink. What better topic for an article than beer and (medieval) history? It is the best of both worlds, indeed. So without any further ado, let us start exploring the fascinating history of beer in Britain, by looking at the varieties of beer that exist, how the different varieties of beers are made, and the role of the brewing and consumption of beer, or more precisely: ale, in Medieval British society.And who were brewing all that beer, anyway?

Varieties of beer and how they are made
In the chapter “Beer and Ale” in The Cambridge World History of Food, Phillip Cantrell provides a detailed description of the process of beer brewing:

[Before fermentation can take place, yeast, a single-cell fungus occurring naturally in several varieties, must be allowed to act on the sugar present in grain. This releases two crucial by-products, alcohol and carbon dioxide. A grain often used for this purpose is barley – even though, in its natural state, it contains only a trace amount of free sugar – because of its high content of starch, a complex polymer of sugar. Barley also contains substances known collectively as diastases, which convert the barley starches into sugar to be used as food for the growing plant. When barley is crushed and dried carefully,the essential starches and diastases are released and preserved, rendering a substance called “malt.” Until sometime around the ninth century, “beer” was actually “ale,” made by a process known as mashing, whereby the barley malt was mixed with hot – but not boiling – water. The effect of the hot water was to induce the diastases to act immediately in breaking down the complex starches into sugar. This process is referred to as conversion and results in “wort,” one of its most essential products. The mashing procedure not only produced the brown, sugary wort but also permitted inert elements of the barley, such as the husks, to be drawn off. In the production of pure ale (such as the first human brewers would have made), all that remained was for yeast to act upon the wort so that the sugars could be converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Beginning in approximately the ninth century in central Europe (authorities varywidely and wildly regarding the date but not the place), the procedure began to be modified, and beer came into being with the addition of blossoms from the hop plant. Numerous modern beers are labeled as ale, but as mentioned, technically “ale” means unhopped beer.1

Today, the use of hops is standard, and very little pure ale has been mass-produced in the twentieth century. Thus, the words ale and beer have become largely (if wrongly) synonymous. Modern technology and advanced techniques have modified and refined the brewing process considerably. The most commonly mass-produced type of beer is known as a “lager” or a “Pilsner” and is lighter in color and generally milder in taste than other beers. The vast majority of North and South American beers, most European beers, the beers of Australia, and those of nearly all major Asian nations are crafted in the Pilsner style.2

Darker beers that are dryer and richer in taste are referred to as porters and stouts, with the latter merely a stronger, drier porter. Several popular German beers make use of large quantities of wheat rather than barley to make Weizenbier (wheat beer).Belgium is famous for fruity ales, typically known as “lambic” beers, the production of which involves a complex process of spontaneous fermentation. In addition to the use of fruits to add flavor, as in the case of the lambic beers, one method of increasing taste is “dry-hopping,” a process whereby additional hops are added at the end of the process to replace the residue lost when the wort and hop blossoms are first boiled together. Like hops, yeast and sugar are occasionally added to the bottle when it is sealed to further enhance the beer’s strength.3

This is not so much the production of yet another style of beer as it is a method of setting up a secondary fermentation process within the bottle to make stout, porter, and “bitter.”4

Now that we have near-expert knowledge on the characteristics of the different beers and ales, let us take an in-depth look into the earliest roots of beer and beer brewing in the British Isles.

A (short) history of beer and beer brewing
The insightful book A History of Beer and Brewing by Ian S. Hornsey informs us that beer was already being brewed and drank in Britain when the Romans arrived:

[T]he Romans found [beer] to be extant in the British Isles during the latter half of the 1st century BC. We know for sure that from the observations and statements of Julius Caesar, who landed somewhere between Deal and Walmer in Kent, in the summer of 55 BC, that beer was already an indigenous fermented beverage in Britannia – or at least those parts of it that were familiar to him. He quotes, “They had vines, but use them only for arbours in their gardens. They drink a high and mighty liquor . . . made of barley and water.”5

