Drinking habits in the seventeenth century

For centuries water was so polluted that it formed a health hazard. In large cities, canals were open sewers and industrial and craft producers used them to dump their waste. Only wells, clean rivers and rain provided reliable drinking water. In the towns the population depended on light alcoholic beverages that were clean, durable and affordable.

‘Beer is everyman’s drink, the drink everyone drinks who can drink’

Beer was the people’s beverage. There were all kinds of beers. Light beers, with an alcohol content of 0.5 to 1.5 per cent, was drunk throughout the day, as a substitute for water. This was often referred to as thin or small beer. Heavier types of beer, with alcohol contents similar to the beers of today, were drunk on special occasions. Most towns had their own breweries that supplied local demand and the surrounding countryside. These breweries represented some of the country’s largest industrial enterprises and were major exporters. In 1590 Amsterdam had no less than 180 breweries and Haarlem over a hundred in 1620. Various cities became involved in a bitter rivalry to produce the best quality beer. For many years it was Delft that led the way. In the mid-seventeenth century, Rotterdam’s beer was the most renowned. Alongside these domestic beers, imported beverages also enjoyed a certain popularity. But these expensive German and British beers remained the privilege of an exclusive elite. Although the quantities are difficult to calculate, the amount of beer consumed per person per year in the seventeenth century has been estimated at 250 litres. That is five times the amount people drink today.

Viticulture and the wine trade
Wine was imported from abroad. Although grapes had been grown in the Netherlands since Roman times, the lack of sunlight meant that wines produced here were of poor quality. Large quantities therefore found their way to the ports of Dordrecht and Rotterdam from Bordeaux in France, the Rhine and Moselle in Germany as well as from Spain and Portugal. From here the wine was distributed throughout the country. The trade made the fortunes of many a merchant. Wine was expensive and drunk by the wealthy classes. In fact it is an illustration of the Republic’s economic growth that after 1650 wine consumption outstripped that of beer. Indeed, the amount of wine drunk increased significantly compared to beer. At the same time, however, it should not be forgotten that the seventeenth century also saw the advent of a number of alternatives to water: coffee, tea and cocoa.

Distilled drinks with high alcohol contents had been available since the Middle Ages. Brandy was invented by chance in a French monastery when it was noticed that the remainders of old wines and residue had fermented and turned into a new drink with a high alcohol percentage. Originally, brandy was only sold at apothecaries. It was thought to prevent plague. Brandy bowls were used to drink the beverage, superb silver examples of which are known from the early seventeenth century. In Germany, a process was developed in the sixteenth century to distil strong liquor from grain. It was the small town of Schiedam that emerged as the centre of gin-making in the Republic. And the town has retained its leading position to this day. Dutch gin, or genever, was distilled from grain and became a popular favourite. As well as being sold in taverns, it was also drunk by sailors on long voyages at sea.

Coffee, tea, chocolate and milk
Coffee and tea, and cocoa too, were imported to the Netherlands by the Dutch East India Company from the second half of the seventeenth century. At first they were too expensive for the mass market. Indeed, coffee and tea were originally consumed as medicines. Some people drank as many as three hundred cups a day. So it was hardly surprising that establishments exclusively for drinking coffee and tea should emerge. By the eighteenth century tea drinking had become such an integral part of everyday life that special pavilions and tearooms were being built. This was also the age of coffee, tea and chocolate services. The durability of these products played a major part in the popularity of these water substitutes. A typical Dutch produce like milk could not be preserved for long. In the countryside it was drunk fresh from the cow and transported from farms for sale in the nearest urban agglomeration. However, most milk was turned into butter or cheese.

    Willem van Mieris

    Leiden 1662 - 1747 Leiden

    Militiaman with Empty Glass

    Panel, 30 x 23.5
    Painted circa 1690
    Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague

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