Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe identified eight common types of drunkard, from the leaping “ape drunk” to the horny “goat drunk” and weeping “maudlin drunk”.
Beer provided to Tudor-era soldiers, servants and manual labourers in quantities of 6-12 pints a day — that’s before any after-work leisure drinking — was comparable in strength and calorie content to modern lagers, a study reveals.
The interdisciplinary project represents the most comprehensive effort to recreate a historic beer in any context to date. It brought together 16 historians, archaeologists, agronomists, microbiologists, brewing scientists, craftworkers, farmers and maltsters. And it involved more than three years of intensive research and preparation — including trawling through archives, reconstructing a Tudor brewhouse and cultivating heritage crops.
The project focused on the 16th century, when beer was a staple drink for many people across the British Isles and northern Europe. Until now, little has been known for sure about its alcohol content and other qualities, however. A common assumption has been that it was much weaker than modern beers. On the other hand, some scholars making paper-based calculations have suggested estimates as high as 10-12 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV).
To address the question, the researchers chose to accurately recreate an “ordinary beer”, because it was the most widely consumed type and most representative of everyday drinking.
“Strong beer” was also available but was a higher status drink. Unlike ordinary beer, it wasn’t routinely issued by employers to workers, although it was enjoyed on special occasions and probably in alehouses socially.
Lower-alcohol “small beer” was also brewed but was considered unsuitable, even “injurious”, for working adults due to its thinness and weakness.
The recipe the team used is from the household accounts of Dublin Castle — an administrative and military centre of English rule in Ireland — for 1574. In that year, the household of the lord deputy, Sir William FitzWilliam, including officials, soldiers, servants, labourers and guests, consumed 479.25 hogsheads or 207,684 pints of beer altogether — equivalent to six to ten pints a day per head.
Remarkably, people doing hard labour drank even more. Contemporary Dublin records indicate that skilled masons working at the city’s Christ Church cathedral consumed 10-12 pints daily and over 15 pints while engaged in the most onerous tasks.
Historian Dr Susan Flavin, of Trinity College Dublin, principal investigator on the FoodCult project, explained that beer was seen as nutritious and strength-giving, and therefore a fitting part of a worker’s diet. “Interestingly, employers spent the same amount on providing beer as bread, which shows how much of a staple it was. Labourers would also have had things like salt beef when it was not a fasting day, fish when it was a fasting day, cheese and butter, and some vegetables.”
The Dublin Castle records are exceptionally detailed and provided the team with the quantities of barley malt, oat malt and hops necessary for the project. Nevertheless, Marc Meltonville, the project’s brewer, also drew on print and manuscript records of brewing from Elizabethan England. These included previously unstudied notes from Sir Hugh Plat, a courtier and wealthy brewer’s son, who specified the quantity of water needed to make a given volume of beer. This calculation was essential for accurately recreating beer of the correct strength.
In keeping with 16th-century beer brewing, the team used “bere” barley, which has been replaced by other types of barley in modern beers but preserved as a landrace in Orkney, Scotland. In the absence of historical and archaeological evidence about the oats that would have been used, they opted for oat malt of a type employed in modern craft brewing. The barley was malted at Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire using traditional techniques. The team also used a historic hop called Tolhurst that experts believe to be the closest surviving relative of the Flemish hops sent to the Elizabethan Dublin Castle brewhouse.
For their yeast, meanwhile, the team chose the strain closest genetically to the ancestral yeast, “Beer 1”, to which all modern brewing strains can be traced. And as for water, one of their main reasons for choosing the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex as their brewing site was that the local supply was alike in composition to that of Dublin.
Curators at the museum of historic buildings, near Chichester, allowed the researchers to borrow a Tudor farmhouse kitchen and convert it into a brewhouse, with equipment made from scratch by specialist craftspeople based on Meltonville’s research. The brewing was carried out over two weeks following 16th-century guides including the writings of Plat and English physician John Caius.
The process included grinding the malted grains and washing them in hot water to produce liquid wort. Hops in linen bags were added to the boiling wort and yeast was subsequently added to the cooled mixture, which was left for five to seven days before decanting.
Altogether, they produced three batches of Dublin Castle beer. The first batch was inconsistent with the second and third and the team put this down to learning from experience. Their analysis found that the final batches had 5–5.3 per cent ABV and energy contents of 260–272 calories per pint. These characteristics made the beer highly comparable to modern pub beverages. The team stress that there would have been variability and the figures for one major household shouldn’t be read as universal but do defy previous assumptions.
So, how did it taste? According to the researchers, it was slightly bitter with a gentle flavour from the hops. It had a light honey colour and was hazy, probably due to the oats.
They said that, in theory, the relatively crude equipment and basic brewing process might have turned out an inconsistent product and the pre-modern grains and yeast strain might have limited the beer’s potency. This wasn’t the case.
In their paper, in The Historical Journal, they explain: “Brewed following contemporary formulas and using grains that compared to pre-industrial cereals, traditional processing techniques, and early modern technology, the Dublin Castle beer had much in common with those consumed for leisure today. By this point in the past, the experiment suggests, the key features of modern brewing were in place.”
Flavin said: “I was quite surprised. Part of the reason for the project was to challenge the findings of more theoretical approaches.”
The researchers said the findings raised questions for further study, writing: “Micro-studies might look at when and how people drank these great quantities and their level of inebriation. Was beer only consumed with solid food or drunk during work as hydration? Was it slugged down in great gulps or sipped throughout the day? How much extra beer was drunk for leisure, on top of workmen’s allowances, and was this beer even stronger?”
One misconception that Flavin is keen to scotch is that early modern people drank beer because water was considered dangerous. She said: “People didn’t think about drinks or the body in the same way we do now. There are references to water being bad in the 16th century but when they said bad they meant bad because it was a ‘cold’ drink that could upset your constitution. It wasn’t because it had microbes in it — they couldn’t understand that. Beer was seen as good because it was a ‘warm’ drink and good for various medical reasons. When people wrote about drinking water it tended to be, ‘I’m so destitute, I’m forced to drink water and eat country bread’ — that sort of thing.”
“The other thing is that lots of the directions for making beer in this period insist you have to have good water. And if you have good water to make beer, then you have good water to drink.”
She added that the findings helped to contextualise “complaint literature” of the period, in which clerics and those in government raised the dangers of leaving one’s family destitute through drinking too much. She said: “Even though they were the ones writing this, they were still providing lots of beer to workers. I guess it raises questions about acceptable levels of drunkenness in society, which are very interesting. Also, it makes me wonder. Does this mean that people metabolised this beer differently and were better able to use it for energy? That’s a question for nutritionists.”
Certainly the Elizabethan lord chancellor of Ireland and churchman Archbishop Adam Loftus believed wholeheartedly in the benefits of beer. He wrote to Sir Robert Cecil in 1597 asking for malt to be sent to the English garrisons in Ireland, as beer would “greatly comfort the soldiers and prevent a lamentable weakness they fall into daily for want of drink, being driven only to live upon water, which in reason cannot be but one principal cause of so great a diminution of the army, as happeneth daily by sickness, death, and running away”.
The FoodCult project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme.
The top image shows early modern drinkers, as depicted in Pieter Aertsen’s The Egg Dance (1552) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Image: Rijksmuseum, CC0 1.0