Historical Brewing 201: OK, Sometimes, It’s as Hard as You Think

I’ve talked at you all before about how easy it can be to do historical brewing research and recreation. We often attempt to take the principles of period processing methods and attempt to translate them into modern methodology, to give  a sense of historical practice by varying the familiar.

We can also alter ingredient bills, to attempt to emulate the flavor profiles that may have existed at the time. This is all well and good, and it’s an important part of the process of experimental recreation.

Sometimes, though, the task is not so clear-cut, and attempting accurate recreation becomes a real challenge. How were the ingredients grown? What units of measurement were at play? Water quality? We can’t always answer all of these questions, but the attempt to do so can yield valuable information, and the process of extrapolating will teach us things whether or not we get a useful end-product.

So let’s talk about wood.

Wooden Bottle

SEE WHAT I DID THERE?
(Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg. Photo: Manuela carpenter – click for a link to the gallery page)

This bottle is part of an excavation of Trossingen grave 58, a find in Germany that dates to the 6th century CE. The picture above links to a gallery of the find.

This bottle is identified as a vessel with the remains of a hopped barley beer. This is sort of A Big Deal in the historic brewing world, because this would constitute the oldest existing physical evidence of the use of hops in a fermented beverage ever found. Not only that, but this is solid physical evidence of the use of hops a good 500 years before we had thought hops were really coming into use. This find has the power to really re-shape what we think of the history of brewing and hopped beverages. Neat stuff.

There is a publication which details the find (and its numerous artifacts) which you can obtain here; of course, the entire thing is available exclusively in German, so you may have to find a linguistically-inclined friend to help you out with it. Fortunately, I have some connections, and I managed to acquire the part of the journal detailing the bottle find. A bit of OCR, Google translate, dictionary consultation, and linguistically-inclined friend consultation, and I managed to figure out most of what the find was about.

Evidently, there was pollen residue in the bottle (~3500 grains), and researchers were able to identify the sources of the pollen grains:

Gut 17% davon stammen von Getreide, wobei der Gerste-Typ überwiegt. Getreideunkräuter machen zusammen fast 11% aus, Hopfen und die Weinrebe sind mit jeweils 0,4% vertreten. Mit gut 29% die größte und auch die artenreichste Gruppe sind Pflanzen…

If my translation is right, the contribution is 17% barley, 11% cereal weeds (possibly rye or oats?), 0.4% hops, 0.4% grapes, and 29% “bee pollen” (which is taken as a marker of honey). The bottle also contained evidence of fermentation (oxalate crystals), and so the author concludes that the beverage was probably a mixture of the above ingredients in the mentioned proportions, fermented together and hopped. The beer came first, and it was “enriched” with honey – or so the author concludes.

But I don’t like that analysis. For one thing, the author doesn’t seem to try to figure out the actual proportions of the plant matter represented by the pollen; the text seems to assume that all ingredients will convey the same amount of pollen, which may not be the case. They also don’t elaborate too much on their rationale for their experiments or on the type of hop present – which is too bad, because this is a pretty big find!

So let’s tear this down and show how you can extrapolate a recipe from scant information. What if you wanted to try recreating a beverage like this? No recipe, no method, just some pollen grains in a bottle – how can we do it?

Watch and learn.

holdontoyourbutts

That feel whenever you take off autopilot and try to land the science jet yourself.

When we do this kind of analysis, we often have to make lots and lots of assumptions and extrapolations. In archaeology, the variables are often well beyond our control – so experimental archaeology must try to control what it can or accept the limitations of uncontrolled variables. I’ve advocated a sort of “mapping” approach to redacting and analyzing ancient recipes, and that principle will aid us here as well; by listing out my assumptions and reasoning, I can go back and nitpick and refine and strengthen my arguments.

The goal here is to get to something that resembles a more accurate technique, and in the process to enumerate some other possible and plausible methods. Most of the time, these sorts of analyses are rarely definitive, and tend to leave us with more questions than when we started – but it helps us to focus our inquiries, so that our questioning can be more productive. This is the heart of science.

Let us assume:

1) That a total of 28% of the 3500 pollen grains are attributable directly to barley which has been malted (that would be 17% attributed mostly to barley and 11% attributed to “cereal” weeds – we know that barley is not generally insect-pollinated, so the “bee pollen” probably does not cross with this group);

2) That 29% of the pollen grains are attributable to raw honey (bee pollen shows up often in raw honey);

3) That 0.4% of the pollen grains are attributable to Hallertau hops (they’re alleged to be the first hops that were ever domesticated, and the Trossingen area was close-ish to Hallertau);

4) That 0.4% of the pollen grains are attributable to grapes (though as you will see shortly, I haven’t rolled grapes into my analysis yet because I can’t find information about them);

5) That the ingredients were fermented together in a single beverage (as opposed to the pollen contribution coming from, say, 3 different beverages which all touched the bottle at some point);

6) That a single kernel of barley (which contains three anthers) will produce ~4500 pollen grains, about half of which can be removed relatively freely – so ~2250 pollen grains will survive through malting and will make it into the final beverage;

7) That a single kernel of dry barley weighs one grain (0.06 grams – the origin of the term “grain” is the weight of one kernel of barley), and that malted barley is ~10% less dense than unmalted barley;

