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There’s something about certain words that evoke immediate imagery, as the mind conjures up scenes and scenarios. This is certainly true of the tavern — our minds immediately go to medieval scenes of rustic eating, tall pints of alcohol, and rough, loud merriment. But this is not the case. Medieval social spaces, especially for drinking, weren’t just taverns. Establishments such as alehouses, inns, and taverns all had different purposes and varying clientele, showing that the medieval period wasn’t much of a dark age at all.

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Taverns date back to the Roman Era and continued long after the fall of the Roman Empire. These drinking establishments are the most upscale of the drinking venues. You may think simple brewed beverages were the norm in taverns, but that is not the case. While taverns had food and entertainment, they were primarily places to distribute and sell alcohol, more specifically, specializing in drinks derived from fermented fruits. The three most common were wine (from red grapes), cider (from apples), and perry (from pears). Each tavern had a vintner, a wine manager so to speak, who would sell the wine both on and off the tavern’s premises. They were held accountable by the vintner’s wine guild and customers’ abilities to look at the storage and labeling of the wines. These wines, especially the red wines sold in taverns were imported from northern France, as England didn’t produce its own red wine. There was still ale, mead (fermented honey), and metheglin (fermented honey and fruit juices), which were available to purchase at taverns but were not actively drunk at taverns.

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Inns had alcohol, but they were primarily rest places between major destinations or in front of the gates of big cities and were essentially for travelers. There travelers could feed and care for their horses or mules. There were a variety of ways to find your own personal R&R, but generally, it wasn’t the most comfortable of accommodations.

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Unlike alehouses and taverns there was more of an option of food. Most people attending inns wanted to save money and slept in communal beds. If you wanted to save even more money you could sleep in the stables. At inns, there was more risqué entertainment and pleasures alongside cheaper drinks like cider and mead (which were half the price of ale but double the amount of alcohol).

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Alehouses were private residences. These alehouses were open to the public and called public houses, which was abbreviated to the word pub (which is still a word activity used to describe bars today in the UK). There generally the mistress of the house brewed ale for the family and extra. To earn extra money, many ladies of the house would sell the excess ale from the family’s residence. Many people mistake ale for beer, but these drinks are not the same.

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Even though it was derived from barley and oats and was fermented, most ales of that era did not contain hops. The hops that we associate with beer or ale today didn’t start showing up until the Renaissance. What’s even more different about ale is its freshness. Generally, beer can last a while. That is not the case with medieval ale, it wasn’t a well-preserved beverage. Ale only lasted two to three days tops before it was considered spoiled. Ale was less of a merriment drink and was more of a daily supplement, like the vitamin supplements of today. Back then ale was much sweeter than modern-day beer and added a lot of nutritional value, giving it the name “liquid bread.” Adding spices to ale could hide any taste of spoilage, but the day’s batch was generally consumed and sold on the same day.

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People would bring pots or cups from home and buy ale in these varying portions. To signal to the town that you had a brew in production, you’d put a sign outside of the entrance. Since a majority of the population at the time couldn’t read, objects like brooms, shovels, or carved wooden animals would designate both the alehouse’s location and if it was brewing ale at the time.

Now, you may be wondering what about hard liquor? Well, back in the medieval period, hard distilled liquor was considered to be more of a medicinal tonic than an actual beverage.

Which of the three drinking establishments would you prefer?