Classical writers note that both wheat and barley were used to make beer in northern parts of Europe. Note also, Pytheas’ predilection for mead, and the mention of usquebaugh, which implies some knowledge of distillation. At this point it is worth mentioning that the Latin word for “beer”, cerevisia (Spanish; cervesa) is relatively late, and is a compound of the Latin word for “cereal” (Ceres , being the god of plenty), plus a Celtic element meaning “water” – which still survives in the word “whisky”.6

One of the prime candidates for being responsible for the introduction of brewing technology to the British Isles would seem to have been the Celts inhabiting northern Europe. Imagine the scenario: hordes of beerdrinking people, all lined up across the English Channel, just waiting to invade these islands and pass on their grain-growing and brewing capabilities! Or, maybe the knowledge filtered in via Phoenician contact with the folk of tinrich south-western England and aurantiferous Ireland. Perhaps the Bronze Age Beaker folk brought brewing know-how to Britain along with their trade-mark drinking mugs and agricultural package, in which case beer would have already existed over here by the time that the Celts arrived. We are still not absolutely sure.7

A beer drinking culture emerges in northern Europe
[A] male-dominated, social, drinking culture evolved and spread over much of Europe, and became so ingrained in early European culture, that Sherratt is given to contend that alcohol is arguably the most fundamental constituent of Western civilisation; inebriating drink being at the very core of the culture. The spread of the drinking culture seems to be related to the social effects of an enlarged pastoral fraternity, and was not confined to any one alcoholic beverage, although the sophisticated, sunshinerich areas of the eastern Mediterranean with their wine and silver drinking-vessels, seem to have provided a sufficiently strong stimulus such that a powerful stylistic influence was exerted over neighbouring parts of Europe.8

Alcohol, via its ability to engender organised hospitality (e.g. feasts, and ceremonies), has played its part in the establishment of ranked societies, particularly with respect to the structuring of the warrior class. Warrior feasting (the “feast of merit”) was an important way of creating and organising an armed body of supporters, and alcohol was all-important in establishing warrior kinship (exemplified, say, by the Männerbund of early Germanic history). As we are aware from a work such as Beowulf, mead was a warrior’s drink, and very much the drink of the aristocracy in Celtic and Saxon times, although ale was widely consumed as well, particularly at victory ceremonies. The problem with invoking mead as being the alcoholic beverage that stimulated the drinking cults associated with the Beaker Culture, is that, as a pure drink, it was probably never available in sufficient quantity. The supply of honey available to the peoples of temperate Bronze Age Europe was not likely to have been on a scale that would have permitted massive production of mead, and it would have been rather difficult for them to increase that supply. It is far more realistic, therefore, to assume that mead was reserved for special occasions, and beer – the scale of production of which could be increased by growing more grain – was the day-to-day drink.9

As we get towards the end of Roman rule, we find a marked increase in the manufacture of large drinking vessels. These were almost certainly intended for drinking beer out of. [...] Beer must certainly have become an important commodity by the end of the 3rd century because it warrants a mention in Diocletian’s Price Edict of 301. When the Roman Empire was undergoing a period of stress and became so vast, Emperor Diocletian formed his famous “Tetrarchy” in 293, whereby the Empire was divided into “east” and “west”, with each governed by two emperors working as a team. As a matter of expediency, Diocletian fixed the prices of the most essential commodities in the Empire; entities such as food, wool, textiles, etc. British beer was obviously important enough to be included and its price was fixed at four denarii per pint (equivalent), which was twice the price of Egyptian beer.10

Beer drinking culture in Medieval Britain
Bede writes in Book 1, Chapter XIV of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

The island began to abound with such plenty of grain that no previous age remembered; with this plenty loose-living increased, and was immediately attended with a plague of all sorts of crimes; in particular cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehoods to such an extent that if any one of them seemed to be milder than the rest and in some measure more inclined to truth, the hatred and weapons of all were regardlessly hurled against him as if he were the subvertor of Britain. Nor were the laity alone guilty of these things, but even our Lord’s own flock, and its pastors, casting off the light yoke of Christ and giving themselves over to drunkenness, animosity, quarrelsomeness, strife, envy and other such sins.