8) That raw honey contains, on average, 6000 pollen grains per gram (based on estimates of average pollen load of “normal” New Zealand honey);

9) That hops used were wild, and thus grew at a ratio of 1:1 male:female plants (hops are a dioecious plant, and wild-type examples of such plants grow in a ratio pretty close to 1:1 – this indicates that the pollen load of a male plant reported represents a single female flower);

10) That hops pollinate in a manner similar to their nearest botanical relative, Cannabis (note that hops are a cannaboid) – which produces an average of 36,500 pollen grains per male flower;

11) That the mechanism of wind pollination results in ~95% of the pollen accumulating on the windward (i.e. exterior) surfaces of the plant, and that this pollen load would be removed in hop processing (i.e. the pollen that didn’t make it into the interior of the female flower just falls off);

12) That there are 100 wet hop flowers (we use the female flower of the hop in brewing) per 50 grams of hops, or 0.5 grams wet per hop flower (which translates to roughly 0.1 grams per dried flower);

13) And that these estimates actually apply to 6th century German plants.

pileofshit

Y’know, I never noticed the completely incredulous look on his face until right now.

So, basically, I’m making shit up. “Educated guesses” if you’re feeling generous – but I’m basically winging it in the absence of any more useful information.

One thing that we can definitely see by my analysis so far: it is a great mistake to assume that all of the ingredients going into a beverage would have the same pollen representation per gram.

Let’s look at my numbers. Each barley grain produces 2250 pollen grains, each gram of honey has 6000 pollen grains, and each hop flower has 1825 pollen grains (5% of 36.5k). Let’s convert these to a standard measure: pollen grains per gram of plant matter.

Barley: 37.5k pg/g
Honey: 6k pg/g
Hops: 3650 pg/g

Now, how about the proportional representation of pollen grains in the find? 3500 pollen grains total, so:

Barley: 28% = 980 pg
Honey: 29% = 1015 pg
Hops: 0.4% = 14 pg

And then we just do the math to figure out the possible mass of plant matter that delivered that pollen load!

Barley: 0.026 g
Honey: 0.17 g
Hops:  0.0038 g wet (1/5 as much dried)

That gives us a ratio of barley:honey:wet hops (by weight) of 26:170:3.8, or to make things easier: 7:45:1

So let’s turn this into amounts that make more sense, shall we? Let’s also not forget that malted barley weighs 10% less than “green” barley:

63 g malted barley (about 2 oz)
450 g honey (about 1 pound)
10 g wet hops (2 g dried)

The first thing I notice straight away – this ain’t a barley beer. Not by any stretch. The mass of barley is so small that it really seems much more like a flavoring or additive than anything else. The vast majority of sugar here is coming from the honey – enough that I’d really call this a “mead.”

Of course, as you will remember, the word “beor” (which is a root of “beer”) is glossed with “hydromel,” which refers to a honey-based strong beverage. So really, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one could call a honey-based drink a “beer” in the ancient world – it seems to have fulfilled that role.

In fact, the amount of barley is so small that I really think about a starter biscuit more than I do an actual source of grain sugar. Remember how I’ve been hypothesizing about Viking-era “breads” really being used as yeast starters? This may be the sort of thing I’m looking at here. And remember how I’ve talked about those same breads really being grain/herb mixtures? And how that grain/herb mixture, once fermented, could be used as the basis for fermenting a strong drink?

Pliny specifically discusses the various methods of making “leaven,” and one method is to incorporate grape must into barley flour and make a biscuit. Grape must incorporated into such a “bread” as I’ve talked about previously could explain the grape pollen in the original find. The use of herbs in the bread may give us a clue as to how the hops came into play; perhaps grape must and hops were mixed into barley flour, and the resultant “cake” was used as a yeast starter to then ferment a honey/water solution.

We can make a wide number of recipes simply by varying the amount of water that goes into such a thing. Generally, “hydromel” was a 1:4 honey:water ratio. A pound of honey occupies a space of about 10 fluid ounces, so we’d need about 40 fluid ounces of water to properly dilute that honey. Do that, add in your 65 grams of barley/dried hop mix (which has been previously fermented), and wait a bit. Yeast from the grapes eat those sugars, and you get a little more than a quart (about 1.5) of slightly hopped mead.

How hopped? Well, 2 dried grams of hops at that density of sugar yields ~12 IBU – roughly the same bittering content of Budweiser. For reference, an English Ordinary bitter is somewhere in the 25 – 35 IBU range. American pale ales are in the 50′s, and IPAs are up in the 70′s or more.

You could even add a bit more water – maybe go to half a gallon of final volume (1:5 ratio) with all that honey, which would give you a lighter-bodied beer with only 8  IBU. A little less sweet, a little less hoppy. The evidence still supports such an idea. Hell, it supports a lot of ideas.

Or you could go heavier (1:3 ratio) and make something really sweet with about 16 IBU. It’s all up to you and what you prefer!

Therefore, based on my analysis of the evidence, I conclude that the Trossingen bottle may have contained the remnants of a lightly hopped mead, which may have been fermented using the residue of a light grain fermentation.

Possible OG (Original Gravity) Range: 1.059 – 1.120
Possible bitterness (IBU) Range: 8 – 16
Possible volumes (quarts) Range: 1 – 2

—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The lesson here: archaeological evidence always requires interpretation. Using the same set of facts, we can come up with very different conclusions simply by varying the manner of our interpretation and the set of assumptions used to perform an analysis.

This is far from a definitive answer. I have thirteen listed assumptions, any variation on any of which can completely alter my outcome. I have no idea how much water was added, or how long it was fermented, or what proportion the grapes represent. We could re-analyze the model with an attempt to figure out what “cereal weeds” means and re-evaluate the contribution of plant matter from those (here’s a hint: rye produces ~10x the pollen that barley does – so there may be even less grain in this recipe than I’ve indicated).

But at least for now, I have something to work with – and that’s how science works.

Brewing with Egil: I Wanna Rock! (Or Two)

Well, life exploded a fair bit not too long ago, and I’m still slowly re-forming. I’ll facilitate this process by keeping the snarky, rambling, ego-stroking pontificating to a mini…

Ah, who the hell am I kidding? Read on…if you’ve got the stones.

GET IT?

Hm. Probably not.

Behold My Stones

I was going to fill this post with Twisted Sister lyrics – but my fire is faded and I can’t feel it no more. Instead, have some awful puns.

In my never-ending quest to more accurately reproduce a speculative Viking-era ale, it became “necessary” to reconstruct a Viking-era grain quern. This is the device that would be used to grind grain prior to being fashioned into “cakes” for subsequent use in beer production. I decided to make a mock-up using concrete, using an extant quern find as guidance. Volume 17 of the York Journal of Archaeology describes several quern finds. The majority are fragmentary querns from Mayen (a region in Germany) basalt, with the next largest group being gritstone (dense sandstone). Most finds lack any sort of “dressing” (grooves in the stone to aid grinding), and this seems to be common of Viking-era finds – dressed stones seem to be a post-Viking invention by and large.

I focused on find 9700, which is described on page 2628 at the above link. It’s a gritstone runner (upper) stone with a diameter of 35 cm and a thickness of 6 cm. It has a central perforation with a diameter of 7.5 cm.

I had difficulty getting a form that would give me a rock of the appropriate size, so I compromised. I cut the top off of a 5 gallon Lowe’s bucket (~12″ diameter) and used that as the form. I used Quickrete and cast a stone 30.5 cm diameter, 7.5 cm thick, with a central perforation ~4 cm in diameter. After accounting for the volume loss due to the central perforation, this wound up being pretty close to the same volume of stone as find 9700 (~5.4 L vs. ~5.5 L for the original find). Assuming that the base stone would have been approximately the same size (as seen in this Jorvik museum piece), it was cast with similar dimensions (though without quite the same amount of central perforation). In order to seat the spindle (wooden peg around which the upper stone turns) correctly, I simply jammed a length of wooden dowel about halfway into the base stone while the concrete was still wet.

There’s a joke in there, but I’m too classy to make it.

Weep Upon The Pile

This even looks kinda vulgar, if you’ve got a warped imagination.

Grain is fed into the central hole of the runner stone (that’s malted wheat in the picture above), and the handle is turned in a circular motion to grind the grain. The upper stone travels in a mostly elliptical path, pushing the grain out from the central hole into the broader surface area between the two stones.

You can see from the pile in the above picture that the upper stone sort of “floats” on a pile of grain. As the handle is turned, that pile shoots in between the two stones, which gradually grow closer together as the grain is ground down. Grind down too far, and the stones make significant contact – making your job that much harder. Of course, the increased friction between the stones seems to grind a finer flour, so it’s a constant balancing act.

That was almost clever.

There is a “rhythm” to using the stones – turning the handle while periodically feeding grain into the central hole. Once the stones are “primed” with some grain, and as long as there’s always a central pile of some sort, the upper stone turns fairly readily.

“Fairly” is a subjective term, of course. I’m still basically rubbing a 25 pound coarse rock against another 25 pound coarse rock, and that takes some effort. After about an hour and a half of grinding grain and separating coarse material, I had ~2 cups of flour and a good sweat. Quite the forearm workout.

Note: Viking women are srs bsns. Do not anger them.

So what does the flour look like?

The Ceaseless Grinding of Dust The Pitiful Rewards of Diligence

On the left, you can see both ground and unground malted wheat. The flour you see there is the result of a single pass through the stones. Not bad! Definitely some coarsely-ground material in there, but there is also quite a bit of flour.

On the right, we have some barley that I malted. That flour has been generated by grinding the grains 3 times (as in, re-grinding the product of the stones multiple times), and then bolting (sifting) the flour through a single layer of cheesecloth. As you can see, the malted barley flour has a somewhat sandy texture, but there is a good proportion of fine flour as well. Not pictured is the coarse material that was left behind after bolting – there was at least as much of that as the fine flour.

In retrospect, three passes seems unnecessary. Pass 2 and Pass 3 seemed to produce roughly the same consistency of flour, indicating that there is an upper limit to the fineness that can be generated in a mixture prior to separation of the flour. My speculation is that grain would be ground twice, bolted, and then the coarse material remaining would be fed back into the stone for another pass.

The resultant flour is also very “gritty,” as the action of grinding also loosens some grit from the concrete. I only let the stones cure for a week, which allows concrete to achieve ~60% of its final strength. Even then, concrete has similar physical properties to sandstone, which is noted by the Jorvik museum to add grit into the flour it generates. Most Viking-era quern finds are basalt, which is considerably harder; it’s conceivable that harder stone produced a less gritty flour. I’ll figure that out once I can get a line on some basalt.

My speculative brewing method involves rendering the malt into “cakes,” reflecting a malting method documented in the early Irish Senchas Már (which discusses “tests” of the malt made before it is “made into cakes”). After mucking about with the grinding stones, it seems that this was probably a necessary consequence of the method of grinding. The grain is ground much finer than we typically grind for mashing today, and excessive grinding can cause problems in conventional mashing setup by impeding the flow of wort. It’s also easier to transport and store cakes than it is to store loose grain or flour, so this really just seems to make sense.

Into the Inferno

Flatbreads or dung cakes? You know what, let’s just skip that question and sail somewhere that isn’t a frozen volcanic hell.

Even the “fine” flour seems to create a coarse bread. The bolting wasn’t as efficient as I’d have like; some husk and larger coarse bits did make it through. This is consistent with Viking-era “bread” finds, though, so I don’t think I got it “wrong.” It’s also worth noting that these breads are gritty. Like a mixture of tasty grain and sand.

What? Of course I put it in my mouth.

There is a lot of speculation that Viking toothwear patterns may have been the result of grit in their bread. After trying this out, I can see how that’s a plausible scenario. Of course, I also speculate that many breads were used for making a beverage rather than being eaten outright. Perhaps softer stones made malt cakes and harder stones made bread flour, or perhaps a Viking would eat bread until his teeth were bad enough that he’d need to drink it instead. Or maybe the toothwear comes from something else. There are many possible scenarios that can be constructed from the same evidence, so there probably wasn’t a “one true way” of doing things.

For the sake of experimentation, I went ahead and “mashed” some of the cakes to make a beer:

Drowned in Ashes A Caged Hell

I’ve revised my “beer” recipe, and I think I’m happy with it now. 1 part of crushed malt cake is mixed with 4 parts cold water. This mixture is heated slowly until it’s just shy of boiling, and then the liquid is drained off. Mixed with that is 1/2 part honey, and some fruit if so desired. In this case, I tossed in some dried juniper cones in the mash (to give a bit of a juniper flavor), and used dried cranberries as a fruit additive once everything was mixed.

My reasoning behind that is the gloss between “beor” and “hydromel.” Most “hydromel” recipes that I can find around the time are a 1:4 honey:water ratio that is fermented for a short time. Such a ratio produces a fairly sweet beverage (for the brewers, an OG around 1.095), so my goal was to replicate that sweetness. 1 part crushed biscuit contributes roughly 40% of the needed sugar content, and removes roughly half its volume via absorption. Add in the lost volume as honey (hence half a part), and you also make up the other ~60% of needed sugar. Funny how these things work out, eh?

Interestingly, all of the grit in the bread seems to have settled to the bottom during mashing and formed a thick wet layer of clay-like grain/grit material. Perhaps making the gritty bread into a liquid was also a method of “cleaning” the bread of its gritty material? The stuff pretty well stayed put as I was separating the liquid, and there was quite a bit of stone grit left behind in the pot.

In the picture on the right, you can see the result of the mixture after ~3 days of fermentation. In the mason jar is my “ealu,” revived from a previous batch using 2 small grain/flax “crackers” (remember those?) and 3 cups of water; the stuff was fermented overnight, and then some of the dregs were used to start the beer. After ~3 days of fermentation, the beer is still pretty sweet, nicely bready, a bit fruity, and somewhat alcoholic. Not bad! Exceedingly pleasant!

So what next? I’ve been poking around at my recipe and production method in light of Dr. Pat McGovern’s grog paper; in particular, the heat-treated tree resin finds imply to me a processing method that involves localized high-intensity heat being applied to a solution containing suspended tree resins. He suggests a birch syrup production method, but I find that unlikely given the lack of evidence to support such a thing. I’m working on a method inspired by Finnish sahti brewing that turns the kuurna (hollowed-out log bedded with juniper branches) into a mash tun that is heated by hot rocks. Hypothetically, one could bed a hollowed-out log with evergreen branches, fill it with water and malt cakes, and plop in hot rocks until the temperature is right. The rocks may provide sufficiently intense localized heat to produce heat-treated tree resins. Let it cool, run the liquid into a vessel where you add honey and fruit, toss in some dregs from your magic bucket, and wait a few days.

That will have to wait till it warms up a bit more and this snow gets out of the way. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just sit here and play with my rocks.

What else is new?

Cooking with Njall: Burn Baby Burn! Salt-Burn, Anyhow.

As you will remember, I’ve been screwing around with Viking-era salt production methodology. Based on a review of the language and literature, scant archaeological evidence, and good ol’ fashioned guesswork, I’ve been cobbling together a method that involves steeping kelp ashes in water in order to extract their mineral essence. That link back there is proof-of-concept. It can work, at least in principle. Cool, right?As a scientist, I’m never satisfied with an answer. Ever. It’s kind of like the Creator’s Curse, in a way – in the process of investigating a hypothesis, we learn things that often cause us to alter our understanding of that hypothesis. Rarely are you “right” at the outset. More often than not, you’ll be confronted with how the magnitude of how little you actually knew at the beginning – because you’ve gained knowledge in the process.
So we’re doomed to keep asking questions about things we’ve already investigated over and over again, because dammit we just keep learning new things.
Knowing that it’s possible simply isn’t enough. I need to know how well the method works. Is it actually feasible at a production level? Would it make sense from a fuel consumption standpoint? How hard is it to pull off? What kind of product is left behind? These are all things that we can investigate through experimentation and review, and that’s what I’m starting on here. Investigation! Skeptical inquiry! Lighting shit on fire! All the best aspects of science!
Bro, do you even science?

Bro, do you even science?

In order to investigate plausible extraction methodology, I wanted to test two different factors: water source and heat of extraction. Previously, I simply soaked charred kelp in room-temperature water and boiled the runoff. That’s great, but we also know that the solute holding capacity of water increases with temperature – so hypothetically, a hot water extraction should allow more salts to dissolve than a room-temperature one.

I also used water from my tap, which is all good and well – but this is a utility endeavor, and it was practiced on beaches isolated from major population centers. Would a salt-karl really haul fresh water from somewhere just to make salt, or would he use the seawater that’s right next to his setup? Remember, Pliny indicates that many cultures (including various Germanic tribes) made salt by evaporating seawater, and some by pouring it over the hot coals of wood. It’s plausible that seawater plus ashed kelp could be used to produce a salt; Atlantic seawater is only 3.5% salt in composition, and the saturation point for a saltwater solution is around 26% (barring any hypersaline water oddities).

Before I could do anything, though, I needed to burn some shit.

FIRE BAD

For a dude who writes about Viking stuff, you’d think I’d have more pictures of things on fire.

As I’ve mentioned before, I bought 50 pounds of Icelandic kelp meal some time ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to effectively burn the stuff. The configuration makes it useless as a fuel item; a friend had suggested burning it as food, and even offered up the above-pictured Lodge cookware for it. The test-run many moons ago was successful but stinky – I figured my 60,000 BTU propane burner could get the job done.

Man, did it ever. My previous efforts never resulted in significant combustion, but this stuff really took off after the initial heavy smoke phase. Interestingly enough, it also burned out and never re-ignited; my guess is that most of the carbon content burned off, leaving behind mostly mineral salts. The fire itself produced a fairly noxious-smelling black smoke, with a chewy oily texture.

Let me just reiterate how awful this shit smells. It’s extremely smokey, takes a while to burn off (I think the pot above smoked for 45 solid minutes before catching fire), and smells like a rotting whale carcass stuffed with fermented shark that is also on fire. Also the whale is on fire. Also the entire ocean is on fire.

It’s really not pleasant.

Seems there’s a good reason that “salt-karl” was an insult, and why the Norse did this on a beach well away from other people. When I came in after 3 hours of burning stuff (during which I reduced 12 lbs of kelp to ~5 lbs of ash), my fiancee could only say “UGH. What’s that smell?” And today, two days later, my peacoat still reeks.

A Sunny Day

You could smell it at the porch, and 1/4 mile into the woods down our walking path. Also STANDING NEXT TO IT FOR 3 HOURS.
Man, if only we could BUY salt or something.

So after I finished standing outside freezing my ass off while inhaling fumes of unknown toxicity, I had a tub of charred stuff that smelled fairly awful. It needed to cool overnight before it could really be useful – ashes tend to stay warm for some time. They never fully ashed, not even when combusted – but again, I believe that to be a byproduct of the configuration. Future experiments will look at trying to use sheet kelp as an actual fuel source, rather than expending heating fuel to make ashes.

Once you’ve got cooled kelp ash, it’s time to extract the mineral content! I’m used water as an extraction medium, and tried both conventional tapwater and a seawater analogue consisting of 3.5% salt.

Charred Kelp AshBoiling Water The Setup

It’s always prudent to assemble your materials before you proceed with an experiment. Here, I’ve procured my kelp ashes (~2.35 kg), propane burner and propane (set to 50% maximum output), several measuring containers, a strainer and bowl, and of course a kitchen scale.

The faux seawater solution was prepared by combining 5 kg of tapwater with 175 g of kosher salt, giving a final salt concentration of ~3.5%. Note that I weighed the water as opposed to measuring volumetrically – that’s because water has a density of 1 gm/cm^3 (until it gets near freezing, at least), so that 1 gram = 1 mL and 1 kg = 1 L. Convenient! My scale has better resolution (minimum 1 g) than my volume equipment, so this will allow for maximum accuracy.

Controls are crucial in any experiment, and it’s important to identify needed controls at the outset of an experiment – let your hypothesis govern the choices. In this case, I’m specifically looking to assess the difference in extraction efficiencies between 1) salt and fresh water and 2) low-temperature and high-temperature extractions. Because I will ultimately be measuring a mass of solid product, it’s important to know what will be contributing solids to the extracts. In order to provide controls, I boiled down 1.5 kg each of tap water and “seawater” and measured the mass of residue that could be removed from the pan.

Hard Water Residue Saltwater Aftermath

On the left, you can see the residue remaining from boiling off tapwater. We’ve got hard water here (perfect for brewing), so it’s not surprising that there is a scale left on the pan. However, it proved to be too little to effectively harvest or measure, failing to register any mass on my scale. Thus, 1.5 kg tapwater contributes less than 0.5 grams of solids to final counts. On the right, we see the residue of the “seawater,” representing the base contribution to the method as well as accounting for the losses that invariably occur when trying to harvest the salt.

1.5 kg of saltwater with a concentration of 3.5% salt by weight yielded a final salt load of 46 grams. Hypothetical yield was 52 grams, but some salt was lost in processing. Still a fairly efficient extraction. The salt was initially rather wet after drying – something like 70 grams and a consistency not unlike brown sugar – but it was heated in the microwave for 1 minute to fully dry.

For sample setup, I basically drew a Punnet square and did the appropriate combinations. 4 500-gram portions of kelp were measured into appropriately-labeled dry containers. 1.5 kg of either salt or fresh water was added to each sample. Two of the samples (one fresh and one sea) were left to steep at room temperature for 30 minutes, while the other two samples (fresh and sea) were heated in a pot on the kitchen stove. Heated samples were brought to a visible boil, and dropped to a simmer for 5 minutes after the first bubbles breached the surface. Following all extractions (whether heated or room temperature), the water/kelp masses were strained through a wire mesh strainer, and the liquid phase collected. The kelp mass was allowed to drain for 5 minutes, ensuring collection of a significant portion of the liquid.

Steeping Kelp Hot Water ExtractionDraining the Stuff

I didn’t measure the volume of runoff from each (though now I’m wishing I had) since I was only focusing on final solid extract generated by the methodology. However, all 4 extract methods appeared to produce roughly the same volume of runoff – roughly 400 – 500 mL. Future experiments will more accurately determine runoff volume generated by these extraction methods.

Once extracts were obtained, they were boiled down as the controls were. The pan was washed and dried in between each boiling (actually, all common equipment was thoroughly cleaned and dried in between samples to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination), and the same equipment was used to extract the salt from the pan (i.e. a spoon and a spatula). Extract mass was determined using the same scale used to measure all of the ingredients. In order to standardize the moisture level, all samples were microwaved for 1 minute after collection as the saltwater control was.

KRF The Aftermath KRS The Aftermath

KHF The Aftermath KHS Aftermath

I devised an abbreviation scheme to represent the four sample configurations. All samples are identified by three consecutive letters indicating their combination of treatments: K/[R or H]/[F or S], indicating [K]elp, [R]oom-temperature or [H]igh-temperature extraction, and [F]resh or [S]altwater extraction. Top row from left to right shows the solids extracted from KRF and KRS; bottom row from left to right shows extracts of KHF and KHS.

Yields for all samples and controls are given below. Compounded uncertainty in measurements is +/- 1.5 g; the scale has no listed uncertainty of its own, and 10 consecutive weighings of identical volumes showed no deviation. Uncertainty is thus half the value of the smallest unit of measure (1 g), added for each step that involves weighing. In this case, 3 different weighings of different components were used to determine the components of the extraction process – their uncertainties add together.

Sample Name                            Mass of Extract (+/- 1.5 g)

Saltwater control                     46 g

Freshwater Control               <0.5 g

KRF                                            42 g

KRS                                            112 g

KHF                                            90 g

KHS                                           120 g

The results are not terribly surprising. Both of the hot water extractions yield more salt content than the lower-temperature extractions. The difference is greatest when using fresh water for the extraction, which indicates that the charred kelp contains quite a lot of salt to potentially extract. It is curious that the yield from KRS is larger than [KRF + Saltwater]; one would expect that the yield would simply be additive and thus the two would be mostly equivalent.

It appears that the high-temperature extraction with salt water yields the largest quantity of salt, but the gain from heating is minimal compared to a simple room-temperature salt water extraction. It appears that the use of salt water for extracting leads to the greatest gains in salt yield. This is unsurprising, as the salt water contributes a significant salt portion. It may be that the addition of charred kelp to salt water allows the solution to approach saturation; assuming 500 mL of final volume, the KHS solution would have had a solute concentration of ~24% prior to boiling.

Recovery efficiency seems to decrease as final salt mass increases. When evaporating KHS, several larger globs of salt “popped” out of the pan in response to heating. This phenomenon was observed in other extracts, and is generally exacerbated as the amount of salt condensing increases. This may also account for the observed decrease in effectiveness of heating in extracting additional salt from the kelp.

Ultimately, this demonstrates the utility of using kelp ash to increase salt yield from boiling seawater. 1.5 kg of seawater, when boiled off, yields 46 g of salt. The addition of kelp ashes to that same mass of seawater, while reducing final liquid volume, can increase the final salt yield by a factor of approximately 2.5, for a maximum yield of 120 g. This has the potential to consume less fuel (boiling a smaller volume of liquid) while simultaneously increasing salt yield.

It should be noted that expending fuel specifically to ash the kelp is likely a fuel-losing prospect. More than likely, sheets of dried kelp were themselves burned as a fuel source, and the ashes collected and used for various home purposes.

So what’s next? Fuel consumption estimation, liquid extract volume yields, experimenting with sheet kelp as fuel, additional experiments for the sake of rigor…

But before that, I’m a Norwegian, and I have salt. Let’s get some cod and see what happens when I apply kelp-ash salt to it. Next time, we’ll see how that works out.

