Have you ever sipped your alcoholic drink on a quaint summer or snowed-in winter afternoon and wondered where the hell it came from? Just historically speaking, you know.
Alcohol and humans have been good friends for a pretty long time.
Beer was already found on pottery dating back 7000 years in Iran. In India a beverage called “sura” was made from distilling rice as early as 3000 B.C. The Babylonians by that time worshipped their very own wine goddess. Alcohol sailed by ship to Greece soon after, and they were big fans of mead, made from honey and water. The European Middle Ages are known for drinking. Who doesn’t think of alcohol when hearing about medieval festivals?
Contrary to modern belief, medieval people did not shun water as a drink because it was dirty.
Yes, it was dirty, but it did not keep them from drinking it. There were some physicians who recommended against drinking too much water, but in general some of them already knew to boil water when it smelled bad. The reason the medievals drank more booze than water was because of the medicinal properties they believed them to have. In other words, you drank beer to promote your health, kind of like we drink power smoothies or organic juice today, or take vitamin pills. Tea and coffee did not make it to Europe until about the 16th century.
In medieval times, mead, rustic beers, and wild fruit wines became popular. Consumption of weak alcoholic drinks were estimated to be about one gallon per person per day.
Here are 10 drinks from that bygone era between 1100-1500 AD that we still use today:
This was the affordable drink of choice for many people in the medieval ages, to provide nutrition and hydration. Today it is used for… er… nutrition and hydration. Anyway, the ales in medieval England were dark and lacked today’s alcohol content, as they were not aged for months but rather produced by alewives – female manor staff – within a week and more akin to a “small ale”. Yes, men, women, and children drank ale for breakfast and nighttime, and it was widely also considered as a type of food. Towards the late medieval ages, however, ale did start getting “strength” labels – by single, double, or triple x’s.
Or, as medievals drank it, “the hops-less beer”. Medieval beer, before hops was mixed with it, was mixed with plenty of herbs and spices for preservation. Such a beer was called gruit, which is a German dialect for herb. It was still notoriously difficult to preserve, and much weaker and sweeter than today’s beer. It was also cloudy (because unfiltered) and had much less carbonation.
But it did not stop anyone. Polish peasants were known to drink up to 3 liters of beer per day while hacking away at the fields. They also possessed some great agriculture. Coincidence? Cheers!
Bavarians might have already put hops into beer as early as the 8th century, but it is unsure when the rest of Europe started making beer in that fashion. This “new” way of making beer was called “hopping beer”. And the Germans first developed the Purity Law (“Reinheitsgebot”) to filter out the cloudiness and gunk. In Germany today some still say beer is considered “liquid bread”, which originated in the Middle Ages.
A close hops-free beer for your medieval pleasure is the 13th century German Grut Bier still made today; it is made without hops and instead herbs, for preservation.
Any and all fruit wines were immensely popular in the Medieval Ages, especially as a summer drink. You had a fruit, you had a wine. Here the grape was replaced by cherry, currant, raspberry, pomegranate, and mulberry. Sour wines were those made by pouring water on refuse grapes after wine had been extracted. Wines were also made from filberts, milk of almonds, apricot and strawberry syrups, cherry and raspberry waters. These drinks were mostly drank during summer. There was also a cider-based drink named an apple-wine.
The Prunelle is a medieval fruit wine that that has survived the ravages of the Renaissance and made it somewhere into modern France. It resembles a brandy and is a mixture of wild plums, mulberry gin, and blackberry wine; back in the medieval day it was simply made by fermenting plums. Prunelle still lurks in your quaint European taverns but are the Carmen San Diegos of the brandy world.
A prunelle that has made it into the light of day: the French Eaux-de-Vie Prunelle.
Mead, a drink you might see frequently tossed around with cheers and drunk singing in medieval movies or books, were alcoholic and non-alcoholic in Medieval times and made from fermenting honey and water. Eventually it became medicine. Then we changed our mind again and it became the sweet beverage you love or don’t love today.
Some modern mead that drinks like they done drank it then: Medieval Mead by Linganore Winecellars.