The implication here is one of wholesale debauchery, caused principally by excessive beerdrinking. [...] Heavy drinking and subsequent drunkenness is a charge that has repeatedly been made about our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. They were so addicted to ale and mead that drunkenness was regarded as an honourable condition. As intimated above, the vice spread to ecclesiastical circles, many monasteries getting a bad name and, as a result, there were many edicts aimed at bringing the clergy into line. One of the early attempts was the Penitential of Theodore, written in the latter half of the 7th century.11

The Penitential of Bede, which dates from the first half of the 8th century, contains six clauses relating to over-indulgence, but some of the proposed penalties were rather mild. The situation obviously got out of hand at around this time, because in 747 Archbishop Cuthbert held a synod at Clovesho (= Mildenhall?), aimed at improving the behaviour of the clergy in Britain. [...] Indeed, by reputation, some of the English clergy became notorious on the Continent, and their behaviour was, perhaps, somewhat akin to that of the modern football hooligan.12

There are various Anglo-Saxon recipes intended to cure drunkenness and its effects, and even to prevent same. One such, from the First Leechbook (Læceboc), recommends betony prescribed in water as a prophylactic, saying, “In case a man should make himself drunk, to be drunk before his other drink.” This is then to be followed by a course of action which can be originally attributed to Pliny, and therefore of ancient Classical origin, “...Again, take a swine’s lung, roast it, and at night, fasting, take five slices always.”13

Anglo-Saxon beer breweries
There appears to be no recorded evidence of brewing techniques, or of brewing equipment and brewery premises from Anglo-Saxon England, but we must assume that brewing was still a precarious business in those days. It is obvious that brews frequently went wrong and, in the absence of any technical manual, brewers made recourse to superstition, including the use of ale-runes. Even a supposedly instructional work such as the leechdoms advocates, what would now be considered to be a ludicrous remedy for purging a premises that has produced bad ale: “If ale is spoilt take lupins and lay them in the four corners of the building and over the door and beneath the threshold and under the ale vat, put holy water in the wort of that ale.” We do, however, have some more enlightening records from the Continent, particularly in terms of the layout of brewery premises. Probably the most significant example can be found in the plan of the monastery at St. Gall, in Switzerland. The monastery was founded in the 8th century by Irish missionaries and it maintained strong links with Anglo-Saxon England, many important clerics being seconded there for training, because St. Gall was important in the promulgation of medical information during the Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods. A plan of the monastery, dated around AD 820, shows facilities for treating all sorts of diseases, including well-stocked herb gardens. The plan also shows malthouse, kiln, mill-room, three breweries and storage cellars. Records inform us that three main types of beer were brewed at the monastery, and it would appear that each of the breweries was consigned to brew a different beer. The listed beers were: ‘prima melior’, intended for the monks and visiting VIPs; ‘secunda’, for the lay brothers, and ‘tertia’, for pilgrims, beggars, etc. It is thought that these brews were of decreasing strength, from ‘prima melior’ to ‘tertia’, and it has also been suggested that each was a product of one of the three breweries. It is not without possibility that the three beers were each flavoured in some way.14

The fermented beverages available to the Anglo-Saxons have been admirably summarised by Hagen (1995) who, on the basis of the number of references in the literature, has detailed the four most important as: ‘win’, ‘meodu’, ‘ealu’ and ‘beor’. The first three translate satifactorily as wine, mead and ale (beer), but the exact nature of ‘beor’ is open to differing interpretations, as we shall see. Hagen feels that there was a distinct hierarchy amongst these fermented drinks, with wine being the most prestigious, followed by ‘beor’, ‘meodu’ and ‘ealu’. This is not meant to indicate that wine was the most commonly consumed of these drinks: quite the reverse; in fact, one has to reverse the above hierarchical order to get the frequency and volume of consumption.15

‘Monastic brewing’
With the spread of his Holy Roman Empire around 800 AD, Charlemagne built many monasteries across Europe, many of which became centres of brewing. Throughout the early Middle Ages ‘monastic brewing’ spread to the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries would brewing emerge as a commercial venture. Before that, the monastery was the only institution where beers were manufactured on anything like a commercial scale.16

