Many games and stories feature foaming flagons of ale, fine wines, and suchlike. So this post outlines drinks of medieval England. You can use it to add detail to drinking in your historically-inspired settings, from a peasant’s humble table to a lordly feast or a raucous tavern. I plan to make more posts on some similar themes so check out the tags and categories to find more.
Ale and beer
From ancient times people often made booze from grain. In the middle ages, they would malt barley (or other crops), then extract the resulting sugars and other constituents with hot water. This liquid they would ferment into an alcoholic drink, cloudier and sweeter than modern beer with residual sugars and starch—which made it an important part of the diet. It would last only a few days before going off. Often they would add flavourings, such as bitter herbs (I’ve seen mentions of hyssop, heather, yarrow, bog myrtle, juniper, poppy, bay and even mushrooms) or sweet honey, especially to older ale starting to taste sour.
(To reduce waste, medieval brewers would make multiple batches from the same grain. The second extraction would be less sugary, and so the brew weaker, with less alcohol and lower calorie content—this ‘small ale’ or ‘small beer’ was sold at a cheaper price or given to lower-status people, including children.)
There were different names for this drink in different lands. Broadly, Germany, the Low Countries and England initially used a word similar to ‘beer’. But Scandinavia used a word similar to ‘ale’. When Vikings settled in England, many of their words were adopted into English—one of which was ‘ale’. So by the 11th century, the traditional barley brew was called ale in England. (Presumably also in Scandinavia, with local pronunciation; most of the rest of western Europe I think used variants of ‘beer’.)
Towards the later middle ages in and around Germany, brewing techniques developed. Brewers started boiling their water before soaking the malt, resulting in a longer-lasting product of more consistent quality. They also found that hops, one of the range of bitter herbs often used for flavouring, had preservative properties and some brewers started to consistently make their beer with them.
Because of these changes, continental brewers were producing some high-quality drink that could keep for weeks, long enough to be exported. From the later 14th century, these long-lasting brews were being imported to England from the Low Countries and nearby areas. Since the foreign suppliers called their product something sounding like ‘beer’, and it was different from the familiar local ale, ‘beer’ returned to English—this time as a term for continental-style hopped drinks, while ‘ale’ remained the term for the older unhopped brew. This distinction in terminology persisted at least into Elizabethan times, and so would be appropriate for anything set in the time of swords, bows and plate armour. (In modern terminology late medieval hoppy beer would be classed as an ale, early medieval unhopped ale is now extinct, and the general term beer covers ales as well as other grain-brewed drinks like lagers, stouts and porters.)
By the 15th century, beer was being brewed in England, as an alternative to traditional ale, though it was not until the 16th century that it started to take over in terms of popularity.
(A note on lager, because I’ve seen several people assuming that the newer continental beer style was lager. In the 14th century it wasn’t. Lager beer is brewed at low temperatures, with a different type of yeast. The yeast is thought to have originated in the 15th century, and lager brewing and drinking really took off after the development of refrigeration in the 19th century. In a fantasy world you could have it but, in historical terms, lager is pretty much non-medieval.)
I have not heard of evidence from mediaeval times of named ales, or different styles of ale or beer being offered alongside each other as we find in modern bars. There might be differences by region or by brewer in things like the kind of grain used, or the herbs used for flavouring. But in any one establishment, I think you would at most have a choice between the best, second-best, and ordinary, based largely on strength. Later, in Elizabethan times, there is evidence of named beers, presumably from successful brewers supplying multiple outlets in a town or city. Names included Huffcap, The Mad Dog, Father Whoreson, Angels’ Food, Dragons’ Milk, Go-by-the-Wall, Stride Wide and Lift Leg.
Ale was cheap enough to be a staple drink for many people. The price varied with the price of grain, but in the 14th century everyday small ale might typically be a penny for 4 gallons. (A penny was a small silver coin, by weight at least 300 to the modern pound, and roughly equivalent in purchasing power to a DnD silver piece; I have now posted about the differences between medieval and 5e coinage, and about how to put a silver penny currency into a game.) The very best ale from a famous brewing region (Kent, in mediaeval England) might be eight times that price, 2 pence per gallon. You can halve the price for each drop in quality—good ale from ordinary regions 1 penny a gallon, and decent alehouse fare 1 penny for 2 gallons. The cheaper sorts would be weaker (fortunately—many working people would routinely drink several pints a day), but the best ale could be as alcoholic as modern brews.
There was typically a price differential between town and country. Country prices might be 2/3 or 3/4 as much as in towns.
Beer, when it was a high-quality import, might be twice the price of comparable ale, with cheaper varieties not imported. So perhaps 2 to 4 pence per gallon. With local brewing the price would I think come down to close to that for ale, and ordinary beer and small beer would be available. I’ve seen a reference about ‘double beer’ brewed in the 16th century with twice the concentration of malt and reaching an alcohol content to rival wine of the day—I guess this would be at least twice as expensive as the best normal-strength beer.
In lands that do not brew beer, I expect it would be rare outside seaports and main cities. (See the note below about shipping costs for wine.) Away from ports, commoners would drink primarily the local product.
Cider, mead and other regional brews
Alongside, or instead of, ale, you might find drinks brewed from apples (cider), pears (perry) or honey (mead, or metheglin if flavoured with herbs). These were generally cheaper than ale, and more routinely made in the higher strengths. (I’m guessing this was because it was easier to get a strongly sugary liquid from these sources.) So a typical cider might be as strong as best ale, but cost only a penny for two gallons. But they were made mainly in certain regions—such as historically the west and south of England.
From a mediaeval English perspective, wine was largely an imported luxury. Most poorer peasants would rarely see it. But nobles, upper clergy and other well-off people would drink it more or less routinely.
Red wine was imported from warm southern climates—in later mediaeval England, especially from Gascony (including Bordeaux) in the south of France, which was held by the English kings from about 1154 to 1451. Gascon wine sold in English ports in bulk for about 3 to 4 pence per gallon, making it twice the price of even the very best ale, and several times the price of everyday ale. There were sweeter wines, called in English names like Romonye, Malvesey or Malmesey, from places such as Greece, Crete and Cyprus, and Spanish white wines such as Lepe or Osey, for similar prices.
The most prized wines were imports from the Rhineland. Rhenish wines fetched twice the price of Gascon—about 6 to 8 pence per gallon at the dock.
Note that imported wine rises in price further from the dock. Carriage inland might cost a penny a gallon, or more in very remote areas. Each middleman will also want to add their mark-up.
Grapes did grow in some parts of England, especially earlier in the middle ages, but not on a very large scale (and producing only white wine). Such wineries as there were mostly belonged to noble estates or monasteries, and the wine produced was generally consumed in-house. The small amounts of English wine sold tended to go for up to 2 pence per gallon.
Wine was quite often served spiced, sweetened and/or warmed, with names given to the resulting drinks like hippocras and claret (which apparently in mediaeval times was a white wine drink).
Spirits were not much consumed in the middle ages. Distillation was known to alchemists and suchlike from ancient times in several parts of the world, but making spirits from wine for human consumption begins to appear in the European record around the 13th century. These were used as medicinal elixirs, and their production gradually spread among monks and learned folk. They became slowly more popular, but they were still found in apothecary’s shops rather than pubs until the 17th century. Also from the late middle ages, the technique of distillation was applied to drinks other than wine. Wine spirit became known in English as brandy (short for brandy-wine, from the German brandewijn or ‘burnt wine’) or aqua vitae (Latin for ‘water of life’). Some other spirit names have similar derivations, such as whisky (from the Irish uisce beatha ‘water of life’), which is referred to in Irish and Scottish sources in the 15th century, or vodka (from the Russian for ‘little water’). Juniper was another popular flavouring for clear spirits and provides the derivation for the name gin.
(As a side-comment on an RPG trope: drinkable spirits do not burn easily. The liquid is not flammable; you need the alcohol to vaporise and mix with air. Modern spirits (40% alcohol by volume or 80 degrees proof) need to be warmed to at least about 26 degrees C (79 F) for this to happen, which is not usually reached in a pub cellar. So even if you place a barrel of brandy in your game, you don’t need to let the party set the inn ablaze just by pouring out the spirit and putting a spark to it. I suppose if a wooden structure is already well ablaze then spirits in it could be heated and their vaporised alcohol could then contribute to the fire while the water content douses the floor.)
You may hear that mediaeval people never drank water because it wasn’t safe, and that they only drank ale and other alcoholic brews. This is not quite true.
Ale was a daily drink for many people (likewise local alternatives like cider, or wine for the rich). But many poorer people could not afford to drink ale all the time. Some others may have avoided alcohol for other reasons. Water was a common drink, and people were aware that dirty water was unhealthy but clean water less so. The preferred source of drinking and cooking water was rainfall, and most houses would have a cistern for collecting rainwater off the roof. But poor and crowded areas, such as urban slums, would probably have issues with contaminated drinking water, and other places might too since the nature of disease-causing germs was not understood.
Cows’ milk in mediaeval England was considered a suitable drink for children and old people. It was also used as a cooking ingredient, and obviously for making products like butter and cheese.
I have taken a fair bit of information from The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, both by Ian Mortimer and very much favourites of mine.
I have linked to online sources from the text where they are relevant.
This article is full of a miscellany of snippets with links to sources.