In Miss Austen Regrets, Olivia Williams as Jane Austen was shown sipping wine in a number of scenes. This scenario was not unrealistic. Jane wrote to Cassandra about making Spruce Beer, and the topic of wine appeared in a number of her letters:
I want to hear of your gathering strawberries; we have had them three times here. I suppose you have been obliged to have in some white wine, and must visit the store closet a little oftener than when you were quite by yourselves.”
“The orange wine will want our care soon. But in the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy.”
“I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error.”
Alcoholic consumption was quite common in the days of yore. Water obtained from a public source was unsanitary if not lethal, and hundreds of millions of people died over the ages in cholera and typhoid epidemics, diseases caused by contaminated water. Unless one happened to live near an unpolluted water source, it was wise to refrain from drinking fresh water altogether. In towns and cities, garbage collection was unknown or not practiced. People would toss refuse from doorways and windows, and tradesmen, such as butchers and fishmongers, would throw their wastes and rotting offal into the street, assuming that roaming animals would eat the remnants. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Waste and fecal matter still found their way into public streams, rivers, and water supplies. Worse, many of the roaming animals died, their carcasses polluting the very streets they were supposed to sanitize.
Observant individuals noticed that people who drank untreated water – generally the poor – lived shorter lives than people who drank safer forms of liquids. Those who could afford it drank ale, beer, wine, or a fermented drink, since the fermentation process killed almost all bacteria. Until the 16th century, the most common choice of drink was ale. By the end of the century, beer had replaced ale in popularity. Housewives and cooks gathered their own recipes for making beer, wine, cordials, possets, punch, spirit waters, and other distilled spirits, although these drinks could also be bought commercially. Fermented beverages were stored in containers similar to those in the photo above. Hops were added to beer to make the beverage last longer in storage. Interestingly, hops acted as antibacterial agents, making the beverage safe. In addition, real ale, or un-pasteurized beer, rich in nutrients, vitamin Bs, and minerals, was as nutritious as food.
In Britain people drank ale at breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, these beers and wines were watered down substantially and were much weaker than their counterparts today. Small beer, a term used to describe a weaker second beer, averaged an alcoholic content of only 0.8%. This concoction was obtained after the first brewing had used up almost all the alcohol from the grain. The product from the second brewing was 99.2% water and tasted nothing like our beer today. Small beer was consumed by people of all ages and strata in society, even children. Recipes for stronger drinks existed but they were too expensive for ordinary people, taking twice as much grain to produce.
For medicinal purposes, weak beers were less effective in fighting off disease, (A Brief History of Drinks). People were quite aware of the benefits of a strong alcoholic drink, as the verse (below) from a tombstone in 1764 attests. The 26-year-old deceased had drunk cold small beer before he died. The verse’s implication is clear: had the poor fellow imbibed regular beer, its alcoholic content might have prevented his deadly and “violent fever. So, when you’re hot, or feverish, drink strong beer or none at all!
“In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia,
who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12th of May 1764.
Aged 26 Years…
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer,
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”
All through the 19th century, alcoholic consumption among all ages and social strata was not only widespread, it was generally accepted and acknowledged. In Great Expectations, Estella gives ten-year-old Pip bread, meat, cheese, and beer on his first visit to Miss Havisham’s. Charlotte Bronte wrote about Belgian schoolgirls being given weissbier and sweet wine as a treat.
During the 17th century, enterprising traders brought back spices, foods and drinks from exotic locations, resulting in a wider choice of safe beverages for consumption. Coffee, tea, and chocolate began to compete with ale, wine, and beer as the drinks of choice. Boiled water poured over precious tea leaves provided a safe albeit expensive drink alternative. “The antiseptic properties of tannin, the active ingredient in tea and of hops in beer – plus the fact both are made with boiled water – allowed urban communities to flourish at close quarters without succumbing to waterborne diseases such as dysentery.” (Did Tea and Beer Make Britain Great?)
Tea became fashionable after 1662 when King Charles II’s Portugese bride, Catherine, brought a cask of it along with her dowry. In those days the beverage was thought to possess medicinal qualities, and Thomas Garraway introduced tea in his London coffee house in 1657 with this advertisement:: “This excellent beverage, recommended by all Chinese doctors, and which the Chinese call ‘Tcha’, other nations ‘Tay’ or ‘Tee’, is on sale at Sultaness Mead close to the Royal Exchange in London.” (Le Palais des The)
Only the rich could afford tea until larger amounts began to be imported, resulting in lowered prices. Several centuries later, Mrs. Beeton wrote in her Book of Household Management:
The beverage called tea has now become almost a necessary of life. Previous to the middle of the 17th century it was not used in England, and it was wholly unknown to the Greeks and Romans. Pepys says, in his Diary,—“September 25th, 1661.—I sent for a cup of tea (a China drink), of which I had never drunk before.” Two years later it was so rare a commodity in England, that the English East–India Company bought 2 lbs. 2 oz. of it, as a present for his majesty. In 1666 it was sold in London for sixty shillings a pound. From that date the consumption has gone on increasing from 5,000 lbs. to 50,000,000 lbs.
At the same time that tea gained popularity with the masses, coffee also became an increasingly common and popular drink. Men would congregate in coffee houses, drinking the hot bitter brew, discussing politics or trade, or reading newspapers. One reasons for coffee’s popularity was that caffeine improved concentration and enhanced wakefulness, and did not dull the senses as alcohol did. At this time, chocolate, another popular drink, was only drunk not eaten. Carbonated water, consisting of water impregnated with carbonic acid gas and invented by Joseph Priestley, made its first appearance in 1772.
A breakthrough in water hygiene occured in the summer of 1854 when Dr. John Snow made a connection between a deadly outbreak of cholera in his London neighborhood and public drinking water. Dr. Snow traced the epidemic to a contaminated pump on Broad Street. It did not surprise him that around 70 workers in a brewery nearby remained healthy due to their daily allotment of free beer. By the end of the 19th century, piped-in treated water made drinking from public pumps and fountains safe for the first time in England.
Small Beer Recipe
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.”
Read my other posts on this topic:
- Spruce Beer Recipe: Jane Austen Centre
Image of stoneware bottles and vessels, including a beer bottle and gin bottle.