Friday, May 2, 2008

Let's Get More Drunk!

A lot of good fantasy and historical adventure fiction (and thus, gaming of the same genres) has depictions of our stalwart heroes bumming around in taverns and inns and mead-halls guzzling all manner of ale, mead, grog, stout, beer, lager, get the picture.

Such fare is usually consumed from a tankard made from either crockery or boiled and waxed leather (a "leather jack of ale") in rougher areas, but pewter or even sliver or glass tankards will be found in campaign settings that are either more prosperous or set in a later time period (like a late Renaissance or Colonial period game). I've got an earlier posting that has some pictures of tankards (ignore the last one, please...seriously lets pretend it just doesn't exist). I happen to own a glass-bottomed metal tankard wrapped in leather - it's very cool looking, but sadly the seal around the glass has worn out over time and the tankard now leaks (which of course means you have to consume the contents faster than usual...oh the horror!).

So what exactly are we drinking?

Beer is going to be the most common drink in any northern European-esque setting. It's an ancient drink and there are a lot of reasons for its popularity. For one, the brewing process and the alcohol content of the beverage made it safe to drink with regards to bacteria and other little "bugs" you might find in any non-modern water supply. Another reason to drink beer is the simple fact that it's actually fairly nutritious - beer is, simply put, liquid bread. You get a lot of calories and carbohydrates out of it, and the yeast contains a fair number of minerals and vitamins. For a time period where the diet wasn't so great, especially in winter, a well-crafted beer was probably one of the healthiest things you could put in your body (isn't that ironic?).

Now, beer breaks down into a number of other sub-categories. You've got ales and lagers, further breaking down into pilsners, lambics, stouts,'s a pretty long list. A lot of these have to do with how the beer is brewed and what sorts of yeasts, malts, hops, and other ingredients go into them. And not all of the beverages in each of these categories will look alike, either. Smithwicks, an Irish red ale, is actually quite dark, especially compared to other ales like the weissbiers, which tend to be very light in color. A stout is essentially a type of ale - Guinness is the "classic stout", and one of the darkest, most opaque beers you'll find.

Mead is a beverage made from water, yeast, and honey. It is sweet and often includes various spices and occasionally berries or other fruits, making it a classic dessert beverage these days. There's a great scene in The 13th Warrior where Ibn is offered mead and claims he cannot drink of "the fermentation of wheat or grape", whereupon Herger laughs and thrusts the drinking horn at him, exclaiming "Honey! It's made from honey!". Much guzzling of said honey beverage commences.

Grog is actually a drink made from rum diluted with water, often with lemon or lime juice added in as part of a scorbutic (anti-scurvy) precaution. It was primarily a sailor's drink, and would be popular among pirates and in more tropical latitudes. Nowadays it has come to mean essentially "booze" of some indeterminate origin, but in a historical or fantasy campaign, it will really only be found as a seaman's drink.

Wine is the fermentation of grape juice, and is typically found in more comfortable climates. It typically has a higher alcohol content than beer or mead, although in earlier times it seems to have been cut with water (which would have much the same effect as beer in allowing the alcohol to kill off the "bugs" and make it safe to drink). Wine comes in all sorts of varieties, and it shouldn't be snubbed as something "manly men" won't drink - Conan and other heroes of Robert E. Howard guzzled wine just as often as they guzzled ale - sometimes moreso, because his characters often found themselves in more decadent, exotic environments where wine would be consumed more often than beer (Romans and Greeks were typically more partial to wine than beer, while the more northern peoples such as the Celtic, Germanic, and Scandinavian peoples typically favored beer or mead, although these drinks, being extremely ancient, can be found almost anywhere). Port is really just fortified wine, and although it's alcoholic content is higher, it is not a distillation.

Stronger distilled spirits, such as whisky (or whiskey, if you prefer), vodka, gin and rum, aren't going to come about as a common find until much, much later - you probably wouldn't see such drinks in a fantasy or historical campaign until you reach a Renaissance-esque level of technological development, although the process of distillation is much older than that, and in a fantasy world, you may very well have ancient and highly civilized cultures with advanced scientific knowledge (like an Atlantis-type nation) with distilled alcohols. Such beverages should be rare, costly, and highly prized (a bottle of good whisky could be a nice bit of treasure in some campaigns).

With regards to gaming, it might be worthwhile to consider for a moment the sorts of alcoholic beverages PCs might encounter in their travels. Moving from one region to another and discovering that the taverns are serving a light, fruity lambic ale as opposed to a dark and bitter stout will begin to show a shift in climate and culture. Exotic spiced wines and meads help add some color to strange new lands and locales. Also, rare vintages and especially complex drinks might involve rare components that are difficult (and dangerous) to acquire, or might have to travel long distances at the request of a wealthy buyer.

In the end, do a little reading (and if you're of legal age, a little "research" never hurt...), and see if you can't give your game a little extra "flavor" with some different and interesting brews.


trollsmyth said...

Ask, and you shall receive, huh?

Part of the Roman and Greek preference for wine had to do with their soil. Grapes aren't as picky as wheat, and so they were able to grow plentiful grapes, but grains were more problematic. Rome depended fairly heavily on Egypt for a lot of its grain.

Speaking of Egyptians, some pottery found in tombs seems to indicate that the Egyptians drank their wine mixed with beer. Yeah, sounds pretty disgusting to me too, but who knows?

- Brian

Badelaire said...

Yup, all good "fertile" ideas to add into your games. The Egyptian grain thing I had heard of, and I was vaguely aware that the soil of Italy was good for growing grapes and olives, but yeah, other things like wheat weren't so great.

The wine/beer thing does sound gross, but Africa was the home of a number of tasty drinks - there is an Ethiopian restaurant around here I need to visit that supposedly has a really good mead.