One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission that goes towards maintaining podcast operations. This post, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. 

Welcome to Episode 199 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare by interviewing the experts who know him best.

Find video versions of our show including archival images and other visual content we are not able to share in the audio of our podcast streaming right now along with documentaries, animated plays, and virtual tours inside the digital streaming app for That Shakespeare Life. 

Shakespeare references “beer” in his works 6 times, drawing attention to specific kinds of beer like “small beer” “double beer” and even one reference in Hamlet to beer barrels where the Prince of Denmark suggests that beer barrels had a stopper to keep them sealed. Drinking beer in Shakespeare’s lifetime was almost as regular as drinking water is today. So whenever you were thirsty, drinks like ale, beer, and spirits were popular choices. This beer drinking reality means that there was a strong economy for beer making and distilling in Elizabethan England, including unique storage methods, containers, and even some versions of beer like small and double beer that are obsolete today. To find out exactly what the state, varieties, and industry was behind beer for Shakespeare, we have invited our guest this week, Richard Unger, expert in the beer making of Elizabethan England, and author of the book “Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance” to help us explore the history of how beer was made for the life of William Shakespeare.

Join the conversation below.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

If you like our show, consider becoming a patron. Just like Shakespeare, our art depends on support from listeners like you. To say thank you for your contribution, we save exclusive content (like video versions of our show), behind the scenes looks into the studio, and patrons-only benefits just for you.
Explore all the benefits and sign up today.

Joe Stephenson Profile Image

Richard W. Unger was trained as an economic historian (Yale, 1971). He is now professor emeritus in the history department of the University of British Columbia where he taught for four decades. He has published extensively on the history of medieval and early modern shipbuilding and shipping, on the history of Renaissance cartography, energy consumption in Canada in the last two centuries and on medieval and Renaissance brewing in Europe and especially in the Netherlands and England. For example among other publications are, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004 (paperback edition 2007), and expected this year, “Beer and Taxes: the fiscal significance for Holland and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” TSEG – The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Richard Unger about :

  • What ingredients were used in making beer for Shakespeare’s lifetime?
  • We know that alcohol was consumed copiously during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with drinks like ale or beer being known even as breakfast beverages to start the day in early modern England. When it came to providing this beer in these amounts, though Richard, who was primarily responsible for making the beer in the first place?
  • We know that tankards of ale were popular at places of business like a local tavern, for example, but for someone drinking beer at a local establishment, would they have drank their beer out of glass bottles or dipped their tankard into a beer barrel to dispense their beverage?
… and more!

Books & Resources Richard Unger Recommends

Richard Unger’s book on Medieval and Renaissance Brewing

Bennett, Judith M. 1996. Ale, beer and brewsters in England : women’s work in a changing world, 1300-1600, Oxford University Press.

Burton, Kristen D. (2013) ‘The Citie Calls for Beere: the introduction of hops and the foundation of industrial brewing in early modern London’, Brewery History. Vol. 15

Luu, Liên, 2016, “Beer Brewing,” in Immigrants and the industries of London, 1500-1700, London, Routledge,. 259-299 
(Cassidy Note: I am unable to find an online copy of this last reference, but if you ask your local librarian for a copy they are usually able to track down a version of academic publications for you to read.)

And here’s a pot of good double beer, neighbour: drink, and fear not your man.
Third Neighbor

Henry VI Part 2 (III.2)

The Brewer, designed and engraved in the Sixteenth Century, by Jost Amman. | Public Domain | Source

