Beer or Wine: A Short History of Alcohol


We Brits are traditionally beer drinkers, though our middle class aspirations have seen us increasingly switch to wine instead. But how did these two drinks come to dominate our culture? Let’s go back to the beginning.

In the Bronze Age, wine and beer were considered the gifts of the gods, and the Greeks were quick to ascribe wine to the grape-garlanded hedonist, Dionysus, with his own splendidly-debauched festival, Dionysia. He was basically the Charlie Sheen of the Classical pantheon, and as the influence of Greek culture crept westwards into southern Italy, he was rebranded into his Roman alter-ego – Bacchus. The Festival of Dionysia henceforth became the Bacchanalia.

Initially the Roman version was a secretive ritual for ladies only, and we don’t know much about it, but when men got involved the stern moralists in the Roman Senate suddenly blurted out Daily Mail levels of outrage and banned it in 186 BCE. In their eyes, it was a sort of sinister cult that practised human sacrifice, murder, and various disgusting sexual sins, and it was clear to all that the initiates of Bacchus were clearly plotting to undermine the virtuous spirit of the Roman people.  The later historian, Livy, certainly laid it on pretty thick in his description of the chaos, leaving us in the tricky position of trying to deduce quite how much of these outlandish allegations were true. In all likelihood, Bacchanalia was probably a rambunctious orgy more akin to an overblown stag-do than some vast underground conspiracy, and one wonders if the censorious official response was something of a smear campaign against Greek culture?

Of course, it’s true that dodgy criminal gangs may well have been using Bacchanalia as a handy cover for their nefarious deeds, but given that most of the drunk people I’ve watched have struggled to even put a front door key in a lock, it’s hard to believe Bacchic acolytes were capable of planning vast clandestine campaigns of secretive terror worthy of a Batman villain. If Livy had accused them of stealing traffic cones, and rolling down hills in shopping trollies, then I’d have more trust in his accusations.

In any case, the Roman period stretched from 753 BCE – 476, so attitudes were inevitably bound to change, and by the time Marc Antony was snuggling up to Egypt’s regal saucepot, Queen Cleopatra (in around 41 – 31 BCE), Plutarch claims the Roman general had basically started styling himself as the mortal incarnation of Bacchus. Italy had recently been submerged by a tidal wave of mass-produced local plonk, which necessitated the invention of plenty of excuses to drink it, so Bacchus was released from his proverbial house arrest and the Romans of the Empire cheerfully surrendered to the overenthusiastic embrace of wine-loving hedonism.


Today Bordeaux and Champagne are have gone down in the history of alcohol as being synonymous with quality wines, but this wasn’t the doing of the Celtic tribes of ancient France. The ‘Barbarians’ of Western Europe were, on the whole, pretty ambivalent about viticulture. The Southern Gauls of France were more than happy to drink the stuff, but took the easy option of importing their plonk from Italy rather than make their own (and probably invented staved wooden barrels for this very purpose).

Further north, the prospect of Gauls tending to their vineyards was even more remote, as the Celtic tribes of Northern France and Belgium were ardent ale-lovers who perceived wine as an effeminate drink worthy only of southern softies and women – an attitude that still thrives in parts of Yorkshire. So, how did Bordeaux and Champagne end up with such a prestigious wine industry from such apathetic origins? Well, it required a little social engineering from the Romans, by which I mean a horrendously violent invasion by Julius Caesar. This introduced the grape to the fertile fields of Gallic France, and began the famous vineyards.  It’s nice to know the slaughter of a population wasn’t entirely without a silver lining.

You’ll probably have noticed that England’s wine industry isn’t quite so renowned, but that’s through no fault of the Romans. Not even Celtic Britannia’s pre-eminent arsonist, Queen Boudica, could stop the imperial conquest of the isle and the planting of yet more vineyards. Sadly, dreary old Britain was later plunged into the frost-fingered misery of the Little Ice Age – an epoch of severe climate cooling in the 17th century – that killed any hope of ecstatic lottery winners celebrating their incredible windfall with magnum bottles of Northamptonshire’s finest fizz. If there’s only one thing you take away from this blog, it should be that the British weather inevitably ruins everything.

Still, while France and Britain were welcomed into the wine-glugging club, the German tribes stubbornly resisted Roman invasion and found themselves walled-off from their imperial southern neighbours. Left to their own devices, the Germanic tribes continued mass-producing ale in ancient breweries clustered around the River Mosel, and this never-ending supply of booze meant they were almost perpetually hammered. According to the Roman writer, Tacitus, almost any important decision first required a ritualised level of intoxication. Oh, and so did all the non-important decisions.

This led to a pretty chaotic society in which whole villages might go on week-long binge-drinking benders, resulting in quite a lot of shouting, and no small amount of random stabbing.  Such reports might merely be scurrilous Roman propaganda, but the societal importance of communal binge-drinking in later medieval Germanic tribes suggests it’s an accusation with some probable cause.


By the 12th century, across large parts of Europe, ale was the undisputed drink of the people, and dedicated alehouses sprang up to quench the national thirst. But France was now churning out vast quantities of wine too, and the exports found their way into the major cities and ports, to be sold in new-fangled taverns. Despite the fact that wine was the preferred tipple of the aristocracy, it wasn’t out of reach for the urban masses either. The middling sort with some disposable cash might well have enjoyed a sophisticated glass of wine over dinner, and then popped out to the alehouse to down mugs of ale with their buddies until they felt a compelling urge to puke over their own shoes.

No longer were the two beverages being emphatically parted along class lines, and there is no better proof of this than the gluttonous party thrown in 1465 to welcome England’s newly-appointed Archbishop of York, George Neville, during which 2,500 high-to-middle-ranking guests were expected to glug their way through about 72,000 gallons of ale and 24,000 gallons of wine. To be honest, I really hope those figures are wrong, because not even the Incredible Hulk could knock back a personal allowance of 29 gallons of weak ale and 7 bottles of wine without succumbing to immediate liver failure.

Still, the virtually limitless quantity of available alcohol didn’t necessarily represent a broad choice of tipples. Yes, beers and ales boasted a range of flavours – with hops now adding that classic bitter taste – and the well-bred wine buff could reel off a multitude of subtle distinctions between their fave grape varieties, but ultimately the Middle Ages were a period of rather predictable booze oligarchy.  It was wine, or beer, or mead, or water… and trust me, you really didn’t want the water. It wasn’t until the 1600s that spirits began to muscle their way into the frame.