The Alewife


If you wanted an alcoholic drink in the fourteenth century you had two choices: ale or wine. An alchemist had discovered how to distil alcohol in the middle of the century, but its use was limited to the making of medicines and the process was not widely known.

Wine was for the wealthy, but everyone drank ale. You couldn’t just go to the pub and buy a pint, though. Where you went depended on who was brewing it. In the countryside, where the vast majority of the population lived, brewing was a domestic occupation usually carried out by women. Women brewed ale for their family, but some brewed more than was needed so that it could be sold. When a batch was ready, neighbours would be able to go into the alewife’s home and buy some. Children as well as adults drank ale, as it was safer than drinking water. Although water was used in the brewing process, it was boiled.

The ale-making process was very straightforward. Barley, wheat or oats could be used, but barley was the most common. The germinated grains were ground to make a malt, which was mixed with boiling water. It was left overnight, then strained. Herbs and yeast were added, but hops were not used until the fifteenth century. Ale was ready to drink within twenty-four hours and went off within a week. It did not travel, so people went to it rather than the other way round.

Small beer was the weak ale brewed for daily use. It had to be weak since children and labourers drank it all day. Life was dangerous enough without inebriated ploughmen, thatchers, smiths or others trying to ply their trades. Celebrations demanded a stronger brew.

Ale was a sweeter drink than beer. Ale could be flavoured with all kinds of herbs: heathers, sage or nettles, for example. Beer (made with hops) began to come into England from the Low Countries at the end of the fourteenth century. It was the hops that gave beer its bitter flavour and enabled it to be kept for longer.

Ale was an important part of the diet (providing necessary calories) and its price, like that of bread, was regulated by law. The village ale taster, like the reeve, was elected by the villagers. It was the ale taster’s job to ensure that any ale sold by a brewster was made to the correct standard (not too strong and not too weak), that the correct price was charged and that the correct measures were used. The brewster was supposed to call for the ale taster before any ale was sold, but many did not and there are records of women being called before the manorial courts for having failed to do so.

In towns, ale houses, usually run by women, sold only ale, not wine. They might also sell simple food such as bread, cheese or pies. They tended to be rather dirty establishments, whose customers were at the lower end of the social scale. Taverns, on the other hand, sold only wine, not ale. They attracted better-off people and were, generally, cleaner than ale houses.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

22 responses to “The Alewife

  1. Really interesting! I have always wondered how they drank all the time and didn’t get drunk, now I know, small beer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As usual, a fascinating post! “John Barleycorn must die.” Another side note: i’m extremely allergic to hops… 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The ale taster had an enviable job!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As someone who doesn’t know all that much about medieval Western history, this was so interesting to read! Imagine a time when alcoholic drinks were not only preferred but necessary…. The way attitudes must have changed towards them from then until now probably deserves some analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Ale was very weak and people didn’t drink to get drunk as they do today. Spirits weren’t available and it wasn’t a question of drinking for pleasure. You drank ale because it was one of the things that kept you alive.


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  7. Great article – I love ale. Wherever I have travelled people have made their own ale or wine and drink it when the water is suspected of being contaminated. In Spain’s province of Granada I was offered ‘Costa’ (thick red wine that stained the tongue mauve) even with breakfast. In the Sudan I drank ‘Tej’ – a beer made from dates by women labourers. It is believed ale has prevented many in England from coming down with Typhoid Fever and similar diseases.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting article. I wonder what percentage the ale was? Sounds like it could only have been 1-2%? When did the monks start brewing their stronger beers? Over here the Trappists get theirs up to 8-9%.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’d never heard of “small beer” before – it’s like a light bulb went off over my head. It now makes sense why everyone was drinking it, but not stumbling around drunk all the time. Thanks for the enlightening post, April!

    Liked by 1 person

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