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.