The ca. 1880-1889 trade card above uses Hygeia to advertise “The “Best” Tonic” which was a “Concentrated Liquid Extract of Malt and Hops” which claimed (on the reverse side of the card) that it “Aids Digestion, Cures Dyspepsia, Strengthens the System, Restores Sound Refreshing Sleep, Priceless to Nursing Mothers.”
We also have some vintage cookbooks from various English counties with recipes for ale gruel, touted as the perfect dinner for an exhausted worker, home from the mines, with no energy to sit down for a formal meal at table. But somehow, seeing familiar brand names, combined with the smarmy Victorian-era art, exhorting mothers to use beer as a nutritional aid for their children and old folks just seemed hilarious.
So we did a little more poking around on the topic of beer as medicine and meal-replacer.
The advertisment below, c.1907, for Seattle icon Rainier Beer, is one of my favorites. Not only are the children happily doing a Maypole dance around a giant bottle of beer, but in the scenic outdoor background, a mother is setting the picnic table with yet more beer, presumably for those rosy-cheeked little tipplers.
The notion of specialising in strong brews dates from the time when these beers were regarded as “liquid bread” to sustain the body during Lent.
Even in the rest of the year, beer was once “absolutely necessary to balance the diet”, a brother at one of the Trappist monasteries told me recently. “Trappists would have died without it.”
Traditionally, Trappists did not eat cheese or fish. Those rules have now been relaxed and several of the monasteries make their own cheese, usually in the style of Port Salut, but the Trappists still, in mock derision, dub their Cistercian cousins “meat-eaters.”
For their daily consumption, with meals, some of the Trappist monasteries make a beer of relatively low strength, perhaps 3.5 per cent by volume. For liturgical holidays and commercial sale, they may produce a stronger “double” and a “triple,” with strengths ranging from around 6 per cent to more than 11 per cent.
Another hilarious ad from Rainier Brewery, c.1906. Somehow seeing a little girl drinking to Grandpa’s good health just seems wrong, but history shows our current, relatively tee-totaling ways are a but an anomaly.
From a Time Magazine article c.1926:
Stacked in cases in what is left of the Pabst brewery (Milwaukee) have been thousands of bottles of medicinal malt tonic. Last week permits to make and sell the tonic were issued by the prohibition section of the Treasury Department to Pabst of Milwaukee and AnheuserBusch of St. Louis. Professional Anti-Saloon League furor ensued, and thus the names of two firms, once household words, flickered in U. S. minds which had almost buried them in subconscious limbo. Except for the two classic names. there was nothing to warrant excitement. In the first place, the malt tonic is unpotable. While it contains 3.5% alcohol, it also contains 25% solid. One slimy gulp of it is unpleasant, two are unspeakable, three unthinkable. In the second place, the permits granted were only temporary, and if U. S. ingenuity finds ways of using the tonic as a base for soul-satisfying beer, the permits will be, according to General Lincoln C. Andrews, speedily withdrawn.
A Victorian-era regimen for a new mother:
Women remained in hospital for three weeks on average after delivery. For the first ten days they were fed on brown caudle [thin, warm gruel mixed with wine or ale, sweetened and spiced], sago or panado [bread boiled to a pulp and flavored with sugar and spices], with a little wine. For the remainder of their stay they received meat, bread and beer, and as much brown caudle as they chose. – Walking London’s Medical History pg. 22
In An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy‘s chapter on Cooking for the Invalid, c.1855, we find yet more ale being offered in a heartier form as well. You can hear a hint of the budding temerance movement in hoping this remedy might keep the sick person from stronger medicine:
Ale Caudle.—To a quart of thick groat gruel add a pint of home-brewed ale, some allspice, and sugar. Boil all together for the space of five or six minutes, then strain it, and put it in a cool place till wanted. This caudle is frequently made for poor country neighbours in their confinement. It is useful as a nourishment for them at that period, and sometimes prevents them from resorting to stronger and more stimulating liquors.
