The History of Booze

Small Beer

There is a school boy myth that small beer was all about the folk of the medieval period drinking small beer, in fear of their lives from the perils of drinking the unsanitary water. If you too are now shaking your head in disbelief because you thought this was true, fear not for B&C are going to reveal small beers’ true story.

The Book of the Assize of Bread and Ale by Robert Wyer 1546

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown portrait of George Washington

Crew Tankard From The Mary Rose

The men drank from wooden tankards. These are made like little barrels and are lined with pitch to keep them waterproof.  The tankards are wider at the bottom than at the top and have a lid.

Mary Rose Officer’s Tankard

This is one of the officers’ tankards. Its lid stops the drink spilling in rough seas. If you visit the Mary Rose museum, you will see other pewter tankards, including some big ones that would have been used as jugs. This tankards has “1545” scratched on its base. That is the year the Mary Rose sank.

If you think about it for a moment, we know that people, even in the Roman period were aware of the concept of good and bad water, whilst not necessarily understanding exactly why. They went to great lengths to build aqueducts to bring fresh water into cities and sewers to remove sewage and avoid contamination. This provision of fresh water in England was not completely lost through the dark ages, as is evidenced by the construction of the Great Conduit in 1237, which carried spring water from Tyburn to the city. 

So, if it wasn’t as simple as the myth would have us believe, then what was the consumption of small beer all about? It comes down to a couple of quite simple factors that we can trace back to the notions of part payment of salary in beer as discussed in part one of our history of beer series. Until the industrial revolution, there was one heck of a lot of manual labour and the working masses, needed two things to keep them going through very long working days; hydration and calories. Beer has two things; water and calories.

Billy Connolly, the fabulous Scottish comedian, frequently talks about his days as welder on the Clyde and how the men he worked with could put away a staggering amount of beer at lunchtime and seemingly be none the worse for it and go back to work in dangerous professions on the ships. These guys needed to be literally pouring in the calories and fluids to replace those they were losing through their massively labour intensive jobs. Mind you, these guys were not drinking small beer. Small beer is simply an ale or lager that contains a lower amount of alcohol by volume (ABV) than other beers. Not unlike the lows or nos of today. It was often known by other names, such as small ale or table beer.

Scroll back through the years and a typical male working the fields, or quarrying stone for the pyramids was burning an average of 3,000 calories per day. Small beer had the advantages of having much less alcohol so your workforce didn’t get bladdered on the job and it was often cheap because it was frequently made from the third runnings of the mash from brewing ales. Sometimes it was of a porridge like consistency, not really sounding very attractive. It was often brewed within households and was frequently consumed by children and household servants. Not every household was large enough or wealthy enough to have its own brewery set up in-house, so most villages and towns would have breweries to provide for the masses, as well as the stronger alcoholic beers. Typically, the first runnings from the mash would provide a strong beer for sale in the inns and to wealthier households. The second runnings would be for ordinary beer (a less strong beer) and finally the small beer would come from the third running. Monasteries were a large producer of small beer during the Middle ages.Throughout the Tudor period, small beer was still around. It remained probably the best source of vitamin B - not that people were aware of that fact at the time! 

The Book of the Assize of Bread and Ale by Robert Wyer 1546


An interesting fact is that George Washington, yes THE George Washington, had quite the passion for small beer, something that might have never been the case had the Pilgrims not been carrying beer. It has been said that they only landed at Plymouth Rock because they were running out of beer. We know this because of an entry in the diary of a Mayflower passenger describing the reason for their unplanned arrival at Plymouth Rock: “We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…” Fortunately, they soon found out from the locals that they could make beer from maize - crisis averted. It wasn’t long before local breweries began to emerge and experienced brewmasters in London were being tempted to the colonies with tidy cash incentives. Such was the success of beer in America that the Boston Tea Party could have almost been the Boston Beer Party, as George Washington, Patrick Henry and other patriots argued for a boycott of English beer imports. Washington was apparently quite a skilled brewmaster himself. You can still see his handwritten recipe for small beer at The New York Library. If you are feeling a tad adventurous and don’t fancy the B&C recipes this month, you could always try making George’s instead from 1757.

“Take a large Sifter full of Bran Hops to your Taste -- Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 Gall. into a Cooler put in 3 Gallons Molasses while the Beer is scalding hot or rather drain the molasses into the Cooler. Strain the Beer on it while boiling hot let this stand til it is little more than Blood warm. Then put in a quart of Yeast if the weather is very cold cover it over with a Blanket. Let it work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask. Leave the Bung open til it is almost done working -- Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed.”

George Washington. To Make Small Beer. From his 1757 notebook.