Beer Saves Lives – Here’s How

September 17, 2013


We are all encouraged to drink plenty of water each day – but this wasn’t always the case.

For much of history, beer rather than water was the recommended drink. Beer was drunk at every meal, including breakfast. It provided much of the daily calorie requirements in northern regions of Europe. Everyone drank it, including children.

All large houses and castles had their own brewing facilities, and in villages and towns there were many alewives responsible for brewing small batches of beer.

This was not only the strong beer that we know today. Medieval brewers also created batches of “small beer” or “small ale.” Small beer contained very little alcohol. It was made from the final brewing of strong beer.

When the mash making the strong beer had been used, it was diluted to make small beer. People drank small beer in large quantities.

It was not unknown for people involved in heavy physical activity, such as farm laborers, to drink more than 10 pints of small beer every day at work.

The quality of the small beer varied from alewife to alewife. It could be almost as thick as porridge if it had not been filtered. Such beer was usually provided free of charge because employers recognized that it was important to provide their workers a bit of sustenance and enough liquid to keep them hydrated.


Why beer instead of water? Because beer was safer. Water was boiled during the beer brewing process, and this killed off germs.

Although people did not understand what germs were, they knew from experience that beer was a safer beverage than water.

Water sources in medieval Europe were usually badly contaminated.

Unless you were lucky enough to get your water from the source of a spring, you filled your buckets in rivers and streams.

This water was very polluted. It certainly was not safe to drink, as it was full of very unpleasant bacteria. Medieval villages used the same water source for drinking, cooking, laundry, and bathing. Waste products from industry and the home were discharged directly into the rivers. Towns and cities were terribly polluted. London was notorious for the “great stink” that emanated from the River Thames. Similar situations could be found in almost any city or town worldwide.

Until systems of public sanitation were set up, cholera and other water-transmitted diseases were rife. Such diseases were largely responsible for the low life expectancy of medieval times. Toilet refuse was dumped in streets and tipped out of windows, where it ran along gutters before draining into the local fresh water supply. In some villages, toilet buckets were dumped directly into the river.

In 1854, a physician named John Snow was investigating a terrible cholera outbreak in London. He tracked the disease to a water pump in Broad Street – but noticed that none of the 70 workers from the local brewery had died from the disease. They had drunk only beer, whereas other people living in the area had drunk water from the well. Snow’s discovery eventually led to the creation of a massive sewer system, which became the model for sewer systems across Europe and around the world.

Drinking water from a well or river could make you ill, but beer was healthy. That’s why some health-conscious people still find beer the beverage of choice today!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one + 7 =