Beer Making Ingredients

Beer was made commercially in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but could also have been made in individual homes by home brewers.
The principal grain in England was barley, in fact english brewers preferred barley over all other grains, unlike the continent where there’s more variety. Beer can be made from any vegetable matter, so they would use wheat sometimes (though in small proportions in England) as well as oats, but oats is ore difficult to deal with so barley was common. In the east, they used brewer’s yeast, and hops, and they were beginning to grow these and were imported in England for a long time, by Shakespeare’s time they were growing hops in fields, especially in Kent, so that was pretty much it. Some other sweetener sometimes, but it was in essence, barley, yeast, water and hops.
Alcohol was consumed copiously during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with drinks like ale or beer being known even as breakfast beverages to start the day in early modern England. When it came to providing this beer in these amounts, there was a transition taking place during Shakespeare’s lifetime where the primary person responsible for making the ale or beer switched from individual houses to being done on a more commerical scale.
In the middle ages, a lot of beer was made domestically, people in villages, housewives would provide beer for their own family. If they had any left, they would sell that, and some would even become professional beer makers selling it from their houses, but when towns begin to get larger, commercial brewing became the norm. In London, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, there was a sizable brewing industry with major brewers, producing large quantities of beer by 1585, London brewers sold both 106 million liters of beer. 200 million pints, that’s 300 million cans, except there were no cans, but that gives you an idea of the volume. 26 big brewers, 3.2Million per brewer. Large scale operations, turning out over 100k pints of beer a week, using something like 50 tons of grain to produce that beer. They’d supply individuals, but even more than that, they’d supply pubs, inns, drinking houses, etc. There were a couple hundred thousand people in London in a concentrated area, and one reason they didn’t make beer at home in London is that you needed space and a place to store grain, so in the city, it was more common to buy beer. Which was also exported, too, shipped 100s of thousands to Belgium and the Netherlands mostly, but other markets as well. Because beer drinking was popular, there was one pub for every 200 people and even more in London.

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

Red Lion Archaeology Episode
the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam (whereto he was converted) might they not stop a beer barrel?

Hamlet (V.1)

Relative sizes of English wine cask units, prior to 1824. The tun=252 gallons; pipe=126 gallons; tercian=84 gallons; hogshead=63 gallons; tierce=42 gallons; barrel=31.5 gallons; rundlet=18 gallons. | Image by Grolltech, October 12, 2012, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Beer Barrel Storage

Beer was stored in barrels that came in varying sizes. The “Hogshead” size is mentioned 5 times in Shakespeare’s plays, once in reference to the similar wine hogshead storage.
“now the ship boring the moon with her main-mast, and anon swallowed with yest and froth, as you’ld thrust a cork into a hogshead. ” – Clown, A Winter’s Tale, (III.3)
The beer hogshead (and it was different, and slightly less per barrel for the ale hogshead and additionally for the wine hogshead) was defined as about 54 gallons. This “gallons” measurement for ale, however, wasn’t introduced in the United Kingdom until the mid 19th century. From the 15th century until 1824, with the adoption of the imperial system, the measurement for ale followed the English system of units. Comparatively, the imperial gallon was just a bit larger than the US gallon (1 Imperial gallon = 1.2 US gallons). (Source) To compare the hogshead to another beer measurement in Shakespeare’s plays, that infamous butt of malmsey in which poor George meets his demise:
Take him over the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then we will chop him in the malmsey-butt in the next room. – First Murderer, Richard III, (I.4)
a butt of malmsey would have been two hogshead, or about 130 US Gallons. Interestingly, over this same time period, beer and ale casks were not the same volume since “beer” and “ale” were distinct brews (Beer containing hops while ale did not use hops). Today, we drink beer out of glass bottles but, as Richard explains in this episode, glass bottles for beer was not in fashion for Shakespeare’s lifetime:
Glass was a relatively recent invention, and things like windows only happened in the city. So there weren’ty any bottles. Some people did drink out og a glass, but it wasn’t common. If they did have glasses, the glasses had bumps on them like extensions, so it wouldn’t slope out of their hand (they ate with their hands and hands were greasy when eating). They drank out of tankards, made of pewter, or stines0—-ceramic, with a handle and optional top, the beer would be available from the brewers in barrels, and tehy would ship i t on wagons or wheelbarrows to pubs and the pub would then tap the barrel with aspigot and fill a pitcher with the beer that was then dispensd to patrons by a server who went around and filled up the tankards or the bowl. In the early part of the 16th century, a small shallow bowl was used and that had not gone completely out of style by Shakespeare’s lifetime, so that would have been present for beer drinking, too.

