Much of what we drink today on a daily basis would not have been available in the Middle Ages. Coffee wasn’t brought to Europe until the 1600s, and was met with suspicion—even sometimes condemned by the local Church. And though Britain in particular is now known for his proud heritage of drinking tea, it was not introduced until the 16th century, and did not gain popularity until the 17th. Anything that required refrigeration was difficult to keep, and only consumed fresh, when available. So what did medieval people drink on a daily basis?
There is a persistent rumor that water was avoided due to widespread contamination of waterways by pollutants and bacteria. This is actually not the case. While plain water was certainly nothing exciting enough to sing songs about, it was regularly drunk by itself, or used to water down other drinks. Even though they had no concept of what bacteria were, medieval people were smart enough to distinguish fresh from polluted water, and carefully avoided the latter. Large cities in fact invested considerable wealth into reliable water systems that would bring in fresh water from springs or other sources. Waterways used for industry were avoided as drinking sources, as were stagnant or marshy waters. Rainwater was thought to be the healthiest water, and it was easy enough for anyone to collect. There were instances when medieval physicians might advise against water, such as when eating a meal. Wine was recommended instead, as water was thought to “chill the stomach.” Ironically, a 15th century source advises pregnant women to beware of cold water, which was thought to be harmful to the fetus, and drink wine instead.
Some juices were consumed, particularly where (and when) fruits were readily available. Milk was another option, produced not just by cows, but goats and sheep as well. Even most peasants owned one or more of these animals. In spite of this, fresh drinking milk was surprisingly uncommon. There was no easy way to keep milk from spoiling, and it was only available during the times of year when animals were producing. For the most part milk was used to make other foods like butter and cheese. Milk to drink was primarily given to the sick, young children, the elderly, and those who were too poor to buy meat. Peasants did drink whey, buttermilk, milk that had been soured or diluted with water, and almond milk.
Alcoholic beverages were the preferred choice. They were considered to have nutritive value and aid digestion. They were also the easiest drinks to preserve for relatively long periods of time. However, alcoholic drinks in the Middle Ages were somewhat different than those we are accustomed to today. What type of alcohol you drank largely depended on where you lived, and what you could afford.
In the northernmost regions of Europe where grapes did not grow, most of the alcohol consumed were beer or ale, both of which were much weaker than the modern day versions, and might be further watered down if desired. Ale was the most common, brewed with barley but not hops. “Small Ale” (or “Small Beer”) had extremely low alcohol content and was actually considered an important source of hydration and nutrition. It was a cloudy drink, consumed fresh, and would have been drunk on a daily basis by just about everyone, even youth. Ale with higher alcohol content would have been saved for recreational purposes due to the intoxicating effects. Beer was at first brewed with “gruit,” a mix of various herbs, then gradually with hops as brewers figured out the proper ratio to use. Hops was a better preservative, allowing beer to be stored for 6 months or longer, whereas beer brewed with gruit needed to be consumed more quickly. Wine was only drunk by those who could afford to import it.
By comparison, in Southern Europe where grapes were plentiful, wine was the drink consumed on a daily basis and was considered to be both prestigious and healthy. Red wine was thought to “aid digestion, generate good blood, and brighten the mood.”
Like beers and ales, the quality of wine varied greatly, with that made of second and third pressings the lowest quality with the least alcohol content. These would have been the equivalent of “small ale”—a drink consumed daily by just about everyone, and even in large quantities, without concerns about intoxication. The poorest peasants might have to settle for watered down vinegar as their daily drink. Fine, expensive wines with much higher alcohol content would have been made from the first pressings of grapes. Such wine might also be mulled or spiced—also considered to be quite healthy. Red wine would be combined with sugar and spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, pepper, and cloves among others.
Wines might also be made from fruits other than grapes, including berries. Perry and cider were popular in northern regions were pears and apples could be grown. Mulberry, blackberry, plumb, and pomegranate wines were some of the different varieties enjoyed.
Mead was another drink available, and could be made to contain alcohol or not. Made from honey, water, and yeast, the alcoholic version could be as weak as small ale, or rival strong wines. The taste varied locally, as most regions had their own traditions and recipes. Different sources of honey also produced different flavors of mead. Spices and fruits might be added. Some recipes called for grain mash, or for hops to give it a beer-like flavor. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, mead was most commonly used for medicinal purposes rather than as a table drink.