Ale is one of the oldest foodstuffs and has a history going back thousands of years.
It was an important drink during the Middle Ages and was often drunk instead of water, which was widely believed to be impure.
How Ale was Produced in the Middle Ages
Medieval ale was created from malted grains, water and fermented yeast. The grain was crushed and hot water added. The mixture was then left to ferment and the alcohol which resulted was drained off. This ale was drunk within days of production, as the taste and quality of the drink declined rapidly.
From the tenth century onwards, hops were used in beer production and the Germanic countries were particularly noted for their excellent hopped beers. The use of hops in ale production did not occur widely in England and France until around 1250. Hopped ale, usually known as beer, was superior because of the fact that it kept longer and could also travel, if brewed correctly.
The production of ale in medieval times was a mixture of domestic and commercial enterprises. Early in the period, brewing was carried out on a small domestic scale, for use only among one family or small group. Most monasteries had their own breweries, allowing the community to be self sufficient in its ale production and often producing a surplus for sale outside the monastery.
As urbanization spread, brewing became more centralized and as a result, started to attract rules and laws, as well as working practices. Town and city governments began to regulate the industry and ale production was often taxed by the authorities.
The Brewer in Medieval Times
The medieval brewer, along with the baker, was held in high regard in the community in which he lived. Both the brewer and the baker provided the townspeople with essential goods and so their work was steady and profitable. So similar were these two trades that brewing and baking were often carried out on the same premises, sometimes overseen by the same person.
Brewing was one of the few medieval commercial occupations which included women. This seems to have occured because women were heavily involved in the domestic side of life and brewing was one of the tasks associated with home cooking and food production.
Setting up a commercial brewing enterprise involved some outlay. A commercial brewer would have had a substantial investment to purchase the substantial quantities of grain and equipment needed for large-scale production. Small scale and domestic producers could use equipment for brewing which they already possessed for domestic food production.
Most breweries employed two or three workers, with the largest concerns having around ten workers. There were also other industries which depended on the ale trade for their livelihood, for example the carters who transported the ale around town, the inns which sold the ale and the farmers who grew the raw materials such as wheat, barley and hops.
The Regulation of Brewing in the Medieval Town
As with most other medieval industries, brewers were represented with their own trade guilds. The Brewers’ Company of London is one of Europe’s oldest guilds and selected St Thomas Becket as its patron saint. The company, like many others, had its own livery and members took part in town administration and in plays and pageants on feast days.
Because ale was deemed an essential foodstuff, medieval towns had strict regulations about the preparation and quality of medieval ale. Beers were often flavored with fruits and sugars to produce the required taste and tastes varied, with different areas specialising in a particular ale, depending on what raw materials were available locally.
Medieval town archives have records throughout the Middle Ages on offences related to the brewing of ale. For example, a brewer could be fined for his ale being too weak for using prohibited materials, or for selling a smaller volume than that advertised for the price.
Ale continued in popularity throughout the medieval period. The alehouse was a popular meeting place and with ale in demand throughout the Middle Ages, the medieval brewer held an envied position in the medieval town.
- Judyth A McLeod, In a Unicorn’s Garden, Murdoch Books, ISBN 9781921208577