In the middle Ages you drank beer – if you could afford it.

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, as urbanization was invented and towns started to expand into cities, early industrialization did 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.


Een Brouwers Water-Schuÿt (A brewers water-barge) by Reinier Nooms, 1652-54.

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.


Brouwerij De Drie Klaveren in Spaarne, Haarlem by Anthonie Beerstraten, 1660.

In 15th century the 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 (the sand acts as a filter). The water barges (image) 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 (image brewery) 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 which actively produced 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. Doubly unfortunate, the account illustrates industrial pollution is nothing new either.

In the middle Ages, alcoholic drinks were not consumed because water was thought to be unsafe, as is often thought; 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.





An ancient fruit : the cornelian cherry

The cornelian, or cornel, cherry is a small, shrub-like tree that can grow up to 15-25 feet. Cornelian cherry trees have been known to live and be fruitful for over a hundred years. It blooms early in the season, providing an early season forage for bees, but despite this early bloom, fruit production rarely suffers. The trees have an extended flowering period, and the bloom tolerates temperatures as low as 18 degrees F, making this shrub a perfect homesteading garden addition.File:Cornus mas Sturm40.jpg

The fruit has been used for 7,000 years as a food crop in ancient Greece. Cornelian cherry is native to regions of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. While known primarily as an ornamental plant in the U.S., its cherry-like fruits have been part of a healthy diet in some parts of the world for thousands of years. In its native range, it is still used as a fresh fruit and is popular as a fruit drink. Cornelian cherry was grown in monastery gardens of continental Europe through the Middle Ages and was introduced to Britain about the sixteenth century. The great herbalist Gerard wrote in 1597 that “there be sundry  trees of the cornel in the gardens of such as love rare  and dainty plants, whereof I have a tree or two in my garden.

Contrary to its name, the cornelian cherry is part of the dogwood family. The word “cornelian” refers to the similarity in color of the fruit to cornelian (or carnelian) quartz, which  has a waxy luster and a deep red, reddish-white, or flesh red color (Carnis is Latin for flesh). The fruit has an elongated pit that is hard to remove because it adheres tightly to the edible flesh. And due to the extended flowering period, its fruit also ripens over an extended period of time, requiring multiple harvests. Being similar to a tart cherry, its uses include syrup, jelly, jams, pies, wine and baked goods. Unfortunately, this historically significant fruit has lost favor in the industrialized age because it does not lend itself well to mass production and processing.

Cornelian cherry mead

My cornelian cherry mead, made with washed comb honey must:

The cut off cappings from extracting liquid honey from a backyard hive. The frame of honey comb is uncapped using a sharp bread-type knife, to then extract the liquid honey from the cells using a centrifugal honey extractor.

For this honey must I did not use extracted honey, and only washed the cappings in warm water to dissolve the surplus honey sugars. The wax remnants are then removed, squeezed, and stored for future melting into bars of beeswax.

Initially the honey must was too strong – the egg floated sideways – thus more lukewarm water was added. Add slowly, and mix well, to bring down the density in increments, until the egg floats pointy up.

Cornelian cherries on the bush. I picked the really ripe ones, from dried on the vine “raisins” to mushy brown, to purplish red. As cornelian cherry ripens in stages, which is perfect from a homesteading point of view as it gives time to harvest and enjoy, I only picked the ripe and left the rest for another day. I ended going back three times, the first two amounts for this mead, and the second amount for a cider mixture.

I used a hand mill to puree the fruit to make sure the fruit and the honey must would combine well. While in this way the seeds and skins are separated from the puree (this fruit does not make juice, instead it makes a puree of the consistency of apple sauce), I opted to add the skins (with seeds) back to the puree, and must, as I wanted to make use of the endemic yeast living on the fruit skins instead of pitching a commercial yeast strain. I find wild yeasts on fruit skins to work well to ferment that type of fruit and often give a milder, more flavorful mead than made with a more robust single strain commercial yeast. All in all I ended up with over a gallon of puree (5 liters according to the side of the fermenting bucket) with about 4 gallons of honey must.

The fruit & honey must, ready for fermentation. It was slightly bubbly in a few hours, and started to really bubble 2 days later. And it smells awesome! As I found a reference cornelian cherry was often combined with apple cider to ferment into a fruity hard cider, I collected another gallon or so to freeze for when the apples are ready to be pressed.


Cornelian cherries seems to have an endemic souring organism living on the skin. When fermented without sterilization, and no honey, it will sour quite nicely. When I intend to make a sour ale, I will add some cornelian cherry skins to purposefully infect the wort. With honey, the antibacterial effect of the honey is enough to curb any infection.