Beer 'as much of a dietary staple as bread' in 16th Century Ireland

Beer was ranked alongside bread as the most important dietary staple in early modern Ireland, and some workers were granted a daily allowance of 14 pints of ale, a study has found.

Dr Susan Flavin, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, examined evidence from household accounts, soldiers' rations and port books from 16th century Ireland.

She found that ale and beer were viewed as a vital source of calories and nutrition, and were consumed in incredible quantities.

Records from January 1565 show that stone masons working at a quarry in Clontarf, near Dublin, were provided with an allowance of 14 pints of ale per day by the proctor of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin.

And documents from Dublin Castle showed that the household staff consumed 264,000 pints of beer in 1590, which averaged up to eight pints each per day - a similar amount to what was typically consumed in England in this period.

Beer 'as much of a dietary staple as bread' in 16th Century Ireland

By examining contemporary accounts, Dr Flavin calculated that 16th century beer had a high calorific value, providing between 400-500 calories per pint, compared to 180-200 calories for a pint of modern bitter.

Beers typically had a high oat content, as barley proved difficult to grow in Ireland's wet climate, and most would not have been weak.

"People mistakenly think that 'household' beer in this period was a weak drink," said Dr Flavin.

"It has been estimated, however, that most beer at this time would have had an alcohol strength of between 7% and 10%, if they used similar quantities of yeast as they do today."

She said women were involved in the process of brewing, and drinking, beer at the time.

"The proctor of Christ Church Cathedral, Peter Lewis, would buy commercially-produced beer when his own beer ran out or wasn't up to scratch, and his supplier of 'good ale' was always a woman called Meg Hogg," she said.

"Domestic brewing was seen as the role of the housewife, and there are also records of women and children joining labourers to drink together at the end of the working day.

"At Dublin Castle there are even records of 'drinkings' which took place in the main entertaining area of the castle and were ladies-only events."

Dr Flavin will present her findings at the Institute of Historical Research's latest Food Research Seminar at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

As part of the next stage of her research, she hopes to recreate 16th Century Irish ales and beers from the original recipes and examine their nutritional value.

The beer's high oat content would have produced a bitter and thick, creamy drink.


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