medieval-ale-wwwmashspargeboildotcomAle was one of the commonest drinks of the Middle Ages and just as important as bread. It was drunk by all classes, and large households or religious centres had to have an almost industrial process at work to produce such large amounts.

The malt-house at Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire, for example, has a steeping vessel about 18 feet in diameter (in a building nearly 60 feet square) that would have been capable of dealing with 20 quarters of barley every 10-12 days, making at least 60 barrels (each holding about 36 gallons) of very strong ale.

Food and Feast in Medieval England, Peter Hammond


Although we think of ale being brewed exclusively from barley, the truth is, during medieval times, it could be made from a variety of malts, depending on the season and availability. One common mix was half wheat and half dredge (a mix of oats and barley), another was half wheat and half oats. Sometimes oats were the sole ingredient. However, it seems that a pure barley malt was the preferred option.

How Ale Was Made: The Brewhouse


A modern malting floor – much larger than a medieval one, but the principle is the same.

Large brewhouses, such as those that served big households, were usually situated close by, if not next to, the bakehouse and downwind from the main residential areas due to the smell of the malting process (I can attest to this smell – my secondary school was downwind of a brewery and quite often the most awful smell would drift across the playground!). Sometimes though, it was located in the basement, if the building was heavily fortified (such as a castle). Being at this level meant that not only was the brewery fairly safe in times of conflict but that the thick walls and valuted ceilings acted as insulation, keeping the ferment at a steady temperature. A good (though extreme) example of this is the malting kiln found in the Nottingham caves.

Caption: Carved sandstone pillar in the 8 Castle Gate medieval malt kiln. Underground maltings like these allowed beer to be brewed all year round, making Nottingham famous for its ale. From Trent & Peak Archaeology / The University of Nottingham.

Carved sandstone pillar in the 8 Castle Gate medieval malt kiln. Underground maltings like these allowed beer to be brewed all year round, making Nottingham famous for its ale. From Trent & Peak Archaeology / The University of Nottingham.

If you were to go back in time to such a large brewhouse, you would find certain things:

  • A drying floor, where the soaked barley would be left to dry and sprout, while being turned regularly to ensure an even temperature and airflow for the grains.
  • A kiln for stopping the germination process and roasting the grains.
  • A mill for grinding the malted barley into flour; sometimes this would be a mill wheel powered by water or horses, but could also be a hand grinding mill.
  • Bushel sacks, for putting the flour into, ready for when it was needed for brewing.
  • A copper vat (confusingly called a lead), situated over the furnace (which also heated the kiln). Water would be boiled in here before being transferred to the mash vat.
  • A mash vat –  where the malt flour was stirred into the hot water. The mixture was then covered with blankets and left to slowly cool. After a while, the water, now full of soluable sugars from the mash, was let out of the mash vat via a spigot and sieve into another vessel called a gyle vat.
  • A gyle vat – where yeast was added to the sugary solution (grout) and it was left to ferment. The process was then repeated again, with more water and another gyle vat to produce a weaker ale than the first. The froth on top of the fermenting brews, containing liquid yeast (ale barm) was skimmed off and kept for the next batch that needed fermenting (or bread that needed baking).
  • Barrels and a tundish – Once the fermentation had stopped, the resulting ale could then be  poured into barrels with the aid of a special coopered funnel called a tundish.

The malting operation could take a couple of weeks and depended on ambient temperatures, but the actual brewing took just  few days


It was common practice to add herbs to give ale a flavour of its own. Common plants used for this purpose were alecost or costmary (tanacetum balsamita) and ground ivy, otherwise known as ale-hoof (glechoma hederacea).


Gound ivy



Commercial Ale Making

Most commercial brewing in towns was carried out by women, at least until hops became widely available in the 15th C, and then for some reason, the practice became taken over by men. Hops became more popular because it was found that ale that had had hops added lasted for longer (hops have a preservative quality). Until then, they tended to be looked upon with some suspicion by the brewing industry.

