Water or small beer

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There is a common belief that people drank small beer in seventeenth century England ‘because they knew it was safer to drink than water’. The idea is appealing but it is almost certainly wrong.


The primary difficulty with the idea that small beer was preferred because it was safer than water is that it implies an understanding of germ theory or the idea that illness is caused by living micro-organisms. Medical knowledge was not that advanced in the seventeenth century. Medical theory at the time was based on the idea that the body was governed by four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Illness was an indicator that the four humours were out of balance and the physician’s task was to decide how best to bring them back into balance. This humoral medicine was originally defined by Hippocrates (460BC–370 BC) and was used in western Europe until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, it was not until 1854 that a link was demonstrated between polluted water and illness. John Snow (1813-1858) plotted Cholera cases in an outbreak in Soho, London and established that the victims had drunk water from a pump in Broad Street (Porter, 1999, pp412-413). Even so, germ theory did not really begin to be accepted until Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) began to promote it in 1878 (Porter, 1999, p433).

It follows, therefore, that seventeenth century people would not have understood that there could be any causal link between polluted water and sickness.

Even so, some re-enactors still maintain that seventeenth century people would have made a connection between drinking foul-tasting water and falling ill. In reality, it seems unlikely that people would have drunk foul-tasting water if there was a more palatable alternative available. As today, they would probably have avoided it because of the taste rather than because they knew it to be polluted and therefore a health risk.


There are also reports that armies made wells unusable by throwing dead animals into them. Again, this should not be taken to mean that a connection was made at the time between water pollution and public health. If the stench of a rotting carcass is rising from a well, it seems likely that people would have been deterred from using the well, not because they thought the water would make them ill but because nobody would want to drink water that had a dead body in it.

Overall, then, the strongest argument against the idea that people drank small beer because they knew it was safer than water is that the medical knowledge of the day would not have made any connection between polluted water and sickness. Therefore the fact that the brewing process that was used to make small beer was, itself, responsible for making the beer safer to drink would not have been recognised.


The other aspect of the belief in the preference for beer over water that requires investigation is the quantity that was drunk. Monckton suggests that the average consumption of beer in the latter part of the sixteenth century was 21 pints per head per week or three pints a day (Monckton, 1967, p830). Doctor Kneale, however, suggests that ‘consumption reached over 100 gallons per head per year in 1689’ (Kneale, 2009, online). While that sounds significant, it equates to only 2 pints per head per day, on average.

It is impossible to say whether or not that would have been the total average daily fluid intake at the time because there seem to be no records showing how much water was drunk. Even today, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is extremely difficult to establish how much fluid people ingest on a daily basis. The WHO report of 2004 suggested that ‘mean water intake rates’ vary between 1.04 and 1.63 litres (1.8 and 2.9 pints) per person per day (Grandjean, 2004, p10). This is in line with Kneale’s beer consumption figure for 1689. While it may be that seventeenth century individuals had a higher fluid intake than their modern counterparts, it seems unlikely that it would have been significantly higher. Therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that more beer was drunk in the seventeenth century than water.

Admittedly this is far from being a provable hypothesis but, however the data is viewed, it is clear that significant quantities of beer were drunk so the first part of the re-enactors’ statement – that seventeenth century people drank beer in preference to water - seems reasonable.

The second part, however - that it was because they knew the beer was safer to drink than water – does not stand up to scrutiny. That leaves the question of why so much beer was drunk. The most likely reason would seem to be the most obvious: people preferred the flavour of beer to that of water just as today’s UK population appears to prefer tea, coffee and soft drinks to plain water.

Perhaps it is time, therefore, to drop the idea that ‘people in the English Civil War period drank small beer because they knew that it was safer to drink than water’.


Grandjean, A. (2004) Water Requirements, Impinging Factors, and Recommended Intakes Geneva, World Health Organization.

Kneale, Dr James (2009) ‘British Drinking from the 19th Century to the Present’ [online] available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmhealth/151/151we16.htm (Accessed 28 June 2016).

Monckton, H. A. (Dec 1 1967) ‘English Ale and Beer in Shakespeare’s Time’ History Today pp828-834

Porter, Roy (1999) The Greatest Benefit to Mankind – A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present London, Fontana Press