In medieval England ale was a common drink at just about every meal. Indeed, it was the preferred, alternative drink to water as water often carried bacteria. Most people enjoyed drinking ale as part of their diet as it also helped to lift their spirits.
The ale drank at that time varied in colour, in price and of course in taste. It could be bright or cloudy. Basically, the clearer and older it was, the more it cost. The poorer people usually drank cheap brews which were cloudy and thick with dregs which had not yet settled.
The taste varied quite a lot depending upon what had been added to the ‘brew’. Herbs were sometimes used in the brewing, as was common in Germany in medieval times; this is how hops first came to Britain for use in brewing.
Types Of Medieval Ale
In 11th-15th century England people enjoyed a few variants of the drink. There was poset ale which was made from mixing it with hot milk and there was braggot made with ale, honey and spices. As honey and spices were not commonly available, this type was much more expensive. So generally it was not drunk by the common man, more by the nobles and wealthy merchants.
It is believed that brewers in medieval times were technically not supposed to sell ale which was less than 48 hours old. So a good ale was always an older one and this is where we understand the term ‘good stale ale’ originates. ie. top notch stuff.
It was also used to some extent in medieval cooking, sometimes with meat dishes but particularly in bread recipes. A lot of white bread (wheat based) and barley bread was made using ale as an ingredient. Today of course it is still popular as a culinary ingredient in England such as the popular steak and ale pie served in many English pubs and restaurants.
References to medieval ale are found in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”, a collection of over 20 stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century, during the time of the Hundred Years’ War. Here are excerpts:
“As ever moote I drynken wyn or ale” … The Wife of Bath’s Tale
“This millere into toun his dogther sende, For ale and breed, and rosted hem a goos”… The Reeve’s Tale