Another Episode You Might Enjoy

King Leir Archaeology Mathew Morris
To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.

Othello (II.1))

Southampton portrait wriothesley
The Great Drinkers of the North.–Fac-simile of a Woodcut of the “Histoires des Pays Septentrionaux,” by Olaus Magnus, 16mo., Antwerp, 1560 | Project Gutenberg text 10940 | Public Domain | Source

Double Beer

There is one reference to beer in Henry VI where one neighbor offers his fellow neighbor a “good pot of double beer.” (that’s Act II Scene 3) Richard explains what double beer means and why it was kept in pots:
Pot was just a word used to describe any container. The pot would have been some drinking vessel, a slang term for drinking vessel. The beer would come from a barrel and then go into the container. People wouldn’t store beer very long, because of the different kinds of beer. Different kinds of beer had names for advertising means, but in England, these names were mostly associated with price. Malt grain beer boiled in water to extract the vegetable matter and then put it in a brew kettle with a preservative and from that, they’d extract a liquid mixture that fermented with yeast and it comes out as beer. This grain/malt they used for the first round, and they would put water on it and put it through the process again with hops, and some preservative, and then ferment it again, but it is weaker now because it’s less vegetable matter. They would then do it once more, and sometimes a 4th time, but that was rare. But it had beer that was strong, less strong, and weak. Double double meant very strong. Double was a strong beer. Double double used higher grain and more alcohol per liter. Double beer [ was a] standard strong beer.
Doth it not show vilely in me desire small beer?
Henry V

Henry IV Part 2 (II.2)

Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson

Woodcut of Tudors drinking and vomiting from overconsumption. Rare Books Keywords: Drunkeness; Anatomy; Therapeutics; Alcohol; Drunk | Library reference: EPB 7412/D Photo number: L0069446 Full Bibliographic Record: Source/Photographer
This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive).
This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Source

Small Beer

Twice in Henry IV, once in Henry VI, and once in Othello, Shakespeare uses the phrase “small beer” –with the reference in Henry VI Act IV being that Jack Cade declares he will make it felony to drink small beer. Richard explains the definition of small beer and why was it was so offensive to Jack Cade:
Poor nutrition, no nutrients out of it, [so Jack Cade is saying that] when I get to be boss, no one has to drink that useless stuff, they’ll have good quality beer. [Small beer was a] Poor man’s drink, or a child’s drink or for sick people.
I know you’re thinking: Wait, a child’s beer? Yes, children would have drank beer too, but remember, it did not have the alcohol content beer has today, and particularly small beer would have been quite weak (like mixing beer with water). There was a shift in beer fermentation that happened between Shakespeare’s lifetime and today to change over from top fermented beers to bottom fermented beers that are more popular today. Richard, explains the difference in top fermented and bottom fermented beers and how the beer we have today would have been different from what Shakespeare drank:
Different strain of yeast. Top fermented was the norm and standard for a long time. Yeast would fall to the bottom =in the fermentation trough, age at a lower temperature so it had to be laggered (a place where you store things) and kept cool. So in places like southern France or Italy, it wasn’t going to happen because the climate was too hot. Beer was being made and is bacteria heaven, it’s warm, very nutritious, so bacteria grows easily with a high spoilage rate (losing 20% of beer made from spoilage in Shakespeare’s lifetime) many brewers sold vinegar on the side to treat beer that was infected. Letting beer sit around makes it susceptible to these infections, if you’re going to let it sit for a while )(which you do with bottom fermented years) you have to have it protected and cold. Now, starting in the late 19th century, we had refrigeration machines, and they could easily make beer with bottom fermentation and the practice travelled to many of the world so most that’s made now is made with bottom fermented yeast, and there’s still some top fermented yeast, popular in Rhone, and stouts are typically made with top fermented yeast. If you can tell the difference between a lager and an ale, then you would say yes, but today it has to do with other influence like grain, quantity of grain used, chemicals or additives, etc.

Never miss an episode!

Get new episodes delivered right to your inbox every Monday.