Initially, beer brewed by the monks was used for their own consumption as well as to give to guests, pilgrims and the poor. Later, monks started to brew beer for other people as well, such as noblemen and to sell their brew in so-called ‘monastery pubs’. There were also so-called ‘church ales’ that were celebrations and feasts of the church where the peasants were allowed to drink beer for free, reducing the demand for commercial brewing.17

Studies indicate that monks often drank large quantities of beer. Statistical sources even mention beer consumption of up to five liters a day for each monk in some monasteries. Several factors seem to have played a role. First, as the water in the Middle Ages was often polluted, beer was healthier than water. Second, apart from nutritional reasons, beer was often used in monasteries for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Third, an average meal in the monasteries of the early Middle Ages was rather frugal, and beer provided a welcome nutritious addition. Fourth, although beer contained alcohol, it was seen as a liquid like water, and was, as such, not forbidden during a fasting period. Beer was the ‘ubiquitous social lubricant’ and this not only because it was an essential part of the – often dire – medieval diet, but also because during the Middle Ages ‘every occasion that was even remotely ‘social’ called for a drink’.18

Cotton MS Tiberius A III contains an Anglo-Saxon food list in the Monasteriales Indicia (ff.97r-101v), an Old English sign language for use when Benedictine monks had to keep silence at Christ Church, Canterbury, including during meal times. This food list reveals the foods consumed by the monks at Canterbury and includes a sign for beor, a drink that may be the Old English word for beer or cider. To request beor at meal times, one had to make the following sign: Beores taken is þaet þu gnide þine hand on þa oþre, ‘you grind your hand on the other’, which might stand for pressing apples.19

Bottoms up: The Indicia sign for ‘beor’, beer or cider from an Old English copy of Monasteriales Indicia, England (Christ Church Canterbury), 11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 100r

The rise of a global beer economy
Until the Romans came to Britain, the only routes of communication were rough, semipermanent, tracks – or ridgeways. Throughout the Roman Empire permanent roads were the most important, and very often the first, pieces of construction, for in such a highly organised society it was necessary for officials and military commanders to be in close touch with what was going on. Along these roads, wherever traffic warranted the expenditure, small villages and inns were positioned where horses could be changed and travellers could rest on their journey. More often than not, the inns stood alone and represented the only means of respite and entertainment for the traveller. These roadside Romano-British taverns were variously known as ‘diversoria’, ‘caupone’ or ‘tabernae diversoriae’ and were kept by ‘diversores’ or ‘caupones’. During the Celtic period, there was an order of people called ‘beatachs’ or ‘brughnibhs’, who were keepers of open houses, established for the express purpose of hospitality. These premises, like their Roman counterparts, were not merely drinking houses; food, drink and general entertainment were available.
It was not until Anglo-Saxon times that the ale-house developed. One of the relatively few written attestations for the existence of beer in Roman Britain can be found in some of the remarkable wooden tablets which have been recovered from the fortress-settlement of Vindolanda, which formed part of the defences associated with Hadrian’s Wall (completed in AD 121). The writing tablets, over 100 of them, were deposited in layers of bracken and straw flooring and they have been preserved in the strange environment provided by the damp peaty soil in that area, and a mixture of human excrement and urine. The tablets were either covered with wax, on which words would be scratched, or were written onto directly with pen and ink. Those that have been deciphered are a mixture of private letters and lists of military stores – requisitions for food, equipment and so on. [...] A major report on the Vindolanda tablets was presented by Bowman and Thomas in 1994, who offer translations of the decipherable fragments. There are seven references to ‘ceruesa’, which is translated as “Celtic beer”, and one mention of a certain Atrectus, who is described as a ‘ceruisarius’, i.e. a brewer. [...] Atrectus was probably a civilian who both brewed and sold beer.20

