By Elska á Fjárfelli of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn
Contrary to popular believe, it was not beer that was the most common drink of the middle ages: it was plain and simple water. Dependable sources of clean, fresh water – whether it be a running creek, a spring, or a well – would be incorporated into villages and towns as easy access to fresh water makes life better in so many ways. By the 13th century, when urbanization was invented and towns started to expand into cities, early industrialization began to endanger the local fresh water supply. Medieval cities dealt with this in several ways: ordinances dictated where, for instance, tanners and dyers could operate, i.e. down stream, reserving the fresh upstream water for the city’s domestic use. And fines would be issued for contaminating water meant for household, and brewing, consumption.
Water for brewing would be gathered from surface water like spring or creek water, rainwater, well water and by the Renaissance even from conduit water, as mentioned in A Profitable Instruction (1579): “wash [the honey comb] diligently with Conduit or fair Spring water, that you may so have the Mulse or hony water.” Monasteries and towns often had their own well water, and sometimes city neighbors chipped in to finance a private well in their district. Of course, such a well would be forbidden for use by outsiders upon penalty of a fine. Larger cities would build water-supply infrastructure to ensure the populace access to clean water. For instance, the city council of London began construction on the ‘Great Conduit’ in 1236 which brought water from a large fresh spring at Tyburn to the cisterns in Cheapside, and from there fed local cisterns all over London. Small barrels of water would be offered for sale, and while the medieval populace was aware that boiling water before use was a good idea – food poisoning has a quick learning curve – they were less aware of the connection between spoiled water and waterborne diseases.
In 15th century Netherlands, many brewing procedures were also subjected to ordinances, including the ingredients used for brewing beer, the proportions of said ingredients, transport within and without the city, payments of taxation – and keeping the water in the city canals clean. A brewers’ ordinance from 1407, for instance, contains a warning for Zeeland skippers not to dump salt water (either from leakage, or used as ballast) in the canals within city limits. Dutch city brewers often found surface water not suitable for brewing, either from pollution from surrounding craftsmen, especially the textile industry – and from the creeping in of salt from North Sea ocean water into the fresh ground-water supply. Brewers would use water barges to gather clean fresh water, either from local lakes or from the coastal dunes (dune sand acts as a filter). The water barges would deliver straight to the brewery via the city canals, and the clean fresh water would be scooped out of the hold onto a wood gutter designed to transport the water from the quay straight into the brewery building.
An interesting story, uncovered in the city archives of Dordrecht, the Netherlands, follows an allegation of selling undrinkable beer by Brewery De Sleutel (The Key) – a medieval brewery actively producing beer up until the corporation Heineken bought it out and stopped production in 1968.
On August 14th 1577, the head brewer Baernt Lambertsz. and his apprentice Aernt Aerntsz. were called up to the Dordrecht city court to make a statement under oath they used the grain, hops, and malt for the brew of August 1st from the same storage successful brews had been made before. Another apprentice Jan Adriaensz. van der Dussen witnessed that he gathered all the water for the brew from the well himself, as was his custom. The brewers did note that the brew on the coolships had a peculiar scent that they had never smelled before either in the brewery or anywhere they had brewed before. The city officials took the case serious and four days later, on August 18th, other witnesses were heard. The tapper Jan Jansz. remembered his conversation with carpenter Adriaen Lauwen about the quality of the surface water in the Nieuwe Haven, for which Lauwen blamed the dyer. Four beer carriers (beer transport has its own guild) witnessed they had had to return Sleutel beer from several taverns due to being undrinkable. At the request of the innkeeper they tasted the beer and remarked they’d never tasted something so peculiar. Then other beer carriers also tasted the peculiar beer and agreed that they understood why the tappers of the taverns had returned the beer, as no customer would drink of it.
Unfortunately no more information exists on this case; no witness accounts of the accused dyer nor of penalties. The account illustrates industrial pollution is nothing new and protecting our waterways is an age-old practice.
In the middle Ages, alcoholic drinks were not consumed because water was thought to be unsafe, as is often thought now; beer was consumed because it was seen as more nutritious. Not only were the brews often much weaker than their modern equivalents, but they also provided much needed calories to manual laborers, as well as being thirst-quenching and rehydrating in hot and sweaty weather. Ale and beer were a major part in keeping the laborers going, much like our modern Gatorade! Drinking water was seen as part of the four humors, blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm, and keeping those in balance achieved good health. [image four humors] Drinking too much water was seen as just as unhealthy as drinking to much of its counter part, a brewed beverage, and a brew often was diluted with water to keep the humors in balance, and to avoid unseemly intoxication. As beer and wine was more expensive, its consumption therefore gave status. If you could afford it, you drank beer.
Anthonie Beerstraten – Brouwerij De Drie Klaveren, Spaarne, Haarlem 1660
Nooms, Reinier – Een Brouwers Water-Schuÿt (Verscheyde Schepen en Gesichten van Amstelredam; Verschillende schepen en stadsgezichten van Amsterdam, tweede deel) 1652-54.
Alchemic approach to four humors in relation to the four elements and zodiacal signs. Book illustration in “Quinta Essentia” by Leonhart Thurneisser zum Thurn (gen. Leonhard Thurneysser). Inscriptions (clockwise): Flegmat, Sanguin, Coleric, Melang. Person is androgyne. 1574.
Alberts, Leen. Brouwen aan de Eem. Amersfoort, een Stichtse bierstad in de late middeleeuwen. Hilversum: Verloren, 2016. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/32961
Chevallier, Jim. The great Medieval water myth, 11/2013 https://leslefts.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-great-medieval-water-myth.html
Huizinga, Johan. Rechtsbronnen der Stad Haarlem. Haarlem: Martinus Nijhoff, 1911.
Kistemaker, R.E. and V.T. van Vilsteren. Bier! Geschiedenis van een volksdrank. Amsterdam: De Bataafse Leeuw, 1994.
O’Neill, Tim. What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe? May 21, 2013. http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2013/05/21/medieval_europe_why_was_water_the_most_popular_drink.html
Sibly, Belinda, Bruce Gordon, and Ben Paton. Compleat Anachronist 171: Medieval Brewing. Milpitas, CA: SCA Inc., 2016. https://members.sca.org/apps/#Store
Verberg, Susan. Medieval Ale & Beer, 2018. https://www.academia.edu/36051244/Medieval_Ale_and_Beer
For more on Elska’s medieval brewing adventures, visit