Good For What “Ales” You: Medicinal Beers

It is that time of year when coughs and colds run rampant. Autumn sniffles affected the Victorians just as much as they do us. However, unlike us, Victorians often sought relief in the form of (what else?) beer!

While we primarily drink beer for taste/social reasons, beer has a long history of use in medicine. In fact, there is evidence that ancient Nubian brewers were using beer as an antibiotic. In 1980, scientists noticed that a 1600-year-old Nubian mummy contained traces of tetracycline: an antibiotic that binds with calcium and gets deposited into the bones. One small thing:

Tetracycline wasn’t officially discovered until 1945.

Although for the ancient Nubians, beer would’ve been more like an alcoholic barley smoothie, sipped through a straw…

After ruling out the possibility that the bones has become contaminated, researchers hypothesized that the Nubians were lacing their beer with grain contaminated with Streptomyces bacteria: the bacteria that produce tetracycline. For the ancient Nubians, beer was thus not only beverage and foodstuff, but medicine as well.

A little closer to our time at Black Creek, beer has long been used as a preventative/treatment for scurvy. This is particularly true of spruce beer: a beer brewed with the young green shoots of the spruce tree. You may remember tasting this at Black Creek! Spruce beer shows up in the 1590s around the Baltic, but it probably existed prior to that too. The antiscorbutic properties (antiscorbutic—what a wonderful word; possibly my new favourite) of spruce beer were invaluable to sailors on long voyages deprived of fresh fruits and vegetables. On making landfall, voyagers would set about making spruce beer—looking southwards to our antipodean cousins, Captain James Cook brewed New Zealand’s first beer for precisely this reason in 1770.

James Cook arrives at Queen Charlotte's Sound, New Zealand (courtesy
James Cook arrives at Queen Charlotte’s Sound, New Zealand (courtesy

For nineteenth century Canadians, beer supplemented the diet. Beer contains several of the B-complex vitamins (not thiamine, alas), and depending on style, can be a source of iron, too. In her Female Emigrant’s Guide (1854), writer Catherine Parr Traill laments the comparative lack of private brewing among families, explaining: “During the very hot weather, some cooling and strengthening beverage is much required by men who have to work out in the heat of the sun; and the want of it is often supplied by whisky diluted with water, or by cold water, which, when drunk in large quantities, is dangerous to the health, and should, if possible, be avoided” (Parr Trail, The Female Emigrant’s Guide, 137). Beer was not only thirst-quencher, but fortifier.

It was also, depending on style, a cure. Several types of medicinal beers were brewed through the 1800s. Just for starters, we have…

  • Ginger beer: believed to prevent/relieve nausea, indigestion, pain, and inflammation
  • Dandelion beer: used to stimulate the liver, and also for its narcotic/calming effects
  • Root beer: one of the main components, sassafras, is used as a general tonic and purifier. Unfortunately, it’s also carcinogenic, and has been banned in commercially mass-produced foods and drugs since 1960. Wintergreen, another main component, contains an analgesic, very similar to aspirin.
  • Maple beer: an expectorant/cough syrup, and also high in iron
We meet again, Mr. Dow (courtesy
We meet again, Mr. Dow (courtesy

Remember our old friend Neil Dow? The mayor of Portland who pushed for prohibition in Maine, eventually establishing the “Maine Law” that so intrigued our own Rowland Burr? Well, even he distinguished between “beverage” alcohol and alcohol used medicinally. Indeed, when prohibition re-emerged through the 1920s, alcohol supporters made the same arguments for beer’s medicinal value.

Of course, this entire post is said with the caveat that you cannot go to the Beer Store today, grab a can, and claim you’re getting your vitamins. Although beer was incredibly important to the Victorians as a foodstuff, beverage, and remedy…modern medicine is one of the many reasons I’m glad we live in 2014!




Traill, Catherine Parr. The Female Emigrant’s Guide and Hints on Canadian Housekeeping. Toronto: Maclear and Company, 1854.


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