Monday, June 16, 2008

On Sly's small beer ...

Few of us know (or would want to know) Small Beer.

Sly, when he wakes up calls for small beer -

SLY. For God's sake, a pot of small ale.

Benjamin Franklin drank it for breakfast, George Washington had a recipe for it, Ann Hathaway would have made it at home for the whole family to drink - and schoolboys at Elizabethan school were given it to drink at lunchtime.

When I visited a village in Oltenea (a part of Southern Romania) back in the last century (think about it) I found out exactly why people drank small beer:

The water is dangerous.

I arrived in a small village - the only road in being along a dried river bed - in winter there are times when you can't drive in.

There was no electricity - maybe there still isn't.

I was treated royally - good food, plenty of alcohol.

I stayed overnight there - sleeping in the same room as the family - hot and mosquito bitten.

In the morning I woke with a 'bit of a head' (much like Sly must have woken) and asked for water -

"Water is for animals."

I was given a glass of wine ... water just was not available. There was a well, there was 'water' but unfit for human consumption - experience had taught the villagers that it was better to drink the fermented juice of the grape - unfermented when available (as must but that is only available for part of the year).

The youngest children drank milk - the older ones wine. When it was available, and up in the mountains it was throughout the summer, you drank the liquid that comes off the top of the sheep cheese - the whey.

So too in England for most of its history - drink water and risk serious disease and death.

When you make very low alcohol beer (small beer) you will boil the water - it 'kills the germs' and so is much safer to drink than water from a well. There is alcohol in it - but not much.

Sly calls for small beer - not because he is in need of alcohol, but because he is in need of liquid - do the servants offer the upper-class wine - in the same spirit? Is it the equivalent of the red wine I got in Oltenea?

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