The important role of beer in 16th century Ireland

Published: 11 October 2017 at 16:31

A beer barrel

Research reveals how beer was a vital source of calories and nutrition for workers

Untitled PageThe first detailed study of the early modern Irish diet has revealed that, alongside bread, beer was the most important dietary staple of the 16th century.

Dr Susan Flavin will present her findings tomorrow [Thursday, 12 October] at the Institute of Historical Research’s latest Food Research Seminar at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

By examining evidence from household accounts, soldiers’ rations and port books, Dr Flavin of Anglia Ruskin University found that ale and beer was viewed as a vital source of calories and nutrition in the 16th century, and was consumed in incredible quantities.

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

By examining contemporary accounts, Dr Flavin has 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.  

Hopped beer grew in popularity during the 16th century, and was a fashion that originated in the Low Countries.  The first known recorded instance of hopped beer imported to Ireland was in 1503 and by 1516 hops were imported, indicating increasing local beer production alongside traditional non-hopped ale.  However, archaeological evidence showing the survival of hop seeds in urban cesspits suggests the use of hops could have started even earlier.  

Because barley proved difficult to grow in Ireland’s wet climate, recipes typically had a high oat content, which produced a bitter and thick, creamy beer.  As part of the next stage of her research, Dr Flavin hopes to recreate these ales and beers from the original recipes and examine their nutritional value. 

Dr Flavin, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Anglia Ruskin University, said: 


“People mistakenly think that ‘household’ beer in this period was a weak drink.  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. 

“The records examined so far show production of ordinary and strong beer and no ‘small beer’.  In elite households ordinary beer was consumed by workers and strong beer reserved for the lord.  On occasion however, when for example they had been working hard or had completed a task, the masons in Dublin demanded and were given the better quality brew. This was also sometimes mixed with the ordinary beer to improve taste.

“Another interesting finding is the role of women in the process of brewing, and drinking, beer.  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. 

“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.”