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Quenching Thirst

From Water, Ale, Tea, Coffee, & Chocolate

The shepardes kalender. London, 1570? (Detail)

Well-willer. The women's petition against coffee. London, 1674

A broadside against coffee. London, 1672.

As with all foods, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were valued for their medicinal properties as well as for their pleasant taste. Many wines and beers had a very low alcohol content and were consumed at each meal. For household distilling and brewing, good water supplies were important. William Harrison's wife preferred Thames river water. Increased cultivation of fruit trees and bee hives provided farmers with the raw materials for cider, perry (from pears), and honey-based drinks such as mead, and according to authors like John Worlidge, made land more productive.


Most households quenched their thirsts with ale or beer. Ales were brewed with malt and water, while beer contained hops that imparted a bitter flavor. Many housewives added other flavors as well, such as bayberries, orris, or long pepper. Consumption of weak, low-alcohol drinks at this time has been estimated at around one gallon per person per day.


Drinking a hot liquid was a new experience for most Englishmen. Coffee, tea, and chocolate were imported luxuries and, unlike ale and beer, were prepared with specialized equipment and consumed at leisure. First introduced into England as medicines, coffee and chocolate were thought to have dry humors and were recommended as stimulants, especially for those studying or working long hours. Tea was introduced by Jesuit missionaries who had served in the Far East and who attributed the health and long lives of the Chinese to their drinking of tea. While the coffee-house became a fixture in towns all over England, home consumption was limited to the well-to-do until the late eighteenth century.

Coffee had a reputation in medical circles for preventing drowsiness, but it was also considered so drying that the result was impotence. Other grievances outlined by the author of The Women's Petition against Coffee include the worry that men "like so many frogs in a puddle, . . . sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a cozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at a Gossipping." In response, the men's answer to the women's petition (London, 1674) defends the coffee-house as "the Citizens Academy," where coffee "both keeps us sober and can make us so." Like coffee, chocolate was considered cold and dry. To make it cacao-nut paste, sugar, and pepper were mixed, then heated in water and drunk.

  Additional Information

This woodcut of a coffeehouse, where coffee and tobacco were both enjoyed, illustrates the exotic origins of these new consumer pleasures.


Coffee did not become widely available until after 1651, when the first English coffeehouse was established at Oxford. By this time, coffee's bitter flavor could be sweetened with refined sugar.

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