Modernist potions

The Best Brews from Around the World
What did people drink before coffee in the morning?

Written by Phil

A coffee enthusiast and traveler, Phil primarily spends his days thinking and writing about coffee. He also writes for where he explores ideas of culture, psychology, and travel, and occasionally dabbles in horror.

While sitting at my breakfast table sipping a cup of joe, I found myself wondering what western people drank in the morning before coffee. The obvious answer is tea, but what about before that? I did some research and this is what I found.

Before coffee and tea, people drank alcohol. Beer and wine were seen as breakfast drinks, stemming back to ancient Greece. Waking up, downing a beer, and then heading to work was perfectly normal.

Now if that’s true, it begs the obvious follow-up question:

Why did people drink alcohol in the morning?

Back in the 1800’s of Jolly Ol’ England, they actually viewed beer as the definitive breakfast drink. It was, in their mind, the “coffee” of that time. The reason for alcohols prominence throughout history may be an important factor here:

Much of history, people had to be very careful about the water that they consumed because, for the most part, water could often kill you. Germ theory was only invented in the 1860s, so before this time people had little idea what would make them sick.

Though, they did know one thing: you never seemed to get sick from alcohol. Well, excluding how you may feel the next morning.

The process of fermentation has an added bonus of purifying the liquid of bad bacteria that will make you sick and, instead, replaces it with alcohol and carbonation – the two bi-products that yeast creates when consuming the sugars found in the starches.

It purifies it by lowering the PH to between 4 and 5, making it acidic. For reference, distilled water is 7. As well, beers with hops added would include iso-alpha acid. Both of these would help to effectively “pickle” the fluid, making it safe to consume for extended periods.

The beer they drank was likely quite different from what we’re used to today, and may have been on the weak side of beer (AKA “small beer”) – some think as low as 0.5-2.0%. Their goal didn’t seem to be getting drunk, but to get energy from the carbs, have a filling liquid to carry them over, and generally avoid sickness.

Finally, people had very little clue about proper nutrition. At that time, beer was seen as both healthy and nourishing, which was comparatively true given the fetid water they had readily available.

So if someone gives you some aggravation for drinking beer with breakfast, you can point to the long history of getting energy and hydration of our ancestors.

In short: it had such low alcohol that the main benefit of fermentation was to kill the bacteria that would make you sick. As well, they saw it as being more nutritious, safe, and healthy than water.

What hot beverages did they enjoy?

Ok, besides lukewarm beer, what hot things would they have enjoyed with breakfast? Cold mornings are the worst, and a warm mug of something can help to drag yourself out of bed.

Once they became popular, tea, coffee, and hot cocoa were all the rage but were hard to come by and quite expensive for much of their early history. Instead of these, Europeans would enjoy such drinks as mulled wine, hot punch, and possets, which were… well, alcoholic.

Mulled wine and hot punch are fairly straight forward – fermented grape juice and various fruit juices mixed together. But what the heck is a posset?

A posset is made with hot milk which is curdled with wine, ale, or other alcoholic liquor. They were typically flavored with spices and seem to have fallen under the category of “medicinal” at that time. According to Wikipedia, they were considered a cure for minor sicknesses, like the common cold, and a remedy for other ailments – much like how we treat hot milk today when having trouble falling asleep.

Were any morning beverages NOT alcoholic?

On the non-alcoholic side, they could have non-alcoholic mulled wine, hot ciders, soup broths, or tisanes.

You see, they did have a form of tea that didn’t actually use tea plants. Chamomile, jasmine, rooibos – these are not actual tea. They’re what is technically called a “tisane” which is a hot beverage made with plants, like tea, but usually has no caffeine or actual tea in it. Basically, they were hot water with various plants, but the actual tea plant was not available at the time.

What’s unclear is how much these would be used outside of medicinal uses.

There is always warm milk, which was very easy to come by. In fact, buttermilk was often offered, particularly in places in India. Even today, certain Indian villages have the common practice of offering buttermilk or lassi to guests instead of tea or coffee.

Was caffeine the first stimulant for a morning pick-me-up?

It’s been speculated that humans gravitate toward stimulants. This is clearly true, given that cocoa, tea, and coffee – in their purest, unrefined forms – do not taste very good. They are widely considered acquired tastes, which would only make sense if the benefits outweigh the effort to continually choke them down.

I, for one, agree that the benefits are definitely there.

So before there were coffee and tea, what did they use to put a little spring in their step?

Well, according to “Frontiers for Young Minds”, an educational site for children, they put forward that all cultures, races, and countries seem to have eventually discovered that hot liquids with something put in it (a “tisane” or “infusion”) seem to have special properties. Since it is universal, there is clearly something to it.

One such example is the “Indian Soma”, which is now lost to history, though it has been recorded in much of their history. At some point, the plant that was used had become lost and people still don’t know what it was made from. So much for that.

Back in the day, bitterness was considered an indication of poison, yet most tisanes or infusions are often not naturally sweet. Why did they risk it?

“Frontiers” believes it has to do with methylxanthines (meth-ill-zan-thine).

Far as I can tell, caffeine is a stimulant derived from xanthine, much like theobromine found in chocolate, or theophylline found in tea leaves. There were likely other beverages that may have worked on the same mechanism, but may have lost favor as new beverages became available.

In short, caffeine was not the first, but something of a similar chemical makeup was likely there. Let’s just say caffeine is the grandson of whatever was previously popular.


  • What did people drink before coffee in the morning? Tea is most likely.
  • What did they drink before that? Usually really weak alcoholic beverages.
  • Why? It was safer.
  • Why? Because water wasn’t very safe.
  • Why? Because germ theory hadn’t been discovered yet.
  • What hot beverages did they enjoy on a cold morning? Most likely a form of alcohol.
  • What non-alcoholic, hot beverages did they enjoy? Probably broths, non-alcoholic mulled wine, hot ciders, and tisanes.
  • Was caffeine the first popular stimulant? Certainly not, but what came before was most likely a compound from the same family (xanthine)

You May Also Like…

Is Aeropress Worth It?

Is Aeropress Worth It?

Welcome to my very first product review! It is purely my opinion and earns me nothing of monetary value! (I discovered...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *