Kinds of Drinks:
Brief Introduction to Medieval Drinks
The basic drinks until the
17th century were water, beer, ale, wine, mead, milk, and rarely fruit
juices (most were fermented). Tea and coffee did not exist until
the end of the Middle Ages and neither did sparkling wines. Sweet and fruit
wines were more common.
In medieval England, ale
was an alcoholic drink made from grain, water, and fermented with yeast.
Virtually everyone drank ale. It provided significant nutrition as well
as hydration (and inebriation). The aristocracy could afford to drink wine
some of the time as well, and some times the poor could not even afford
ale, but in general ale was the drink of choice in England throughout the
medieval period. In medieval England ale was served fresh, still
(or very recently) fermenting, as opposed to stale, or done fermenting
and cleared. Earlier in the medieval period, the ale-brewers were making
smaller batches in their own houses,
rather than brewing in industrial
quantities. They simply did not have either the space or the resources
to age the ale for long
periods of time before selling
Mead is probably the most
ancient of all alcoholic beverages. The ingredients of a true mead
are only two -- honey and water. This mixture, however, is slow to ferment
and also slow to age. Honey lacks the acids and tannins which yeast needs
to thrive. There are, however, several ways around this problem. A melomel
is a fermented beverage from any fruit juice with the addition of honey.
By using a fruit juice base instead of water, many of the required nutrients
and acids which honey lacks are supplied by the juice. Several fruits were
used so often for this purpose within the period of our study that specific
names were developed for melomels made from them. Among these drinks are
piment, made from grapes, cyser, made from apples, morath, made from mulberries
and perry, made from pears.
The word beer comes from the Saxon word for barley, which was baere. There is a good reason for this derivation. Whereas wine is the result of fermentation of a fruit juice, beer results from fermentations on a wort (pronounced 'wert') derived from grain. The grain most often used in the production of beers and ales is barley, and normally only certain types of barley, at that (6 row barley is the best for malting, with 2 row barley being next -- 4 row barley has a high protein content and is, therefore, less suitable for the production of beer). Rice is used in the production of Sake which is a beer (being made from a grain) and not a wine. It is often mistakenly called a wine due to its much higher alcoholic strength than traditional beers (higher, actually, than most wines) and the fact that it is not carbonated, as the modern beer drinker expects his drink to be. Also, in the modern world, at least in the United States, Sake is labeled as a wine when sold commercially for these very same reasons. It is no small wonder that the public is confused concerning this drink.
In modern times, other grains,
too, are used in the production of beers, including corn and wheat, but
this was not the
practice during the Medieval
period in Europe, although the American Indians were making a beer from
corn at the time that
Columbus arrived in the
New World.60 For this writing, beer will refer to the fermented wort of
barley, and sake to that of rice
with no other grains present
in either of these drinks unless specifically mentioned.