Why Our Drinking Habits are Still in the Dark Ages

what the Anglo-Saxons drank

It was beer that brought me to Burton-upon-Trent. My other half landed a good job here in 1996, with the brewing company, Bass. I followed a few months later, we bought a house and two years after that, our daughter was born. So Burton is a very special place to us.

Beer and Burton have always been linked. William Bass opened his brewery in 1777 and a hundred years later, Bass was the largest brewing company in the world. But beer making has existed here for more than a thousand years. Monks at Burton Abbey (founded by Saint Modwen in the seventh or ninth century) were taking advantage of the high levels of gypsum in the water. This brought out the flavour of the hops and nowadays is recreated by adding sulphate. Saint Modwen features in my book Gulfyrian.

So there they were, the monks of the Dark Ages brewing their own beer. The significance of this drink is demonstrated by the fact that buildings were named after it: the Beor [beer] Hall. The Roman, Tacitus, described the drink as “a liquor made from barley, or other grain, fermented to produce a certain resemblance to wine.” We know from recorded recipes that the Anglo-Saxons also drank ale, which was an alcoholic drink but not as strong as beer.

In a climate such as ours in England, it is a little odd to find no record of any alcoholic drinks made from apples. In Germany (the origin of the Anglo-Saxons peoples) there was ‘applewine’ – cider, we presume. But not here in the Dark Ages. It could be that our native apple, the crab apple, was just not suitable for cider making. Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period sweet apples were introduced from France and cultivated in orchards on a small scale. Interestingly though, the word apple was used to describe any fruit.

The other significant drink was mead. I had the pleasure of trying some of this fermented honey drink last summer. For research purposes, you understand. This was the drink of the nobles and rich folk. Sometimes the great halls were called mead halls as well as beer halls; I am not sure what the criteria was for the difference in the names. Beer was brewed twice to make it strong and was the drink of the warriors. Maybe beer halls were aimed at the fighters whereas the mead hall was intended for the royals alone. More research needed here methinks. Ale was weaker and therefore drunk by the children as water was not always a safe option.

The fourth drink mentioned was the Roman influenced wine. This was definitely a drink of the nobility. The Dark Ages period was actually quite warm and grape vines grew freely in England, but it was still a expensive drink as most arable land was given to growing grain, particularly barley.

How far forward have we moved in terms of alcoholic beverages? Well, my chosen drink for summer is the fruity Pimm’s. But in my bar is also beer, wine and mead.

How dark were the Dark Ages really?


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