Cider was also known as sicera for the Latin-speaking population. This drink as well as a similar drink called hydromel (consisting of honey and twelve parts water, since water gets parted) and perry was greatly enjoyed by the monks, the alcoholics of the time. England in the 17th century suddenly became aware of chopping apples and boiling them in water. The process took up to four days and the liquor was pressed out to make cider. Sometimes water was poured on apples and they were steeped, and from this extracted a half-sour, half-sweet drink.
Sack is the forefunner – er, forerunner – of our modern sherry; a white fortified wine the medieval people imported from Spain or the Canary Islands. Most sack was probably a sweet wine as it was matured in wooden barrels for a limited time only. Today, we still see sack in some sherry names, such as “Dry Sack” (Williams & Humbert brand). We also have a tastefully named “In the Sack” cocktail you can make using cream sherry.
Closest to that medieval taste: A cheap medium Oloroso sherry. Example of a medium-bodied Oloroso sherry: Dios Baco Elite Oloroso Medium Sherry.
Eggnog was extremely beloved in the Medieval Ages, known as a Posset. Posset was a warm, creamy, ale-like drink and was the forerunner to today’s spicy eggnog. In fact, Posset was so trendy that they even had one made without cream, called a caudell. The caudell was literally wine thickened with eggs. The ingredients for eggnog – milk, eggs, wine/sherry, and figs later on – were so expensive back then that eggnog was mostly used to toast good health. It did not become a Christmas party drink until it hopped across the pond in 17th century America.
Closest to that medieval taste: None, really – let me know if there are – because these days we put rum and other hard liquors in our eggnog. But, cool medieval recipe for those medievalthusiasts out there: the Caudell Recipe.
This is another word for “mulled wine” that medievals enjoyed for dessert which still exists in parts of Europe today. It was made with white or red wine mixed with various herbs like cinnamon, cassia buds, ginger, and galingale.
One mulled wine that is still extremely popular is the sweet-and-sour German Glühwein (“glowing wine”), which is a red wine served warm and mixed with herbs and sugars. I used to drink it during the really cold winter days in Berlin, especially during Christmas time and the New Year.
Here is a link to a good German mulled wine: Wintertraum Glühwein.
Wine was the healthiest choice of drink and only drunk by the prestigious depending on where you lived. The Mediterranean had their own vineyards, so everyone could and did enjoy it, but the northern part of Europe had to import the grapes and so it was only for the wealthy.
The “wines” that northern medieval people were able to drink were mostly watered-down vinegar (which would happen after the grapes were pressed three or four times, and lost their taste).
Today we classify wines mostly as white, red, and blush. In the medieval ages, you would find gold wine, black wine, green wine, and pink wine – these colors changed as wines were aged. Wine-smelling the wine for quality was rather important, as shown by the medieval people of Padua who were recorded for their “wine-smelling tests”. Sweet wine was drank sparingly in order to avoid “over-heating” the body.
A wine you would have found among the nobility in medieval Europe: Medieval claret – a red Bordeaux wine. Close: Savigny-Les-Beaune of Beaune, Burgundy.
Cool fact: The oldest wine was found in Speyer, Germany and was nicknamed the “Römerwein” – supposedly drank in Ancient Rome.
This was first known as aquae vitae and got its name from the Dutch for “burnt (distilled) wine”. There were many variations among countries – such as gin, vodka, and juniper, or water of gold. Brandy was considered medicine to prolong health, revive spirit, and preserve youth. Since people have never followed instructions, brandy soon lost its magic as medicine and became a regular beverage and used as basis to strengthen other forthcoming liquors.
Closest brandy to that time: Premium Orange Brandy Essence .
This is a medieval-style essence sold for you to make your own brandy – with a press and some in-handy ingredients.
Other drinks that the medievals consumed? Plague-water and cock-ales.
If you think that sounds awful/funny/interesting, think about what medieval people might think about our beer – to them, it would taste way too strong, too carbonated, and too bitter!
But, in case you would like to create your very own cock-ales or experiment with your healthy batch of plague-water, I pasted the link to Gode Cookery below:
Also, who wouldn’t love this extremely practical beer-holder to drink away while holding off the crazy drunk people at a party?
Thank you to all these wonderful sources: