Bride-Ale was one of a series of beers brewed to celebrate special occasions, often religious holidays or celebrations; in the case of bride-ale the occasion was a wedding. It is not irrelevant that the marriage feast in Anglo-Saxon times was known as “bredale,” and that, in early medieval times, the word “ale” sometimes related to a feast as well as to beer. The first reference we have to a bride-ale celebration comes from an entry in the Worcester MS in the Old English Chronicle. Dated 1075, it refers to a raucous feast in Norwich; “there was that bride-ale, the source of man’s bale.” Then, from Protestant reformer Heinrich Bullinger’s 16th-century text The Christen State of Matrimony we learn:
When they came home from the church then beginneth excesse of eatyng and drinking—and as much is waisted in one daye as were sufficient for the two new married folks halfe a yeare to lyve upon.
From the same era “bryde-ale” is mentioned in a commentary on one of Elizabeth I’s excessive celebrations at Kenilworth Castle.
In some parts of England, regulations were invoked in an attempt to restrain the outrageous behavior associated with bride-ale consumption. These often bade brewers to refrain from making the wedding beer too strong. In the old Worcestershire town of Halesowen, for example, the medieval Manorial Court Rolls have an entry:
A payne ye made that no person or persons that shall brewe any weddyn ale to sell above twelve stryke of mault at the most, and that said persons so marryed shall not keep nor have above eyght messe of persons at hys dinner within the burrowe, and before hys brydall daye he shall keep no unlawful games in hys house, nor out of hys house on payne of 20s.
Ben Jonson, the English Renaissance dramatist, poet, and actor, uses “bride-ale” frequently to mean “wedding feast,” and etymologists seem to agree that the modern word “bridal” emanated from this usage.