By Tim Lambert

Drinks and Beverages in the Ancient World

The original drink was, of course water or Adam's ale as it is sometimes called. However when people invented farming they invented other drinks. It is believed that beer was invented before writing. Certainly in Ancient Egypt beer was a common drink. People drank it from large containers through straws (to avoid drinking debris floating in the drink). In northern Europe the Celts also drank beer. After the Romans conquered Britain brewing continued. In the Ancient Middle East wine was also a common drink. It was drunk by 4,000 BC.

Drinks and Beverages in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages ordinary people often drank ale. Other drinks included cider and mead.

Wine was the drink of the wealthy. It was imported from France and Germany and so it was expensive. Wine was also imported from the Eastern Mediterranean. It was called Malmsey wine, which is a corruption of Monemvasia, a town famous for its wine.

The origins of vodka are lost in the mists of time but it is believed it was first made in Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages.

Life in the Middle Ages

Drinks and Beverages in the 16th Century

In the 16th century it was, usually, not safe to drink water so for ordinary people drinking ale or beer was essential. Young children drank milk but usually only the poorest people drank water.

Tudor housewives were expected to brew their own beer although it was also sold commercially. In the 16th century beer was not just a drink it was also a food. It contained valuable nutrients.

In Tudor Times cider and perry were common drinks in certain parts of England. However in the 17th century cider making reached a peak.

Wine was still the drink of the wealthy as it had to be imported. Wine was still imported from France and Germany but an increasing amount was imported from Spain and Portugal. Sweet wine was still imported from the Eastern Mediterranean. In the 16th century wine was often flavored with spices.

Other drinks in 16th century England included sherry, which was known as sack and brandy. In 16th century Scotland whiskey was a popular drink.

Life in the 16th Century

Drinks and Beverages in the 17th Century

In the 17th century new drinks were introduced to England. Rum was first distilled in the Caribbean. Gin was invented in Holland early in the 17th century. It was introduced into England in the late 17th century. Gin soon became a very popular drink. Another drink, champagne was invented in England in the late 17th century.

There were also new non-alcoholic drinks available in 17th century England. Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and it entered Europe in the 16th century through Italy. By the late 17th century there were many coffeehouses in English towns where merchants and professional men met to drink cups of coffee, read newspapers and chat.

Tea was discovered by the Chinese in the earliest days of their civilization but it only reached Europe in the 17th century. Tea came to England in the mid-17th century. However it only became a popular drink after 1662 when Charles II married a Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. She made drinking tea fashionable among the wealthy. (At first it was too expensive for ordinary people). Cocoa was also first drunk in England in the late 17th century.

Chocolate comes from Central America. The Spaniards brought it too Europe in the 16th century. Chocolate was first drunk in England in the 17th century. The Spaniards in Mexico also invented tequila.

Drinks and Beverages in the 18th Century

Drinking rum became common in Britain in the 18th century. The British navy gave sailors a daily rum ration.

Drinking cheap gin became endemic in the early 18th century, causing many social problems as shown by the picture Gin Lane by William Hogarth. However gin drinking was curtailed after 1751 when duty was charged.

In the early 18th century porter became a common drink in London and Guinness was first brewed in Dublin in 1759.

New drinks were invented in the 18th century. Vermouth was invented in Italy in the 18th century. Bourbon whiskey was first distilled in 1789.

In the 18th century tea became cheaper and huge amounts were imported from China. The British became a nation of tea drinkers.

Fizzy drinks were invented in 1772 by Joseph Priestley, who discovered how to trap carbon dioxide in water and made carbonated water.

Life in the 18th Century

Drinks and Beverages in the 19th Century and 20th Century

In the late 19th century there were great improvements in public health. Towns created piped water supplies and for the first time it was safe to drink water.

The industrial revolution meant the mass production of drinks. For centuries ordinary people brewed their own beer and made their own soft drinks like lemonade and cordials. In the 19th and 20th centuries they all became mass produced. Meanwhile Marvin Stone invented paper drinking straws in 1888. The screw bottle top was patented in 1889.

Many new drinks were invented in the 19th century and early 20th century. India Pale Ale was first made about 1820. Pimms was invented in 1823. The first golden lager was invented in Bohemia (Czech Republic) in 1842 by a man named Joseph Groll. Erasmus Bond patented tonic water in 1858.

Canned beer was first sold in the USA in 1935. The widget for beer cans was patented in 1985. However in 1923 a law was passed in Britain banning the sale of alcohol to people under 18.

Horlicks was invented in the USA in 1883. Ovaltine was invented in 1904. Dr Pepper was invented in 1885. Coca Cola was invented in 1886. (It was first sold in Britain in 1900). Vimto was invented in 1908. Tizer went on sale in 1924. Ribena was launched in 1938.

In the 1830s people began growing tea in India. Indian tea was first sold in Britain in 1839. The coffee percolator was invented in 1865. Instant coffee was invented in 1901 and the coffee filter was invented in 1908.

Iced tea was invented in the USA at the end of the 19th century. In Britain tea was rationed from 1940 to 1952.

A timeline of Drinks

A brief history of Condiments

A brief history of Food

A brief history of Chocolate

A brief history of Biscuits

A brief history of Coffee

A brief history of Tea


Last revised 2019