Irish workers granted 14 pints of beer a day in the 16th century, research reveals

Forget your ‘five a day!’ In early modern Ireland, beer was believed to be one of the most important sources of nutrition for healthy living.

A new study carried out by Dr Susan Flavin, a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Anglia Ruskin University, revealed that there was as much value put on ale as there was on bread and water.

It was common for 16th-century Irish workers to be granted a daily allowance for dietary essentials with some allocated enough for up to 14 pints of beer every day.

Dr Flavin conducted the research by examining information gathered from soldiers’ rations, port books and household accounts used across Ireland in the 16th century.

The Evidence

Evidence suggests that vast amounts of both ale and beer were consumed with the purpose of using it as a source of energy needed for a busy working day.

Not only calorific, with one pint containing up to a massive 500 calories, but the beers were by no means low in alcohol.

With a wet climate making it difficult to grow barley, the more usual ingredient in lighter ales, the Irish beers compensated with oats.

Not only did that make the drink considerably higher in calories than today’s average 180-200 calories per pint, but it also played a part in the strength.

Dr Flavin 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.”

Retrieved documents dating back to January 1565 revealed that stonemasons employed at a quarry in Clontarf, North Dublin, were given an allowance of 14 pints of ale per day.

Considering the strength of the beer being consumed, this is a surprising amount of alcohol to drink within a working day.

But it wasn’t just the manual labourers who were fond of the ale.

An average of 8 beers a day

Evidential documents from Dublin Castle show that the household staff consumed an impressive 264,000 pints in 1590, averaging eight beers each a day.

The findings also considered the brewing and drinking of ale by women at the time.

Dr Flavin 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.”

The study also supports the idea that women were relied on for their brewing technique and equally thought to have regularly consumed their brew.

Dr Flavin added, “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.”

Other studies show that a similar amount of around eight pints of beer per day were being consumed in England during this period.

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

She plans to continue researching Irish beers consumed in the 16th Century with a more focussed look at the high oat content of each brewed ale and its nutritional value.

This will involve Dr Flavin brewing her own beer, based on the original Irish recipe and assessing it on taste, calorie content, thickness and strength.

Nice work if you can get it!