A Time-traveller’s Guide to Getting Drunk

By William Parker

By studying seventeenth-century cookery books one can gain a great deal of knowledge surrounding early modern medicine, cleaning methods, and, most interestingly, recipes for food and drink. Alcohol was consumed for recreation–not as an alternative for clean water, a myth that has since been debunked (see here and here for examples). A number of recipes in Margaret Baker’s book provide insight into alcohol production and culture in the seventeenth century, featuring as it does traditional and continued methods of brewing. An examination of the manuscript also suggests the potential for comparison to more modern methods, too. Using Baker’s book, I will analyse the changes that have occurred between early modern and modern brewing and display how these changes have affected modern brewing and drink culture.

Mead might be more widely associated today with Nordic cultures, but it’s worth noting the inclusion of a recipe for mead in Baker’s manuscript. Made with honey and excess yeast from brewing, known as ‘barm’, the recipe for this traditional drink displays methods that seem both unchanged in modern brewing and creative in the context of early modern Europe.

To make meedd’ from Baker’s manuscript (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.619, f. 80).

Calling for the boiling of honey and water, and the addition of barm to ferment it once it had cooled, the recipe is very simple. Though with the addition of lemon and cloves, the recipe offers an interesting view on drink production and culture in early modern England. Adding spices and flavourings to this drink, such as lemons from the European continent and cloves from Asia, Baker’s recipe displays an impact of global trade on household recipes as well as English drinking habits. While this desire to flavour alcohol is still commonplace, another continued practice can still be seen in Baker’s work.

With barm commonplace in modern brewing, being used to reduce waste and maintain a unique yeast culture, this practice in commercial and domestic brewing has been maintained thanks to a need for continuity for both large and small scale brewers. Yet while this brewing method may have continued similarly over the centuries, the practice of flavouring brews has had a renaissance in modern brewing.

Modern breweries such as ‘Brewdog’ continue to experiment with their beers, adding such ingredients as grapefruit and chilli to their brews, highlighting the change in tastes and continuity in flavour experiments. With an early modern decline in the consumption of mead in favour of other beverages, perhaps revealing a shift in the tastes of early modern drinkers away from sweeter drinks, there was a change towards beers and wines (Martin 61, 64) . Yet this too entailed a form of continuity, with the inclusion of spices and fruits in brews.

Yet fruit was not only utilised to flavour drinks. With a high chance of spoiling in transit from the European continent, imported wine was risky with regards to quality. As such, by utilising the vineyards of the south of England and the berries of the hedgerow, one could produce wine at home with the help of recipes, such as Baker’s.

There are two recipes for wine in Baker’s book, one made with grapes and the other with ‘respase’ (an archaic word for raspberries). Baker’s method for both is similar,  relying on natural yeasts–something still used in modern wine making.

Recipes to make ‘respase wine’ and ‘wine of graps’: Baker, f. 56.

The recipe for grape wine simply required the mashing of rotten grapes, with the subsequent liquid bottled once it had finished fermenting. This simple method is mirrored in the ‘respase’ wine, which only required the brewer to add an indeterminate amount of ‘respas’ to a sack. This was then left to ferment for a week and the resulting liquid was sieved through a bag, then bottled with sugar, as per the brewer’s taste.

These recipes both show little change in the production of alcohol production, with natural yeast and sugars fermenting the liquid following a manual crushing of the fruit, while still showing an adaptation to the period. With the inclusion of respase suggesting an alternative to grapes, most likely thanks to their inexpensive nature as the cost of transporting grapes overland would be high and quality dependant on distance from the source, this displays Baker’s ingenuity with regards to using more commonplace fruits.

Within the bracket of drink culture and production, these recipes for wine display a great change in wine making from the seventeenth century. Using natural yeasts from the fruits themselves, in comparison to modern standards of sterility and farmed yeasts to provide consistency even in homebrewing, this method relied more on chance and created unique wines from every brew. The inclusion of other fruits, too, as opposed to the mass use of grapes in the production of wine in homebrewing and the global wine market, shows a great disparity between the homebrew of fruit wines in early modern England and production of wine in both large and small scales today.

Overall, these recipes in Baker’s book hint at a wider shift towards more a more modern form of drink production and culture. With simpler production at home, both in terms of using easily attainable fruits such as respase in the early modern period, and the rise of homebrew in modern times, a use of homebrew as a cheap alternative to drink produced in larger quantities is wholly relatable. With this in mind, therefore, it is clear with the presence of alcoholic recipes in early modern manuscripts and the rising popularity of homebrew in the past decades, people will always find a cheap way to get drunk.

Other Works Cited

  • Martin, A. Lynn. Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder (2009)



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