Medieval Alcoholic Drinks

Water in medieval Britain was generally unpotable, as there was no filtration system and people would often dump waste into their drinking water. For this reason, ales and beers were created not to provide intoxication, but as a beverage that was safe to drink (since the water used to create these beverages was often boiled, killing much if not all of the bacteria). For this reason, the alcoholic content of medieval Saxon drinks was probably low.

Drinks | Terms | How to Make





  • Was an alcoholic drink made from malted grains, water, and fermented with yeast
  • Unlike beer, it did not use hops (an easy way to distinguish between the two)
  • Was the drink of choice in England throughout the medieval period
  • Before the 1600s, the wort was not boiled prior to fermenting


  • Beer was made from malted grains, water, hops, and fermented with yeast
  • In reality, beer was any drink containing either hops or beor (honey)
    • Hops made the beer slightly bitter, and also helped preserve it
  • The wort had to be boiled with the hops


  • Beer (or ale)





  • A grain (e.g. wheat, oats)
    • Nearly all cereals can be used in brewing


  • Before the 1600s, barley was the predominate grain used to make ale and beer
    • However, barley was expensive, so they often substituted a blend of barley and oats, called “drudge”
    • They also used wheat occasionally instead of barley


  • The name given to the flavoring of the beer or ale
    • E.g. hop, bog, myrtle, honey, yarrow, cinnamon, sweet gale, marsh, rosemary and millfoil were all used for flavoring
      • Sometimes a mix or blend of these was used, often incorporating a blossom (which can add additional yeast to the brew)


  • A plant whose cone-like flowers are used as a bitter flavoring in beer (and also serve as a mild sterilant)


  • The name given to the cereal once it has been “malted”


  • The process by which the grains are made to germinate by soaking in water for a few days, and are then quickly halted from germinating further by drying with hot air
    • The germination is usually done by spreading the sprouted barley on a wooden floor with lots of holes in it. Smoke from a wood or charcoal-fire kiln is then used to heat the wooden floor (and by extension, the sprouted grain) to about 131° F
    • Once the grain starts to germinate, it is either crushed or ground so that the husks are just starting to break away from the grains. This allows as much of the “food” of the grain as possible to get fermented
  • Medieval brewers crushed their grain using the same kind of stone mill that was used to make flour, although they would adjust the grinding plates to be further apart than is usual when making flour in order to crush rather than powder the grain

Malthouse / Malting Floor

  • A building where barley (or other grain) is converted into malt, for use in the brewing or distilling process


  • The name given to the mix of malt grains and gruit which are allowed to ferment together


  • The process of converting the starches in grains into fermentable sugars (simple sugars that yeast can digest)
  • The grain (after being malted and lightly crushed) is mixed with hot water until it reaches a temperature between 145-158° F, and is held at that temperature for 1-3 hours. The liquid is then drained away


  • A large beer or wine cask, usually made of oak


  • The liquid containing sugars and protein extracted from the grain (after “mashing”)


  • Creates the alcohol in the brew
  • Brews are “yeastified” in stages. Initially, brewers would rely on natural airborn yeast to “infect” the brew and begin fermentation. The yeast would then be removed and saved, the brew would be strained and the liquid saved in a different tun, and the yeast would then be added back to the liquid to begin fermentation again.


How to Make: Ale

* Recipe Source:

  • Using a cauldron, simmer the malt (bring it to the boil and keep it gently boiling) in water for around two hours (some brews may need more, some less)
  • Transfer to a (oak) wooden barrel or similar container and leave to cool down to a temperature of around 16°C (around 60°F)
  • Add the gruit and leave to ferment in a warm location
  • After about six to eight hours cover with a thin cloth
  • Leave to ferment for at least 24 hours but no more than three days. The final strength of the beer will be affected by the length of time the brew is left to ferment and the ambient temperature
  • STRAINING #1: Strain the mash with a coarse sieve so that the liquid goes into a wooden container (tun). Note that a second and third straining are always needed to remove the yeast.
    • The liquid in the tun should be more-or-less flavorless, and an opaque yellow color. The sieve should be full of mash (this mash contains lots of yeast, and can therefore be used to make bread)
  • The liquid should now be left to stand for a further hour or so to let the sediments drop to the bottom of the container. At this point it is quite drinkable, but may cause gas in the drinkers
  • STRAINING #2: Use a finely woven cloth to strain the liquid a second time. It will catch the yeast, which can then be added to the next brew (if a new batch is intended) in order to start the fermentation process. By straining the yeast from one brew and adding it to another, the same strain of yeast can be kept alive for a very long time
  • Let sit for an hour
  • STRAINING #3: Repeat steps for “straining #2”, plus sit time
  • The ale is now ready to drink. However, it must be drunk quickly, as after a day or so it begins to go off and after a week could cause an upset stomach.
    • One Saxon writer of the time wrote “…after two days only the bravest or silliest men of the village would drink the ale, but usually it was only fit for pigs.”
      • The stale brew was often fed to the pigs as it was said to improve the flavor of the meat (and also gave rise to the saying “as drunk as swine”)

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