Final Products

Seriously guys, just buy your salt. It’s way cheaper and your clothes won’t smell like a terrible tragedy at the docks.

EDIT: UPDATE WITH TOXIC METALS ANALYSIS INFORMATION

Element symbol: amount (ppb)
Note: BDL = Below Detection Limit
1 PPB = 1 ug/kg

Kelp Salt

Be: BDL
Al: BDL
V: 386.0
Cr: 491.6
Co: 180.0
Ni: 342.2
As (total): 574.2
Se: BDL
Mo: 913.8
Cd: 186.3
Sb: BDL
Hg: BDL
Ti: BDL
Pb: BDL
Th: BDL
U238: 96.01

Control Salt (Kosher Salt boiled in a pan)

Be: BDL
Al: BDL
V: BDL
Cr: 361.6
Co: BDL
Ni: 225.6
As (total): BDL
Se: BDL
Mo: BDL
Cd: BDL
Sb: BDL
Hg: BDL
Ti: BDL
Pb: 79.08
Th: BDL
U238: BDL

The arsenic (As) level was not speciated, as it was not considered a level of general concern for salt.

The FDA sets a level of concern for arsenic in juice of 23 ppb, at which point the arsenic must be speciated. Inorganic arsenic in juice has a tolerance level of 10 ppb.

The US does not set an arsenic standard for any other product.

Codex Alimentarius maintains internationally-recognized standards for contaminants in some products:

http://www.codexalimentarius.net/input/download/standards/17/CXS_193e.pdf

The standard for food grade salt is 500 ppb total arsenic, so this slightly exceeds that. However, they also note that marine products (seafood and kelp) routinely have higher levels of arsenic (mostly organic, with ~1 – 3% as inorganic), often up to 50 mg/kg (50,000 ppb).

A 2007 study by Amster et al raised some concern about arsenic in kelp supplements, but was highly criticized because it failed to speciate the arsenic, and thus could not demonstrate the toxic link it claimed. The paper also suffered other severe methodological flaws.

In general, the amount of arsenic observed in the salt is not of concern. 10 g of the salt (twice the RDA for sodium) would contain 5 ug of arsenic, well within the typical human daily consumption range. And it is unlikely that all of the arsenic is inorganic – most is likely the organic (non-toxic) form, rendering the salt largely non-toxic.

But I would not use this salt as a day-to-day table salt, to be on the safe side. As a preservative for fish which is likely to be soaked out, it should be fine.

Thanks to Tom King and the chemistry division of the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets Food Lab!

Brewing with Egil: The Fine Art of Burning Stuff

So now that I’ve got a prospective method and ingredients list cobbled together, my next phase will involve passes at more accurately re-creating the tools and ingredients that may have gone into making a Viking-era beer.

First up: the malt.

Malt is at the heart of beer brewing. Grains are allowed to partially germinate, and are then heat-treated to stabilize them and enhance their flavor. Depending on the grain, the method of malting, and the method of kilning, you can wind up with a great variation in types of malt, which is turn greatly influence the characteristics of the final product.

The  Senchas Már contains requirements for the production of malt, and I’ve speculated that cultural contact between the Irish and the Scots could create a plausible route of transmission to the Norse. Most large cereal kiln finds from the Viking era exist in Scotland, so it seems plausible that it was a center of production.

Typical fuels excavated from such kilns include local hardwoods, plant matter (sometimes peat), and occasionally dung. Dung is more commonly seen in Icelandic farm mound excavations and other fire pits; an analysis of one such farm mound revealed charred wood and dung alongside charred 6-row barley seeds – the presence of all 3 in the same layer may indicate that their use was concurrent.

Icelandic finds rarely include the larger kilns seen in Scotland. However, the principle of drying over a fire is pretty constant throughout processing technologies – and given that my current model involves a gradual transition from home production to quasi-industrial production, it makes sense that an Icelander may have used a conventional cooking fire for malt drying earlier in the era. It seems plausible that some extant structure in the Icelandic finds pulled double-duty.

The tradition of drying grain over a fire persists in Scandinavian homebrewing to this day, and is expressly documented in Olaus Magnus’ 16th century writings. It seems possible that we may be viewing a sort of living tradition, though I am always skeptical of such things.

So with all that in mind, let’s light some shit on fire.

IMG_20140126_154940

They probably didn’t do this when it was below zero outside, but screw it – there’s beer on the line.

Up here in New York, the ground is currently frozen solid, which makes constructing an in-ground malting kiln somewhat…challenging. Also, it’s fairly cold up here at the moment, so the prospect of chipping away at frozen earth so I could put a fire in it seemed…well, pretty fucking dumb.

I mean, when it was cold in Viking-age Iceland, they stayed inside. Where it was warm.

So instead of trying to replicate the thermal properties of the kiln/oven (which will come later, when the ground isn’t a block of ice), I opted to try out the notion of directly drying the malt over a fire. I have a smoker, so I figured it would work well for this purpose.

This experiment will help me figure out the fire dynamics, and gauge the effect of a wood fire on the flavor and mash characteristics of the malt. A more elaborate kiln may very well have a different effect, but this will at least help me ballpark it.