Despite being regulated by the Assize of Ale (see below), ale was frequently adulterated with water and sometimes salt and resin, as well as being  sold in short measures. In 1377 London started to appoint inspectors of ale called Alkonneres (or Aleconners), a practice that later spread to other towns. Their job was to taste and check ale for quality and price before it went on sale. Not that it stopped malpractice altogether – brewers were often punished for lapses in quality or mispricing their wares.

The Assize of Bread and Ale 51 Henry III 1266/7 (the ale bit)


Assisa Cervisie (Assize of Beer):When a quarter of Wheat is sold for 3s. or 3s. 4d. and a Quarter of Barley for 20d. or 2s., and a Quarter of Oats for 16d., then Brewers in cities ought and may well afford to sell two gallons of beer or ale for a penny, and out of cities to sell 3 [or 4?] gallons for a penny. And when in a town 3 gallons are sold for a penny, out of a town they ought and may sell four; and this Assize ought to be holden throughout all England.


As with bread, the quantity of ale that could be sold for a fixed price  was fixed according to the price of barley or oats. In other words, if a quarter of barley cost the brewer 20d (or 2 shillings), they were permitted to sell a 2 gallon quantity for 1d. More could be sold for the same price outside of the town environment.

Unlike today where beer is served by the pint, in a glass, ale had to be served in sanctioned containers of specific sizes. You could order either a gallon, a pottle (four pints), or a quart. It would arrive in an appropriately sized serving jug and then you would pour it into a cup or other drinking vessel.

imagesAs mentioned above, ale came in two strengths: double and single (also known as small beer). The double ale was brewed with twice the amount of grain as small beer and so was much stronger. However, at this time, there was no standardisation of ale strength, so that a double brew in one tavern could have been substantially stronger than in the tavern just down the road.

As with bakers, there were tough penalties for those who transgressed the law. An ordinance of 1337 in London, set the punishments out quite clearly. For a first offence, the offender was to spend three days in prison and fined 40d. For a second offence it would be six days in prison and a fine of half a mark and if the culprit was hauled before the justices a third time, they would be compelled to leave the city altogether.

The Reputation of the Alewife

Women brewers, unlike many trades, could be unmarried, widowed or divorced, making the ale trade a Godsend for them – as otherwise they would have found it hard to find enough money to live on without either finding a husband or else turning to other, less savoury, avenues that were open to them such as prostitution.

Taverns, where the ale was sold, were often scenes of drunkeness and disorder, as well as places where the services of prostitutes could be on offer. Therefore, the fact that women often ran these places (and that those women could be without a male ‘controler’, made them figures associated with sin and vice. Thus alewives themselves, whether they ran a tavern or not, were seen as somehow disreputable and often figures of fun. In medieval poems and plays the archetype of alewife is seen again and again, tempting virtuous men away from the path of God. As with many things in the medieval mind, women with their own minds (and incomes) never really got much further than being seen as Eves tempting Adam with the proverbial juicy apple.

The malthouse at Harvington Hall

The malthouse at Harvington Hall


Food and Feast in Medieval England (Food & Feasts) – Peter Hammond

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England – Peter Brears

The Assize of Bread and Ale – text accessed online at:




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4 Responses to Ale

  1. RichieP says:

    The Doom at Holy Trinity church, Coventry, portrays swindling alewives being carried off to Hell by leering demons. You can forgive a lot – but not watering down your ale!

  2. RichieP says:

    The text with the pictures seems clear on that point: ‘Devils are however, not to be placated by drink, as is clear from the heavy chain, one of several discernible among the details on this side of the painting, coralling these women together. Another chain loops around the waist of a hell-destined unfortunate at the right in the photograph below, while a devil with huge pointed ears carries off another slung over his shoulder. This figure too appears to be clutching a large urn-like vessel, and it is clear that a moralising point, not a killjoy stricture against the imbibing of ale, which was universally drunk, but an indignant response to the cheating involved, is being made here. ‘

  3. Julie Frusher says:

    Hmmmm, no way out for them then!

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