And beer wasn’t only good medicine for people. The 1903 edition of Horses and Stables has this home remedy for an exhausted horse:
Good gruel is made by putting about a double handful of oatmeal into a pail and pouring on it a little cold water. After being well stirred, a gallon and a half of hot, but not boiling, water must be added, and the whole stirred again. Boiling water should not be used, because it produces a more starchy compound than is suitable for the stomach of the horse in an exhausted condition. The temperature should be reduced to that of new milk before it is given. If the horse is very much overtasked, it may be advisable to add to it a wine-glassful of spirits or a pint of ale.
Moving from the strictly medicinal uses, and into the culinary, we have a little history from Cakes & Ale , c.1900 (a fun online book to rummage through):
“A free breakfast-table of Elizabeth’s time,” says an old authority, “or even during the more recent reign of Charles II., would contrast oddly with our modern morning meal. There were meats, hot and cold ; beef and brawn, and boar’s head, the venison pasty, and the Wardon Pie of west country pears. There was hot bread, too, and sundry ‘ cates’ which would now be strange to our eyes. But to wash down these substantial viands there was little save ale.
The most delicate lady could procure no more suitable beverage than the blood of John Barleycorn. The most fretful invalid had to be content with a mug of small beer, stirred up with a sprig of rosemary.
Wine, hippocras, and metheglin were potations for supper-time, not for breakfast, and beer reigned supreme. None but home productions figured on the board of our ancestors. Not for them were seas traversed, or tropical shores visited, as for us. Yemen and Ceylon, Assam and Cathay, Cuba and Peru, did not send daily tribute to their tables, and the very names of tea and coffee, of cocoa and chocolate, were to them unknown.
The dethronement of ale, subsequent on the introduction of these eastern products, is one of the most marked events which have severed the social life of the present day from that of the past.”
There were other ale-based drinks. Aleberry was ale boiled with spices and sugar and sops of bread. One writer praises aleberry “made with groats and saffron and good ale” and recommended it for men who were sick or afflicted with weak digestions (groats here is hulled and crushed grains of wheat, barley or oats; the word derives from the same root as grits and means “a particle; a fragment”); in Scotland it was common to make aleberry with oatmeal. There is some dispute about the origin of the term, though the “berry” part is certainly just mistaken etymology and has nothing to do with fruits or seeds.
Another word for the same drink was alebrue and Brewer says firmly that it derives from the older form ale-bree, where bree is Old English for “broth”, but the OED does not confirm this. A Scots variant was ale crowdie — uncooked meal and ale, fortified with treacle and whisky and consumed at harvest homes.
Another celebratory ale-based drink was lamb’s-wool, mulled ale with added spices, sugar and the pulp of roasted apples, which was a traditional beverage for Halloween, Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, and no doubt for those pleasant moments back in the warm after wassailing was over (the name presumably derives from the smooth softness of the liquor).
From the World Wide Words entry on possets (lots more interesting info here).
1/2 pt milk (8 fl oz)
1 tbsp oatmeal
2 beaten eggs
1 tsp sugar or honey
nutmeg or mixed spice
whisky, ale or white wine
1. Heat the milk in a pan with the oatmeal and a pinch of salt. Stir well and bring to the boil, then simmer until it starts to thicken.
2. Stir in the eggs, sugar and spices (added according to taste), and keep simmering for at least five minutes – stir well to make sure the mixture doesn’t burn or stick to the pan.
3. Remove from the pan and add in as much whisky, ale or white wine as you prefer.
4. Serve immediately, either on its own or poured over bannocks or a dessert.
Cookery Reformed: Or The Lady’s Assistant c.1755 has more caudle and posset recipes.
I saved another favorite ad for last. Looks like Whatcom county’s interest in good health, good beer and buying local goes way back.
The beer ads are part of a collection hosted by the University of Washington. This link will take you to a search page for “Rainier Beer”, but you can check out the collection home page to find old pictures of farming, logging, houses, advertising, etc. involving Washington State and more.