An important innovation was the introduction of hops in brewing. There is evidence that already around 800 AD, German monasteries added extracts of the hops plant to preserve their beer longer. Moreover, the bitterness of the hops also balanced the rather sweet flavor of the malt, the other main ingredient of Germanic beer.
This innovation would ultimately transform the entire global beer economy. However, despite its benefits, the use of hops did not spread rapidly over the beer producing regions in Europe. In fact, it would last several centuries before its use would be widely accepted. The main reason for the slow diffusion of this innovation was its impact on the local tax base in many regions.
on the local tax base in many regions. Before hops were used, breweries were subjected to a so-called ‘Grutrecht’ or ‘flavoring license’ in many regions. This Grutrecht was named after the ‘grut’, a combination of herbs that were used to flavor beer (or to ‘disguise faults’ in the brew) and to preserve the beer. Grut was an important factor in distinguishing between different beer brews. The ‘Grutrecht’ was determined by the local authorities and was used to tax breweries. It stated explicitly which particular flavoring additive could be added to the beer. All brewers were obliged to buy grut for their brews from the local rulers and brewing beer without grut was forbidden. To avoid tax evasion, the exact composition of grut was kept a secret.
While the addition of hops improved the taste and preservation of the beer and allowed for transportation over longer distances, hops threatened the Grutrecht. By using hops, brewers no longer needed grut (or less of it). Hence, the innovation of hops threatened local rulers’ revenue from the Grutrecht tax on beer. Therefore, in many regions, including Britain and Holland, the use of hops was prohibited for a long time.21

In fact, it took several centuries before the use of hops became commonplace in some European regions. Only after the Hundred Years’ War between France and England (1337–1453), one was allowed to use hops in brewing English ales. Also in Holland, rulers did not allow the domestic brewers to use hops until the early fourteenth century.22

The decline of monastic breweries
[It should be noted that] monasteries were much more than just monastic retreats. The growing of food was one of the monks’ primary occupations, and as a rule, the land owned by their orders was sufficient enough for the rotation of crops in such a way as to ensure a constant supply of cereals. Much of the cereal produced – including spelt, wheat, oat, and rye, as well as barley – went into ale, the quality as well as quantity of which the monks improved upon, just as they did with their wines and cheeses. Many monasteries also served as inns that provided room and board for travelers, and some became famous for their ales, their praise carried by church pilgrims, merchants, and others on the move. There is no question that monastery-produced ales, made on a near-industrial scale, brought in a very good income for the various orders.
Because of its limited shelf life (prior to the use of hops), ale was usually brewed and distributed on the same site, and consequently, the first brewers outside of the church were generally boardinghouse owners and tavern keepers who provided ale to travelers and guests. Local inns and taverns came to be regarded by townspeople and villagers alike as social gathering places. Because water is vital to the brewing process, the breweries of taverns and inns had to be located near an abundant water supply. But the type of water was important. If it was hard water with lime, the fermentation process might not work well; if it had iron in it, the beer would always be cloudy.23

With the growth of commercial breweries, the role of monasteries as centers of brewing declined. This was heavily influenced by political considerations and actions. First, to compensate for the lost tax income from the ‘Grutrecht’, local rulers wanted to impose taxes on beer itself. However, beer brewing monasteries were linked to local parishes which did not have to pay taxes. As a result of this privileged position of the monasteries, local rulers favored commercial breweries that had to pay taxes on beer.24

Brewing beer: a woman’s job?
After the monasteries lost their monopoly position and boardinghouses became involved in beer production, beer brewing became a typical woman’s job:

Women frequently oversaw the breweries while their husbands ran the inns. In fact, women were much involved in the ale business, sometimes owning boardinghouses as well as breweries and holding special licenses to distribute their product.25

There is actually an entire book written on this, now largely forgotten, phenomenon, entitled Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: women’s work in a changing world, 1300- 1600, which is a fascinating read. Consider, for example, a long-lost tradition called ‘brewster sessions’:

Early in February each year, magistrates in many English towns come together in what are informally known as “brewster sessions.” In these meetings, they supervise the trade in alcoholic beverages - not only ales and beers, but also wines, spirits, and other intoxicating liquors. They renew licenses for selling such drink, permit transfers of licenses between holders, grant new licenses, and even bestow occasional permissions for special occasions. Except for ‘brewster sessions’, the word ‘brewster’ has virtually disappeared from contemporary English. [...] Brewster once had a clear and unequivocal meaning: a female brewer.26

In the fourteenth century, when women did most of the brewing in most places, their presence was signified in the various languages of the time: ‘braciatrices’ and ‘pandoxatrices’ in Latin texts, ‘braceresses’ in Anglo-Norman, and ‘brewsters’ in the English that was being used with more and more frequency. […] Over time, however, ‘brewer’ won out as a term for both sexes, and ‘brewster’ survived only in limited uses: as a surname, as a word known to some historians and literary scholars, and of course as a descriptive term still used in the everconservative traditions of English law.27

Brewing was also important in a political sense. From a very early date, manorial lords and ladies, municipal mayors, and royal officers sought two things from the brewing trade. First, they tried to regulate brewers in the hope of assuring a steady supply of good ale. Like bread, ale was crucial to social order, and those responsible for order sought to ensure its ready availability. Second, they attempted to profit from the trade, levying a variety of fees and taxes on both the production and sale of brewed drink. Through these exactions, many polities came to rely heavily on income generated by the regulation of brewers. These complementary imperatives helped to generate the exceptionally thorough supervision of the trade by aletasters.
From the carefully preserved records of this supervision, one fact emerges very clearly: between 1300 and 1600, the brewing industry was transformed. In 1300, brewing was a small-scale, local industry pursued by women who worked from their homes. Compared to other industries (such as cloth working or goldsmithing or even the closely related baking), it was unorganized and underdeveloped. By 1600, brewing in many cities, towns, and villages was so large scale and so centralized that it was assuming a leading role - managerially, technically, and commercially - among other contemporary industries.” It was also largely controlled by men. All of these changes occurred slowly and unevenly, but they were inexorable. In 16000, although small brewers could still be found, especially in the north and west, the large commercialized breweries of London represented the future of the trade.28

And here, ladies and gentlemen, ends our tour through the history of beer and beer brewing in Medieval Britain. And what an eventful ride it was: from the Celts to the Romans, from monks to early modern brewsters and from small taverns to large breweries.

By Birgitte Breemerkamp


1. Cantrell, Phillip. “Beer and Ale.” in The Cambridge World History of Food III.1 edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 619 2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Hornsey, Ian S. A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003. RSC Paperbacks, pp. 165-166.

6. Ibid., p. 168.

7. Ibid., p. 171.

8. Ibid., p. 208.

9. Ibid., p. 209.

10. Ibid., p. 231.

11. Ibid., p. 237.

12. Ibid., pp. 237-38.

13. Ibid., p. 239.

14. Ibid., pp. 248-49

15. Ibid., p. 251.

16. Poelmans, Eline and Johan F.M. Swinnen, “From Monasteries to Multinationals (and Back): A Historical Review of the Beer Economy.” Journal of Wine Economics 6 (2) 2011, p. 198.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p. 199.

19. British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog, “Blooming Lovely,” 26 April 2017, by Alison Ray and Laure Miolo

20. Hornsey, Ian S. A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003. RSC Paperbacks, p. 231-32.

21. Poelmans, Eline and Johan F.M. Swinnen, “From Monasteries to Multinationals (and Back): A Historical Review of the Beer Economy.” Journal of Wine Economics 6 (2) 2011, p. 199.

22. Ibid., pp. 199-200.

23. Cantrell, Phillip. “Beer and Ale.” in The Cambridge World History of Food III.1 edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 621.

24. Poelmans, Eline and Johan F.M. Swinnen, “From Monasteries to Multinationals (and Back): A Historical Review of the Beer Economy.” Journal of Wine Economics 6 (2) 2011, p. 201.

25. Cantrell, Phillip. “Beer and Ale.” in The Cambridge World History of Food III.1 edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 621.

26. Bennett, Judith M., Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England: women’s work in a changing world, 1300-1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996): 3

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., p. 9