First things first, ya gotta malt some grain.

IMG_20140126_155011

Look at the little barleys, so fully of hope and life.
Theirs is a sad fate.

I used a mixture of an American 6-row barley and steel-cut oats; the oats won’t malt, but they’ll add some grain bulk, and my hope is that excess enzymatic activity in the barley will have some effect.

The method outlined in Irish law takes a bit more than two weeks, but I opted for a very short malting time – partly because modern malting barleys germinate substantially faster than do heritage varieties. The barley in that picture is starting to show acrospire formation, and that’s only been going for 4 days – 1.5 days steeping and the rest of the time being turned in heaps.

I drained the grains a bit, and then set them on top of some aluminum mesh window screening material, to hopefully keep most of the grain from falling into the fire. The fire was started with a little bit of charcoal, but fed exclusively with dried hardwood and the occasional blast of Icelandic kelp. Dung and/or peat would be more accurate, but I have no dried dung and I wasn’t exactly going to go looking for it.

On went the grain, and then began the waiting.

IMG_20140126_155403

This’ll be great! It can’t possibly take that long!

And the waiting.

And the stirring of the malt.

And the more waiting in the cold and the wind.

IMG_20140126_162845

This is maybe half dried, and I should emphasize that I was pretty damn cold at this point.

And then I said “screw this, it’s too cold,” fed the fire nicely, stuck the lid on, and sat inside for a bit.

IMG_20140126_183822

Once again, it’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

The action of the fire on the grain is interesting. The stuff dries fairly unevenly; as you can see, some of the grain is charred, some just very heavily roasted, some a nice chestnut color, and some a rich yellow hue. This is interesting, because it means that grain dried over a fire does not provide a homogeneous flavor profile; rather, several different “kinds” of malt will come together to make a richer flavor.

Some of the paler malt tasted a good bit like honey, rather akin to Gambrinus’ proprietary honey malt. That’s a result of grain “crystallization” (where the still-wet grain undergoes a mini-mash in the hull, and the sugars crystallize in the husk) and subsequent heat-based caramelization. Other grains are warm and nutty, and others are more like espresso beans.

What really struck me, though, is the complete lack of smoke flavor. The entire drying process took nearly 3 hours, and roughly 2/3 of that time had the grain being subjected to a fairly hard hot smoke. I did use a fairly clean-burning mild-tasting hardwood – but I still expected something to come through.

Nada. Not even a hint of smoke.

The really interesting part about that is that the Scottish kilns are designed to really minimize smoke intrusion, and also use a cloth (rather than aluminum mesh) to hold the grain. There should be even less smoke flvaor with that sort of setup.

The grain you see pictured is a little more heavily roasted than I’d like – a bit much char. However, I also learned that I have complete control over the rate of heating and drying – covering and uncovering the grain in conjunction with careful fire feeding lets me get some pretty solid temperature regulation. The next time I do this, I think I’ll have a better sense of how it works.

Next time, I’m going to play around with a prototype grain quern, to figure out how this kind of stuff may have been ground, and what it would be like.

Stay warm!

Brewing with Egil: On Nordic “Grog” and How I (Sort of) Totally Called It

A mid-cycle update?! Madness! Pandelerium! Falling skies and cohabitating felines and canines and other social currency references!

Several people have pointed me at some very recently published research coming from Dr. Pat McGovern regarding Norse brewing. If you’re a nerd like me who is conversant with science, the paper is available for free from the journal – ain’t open access grand? McGovern’s analysis of biochemical residues reveals that the ancient Danes may have drunk a concoction of honey, grains, local fruits (cranberries), possibly imported grapes, and local herbs.

Sound familiar? Well, it did to me – because I reached this conclusion independently in February 2013. I presented it as an SCA class in April of 2013, and of course I made my poster a bit after that.

Yeah, I totally called it.

Physical evidence? I don’t NEED that.

But who’s counting, right? Certainly not I. Truth be told, I was not the first person to come to that conclusion; Ian Hornsey reached a similar conclusion in 2003 in his book  A History of Beer and Brewing.

Until now, the primary issue in figuring out Viking-age booze was the small matter of a near-complete absence of physical or written evidence. No finished product has been recovered, no obvious brewing facilities have been found, and few pieces of ancillary equipment exist. In addition, there is no written method documenting any alcohol production by the Norse – they weren’t a writing-centric society, and even the few written works that do exist don’t bother with something as simple as alcohol production.

My research pulled together linguistic, literary, and indirectly-related archaeological evidence to build a plausible paradigm for Viking-age brewing – including figuring out what ingredients may have gone into it.

McGovern’s findings represent the first complete physical evidence pointing to actual ingredients that may have plausibly been involved in producing Norse alcohol – and that evidence completely supports the hypotheses I’ve been developing for over a year now!

Now, granted, the time period of his findings pre-dates the age of the Vikings – but my current research combined with this new evidence makes a very compelling case for its continuation. In addition, the presence of multiple sugar residues in a vessel is not de facto evidence that all of those were mixed into the same beverage – but considered in conjunction with my research, the case is certainly strong that it was probably being done. And the residue evidence is still not evidence of any particular processing technique – so the paradigm and processing research I’ve done is still fairly speculative.

Really, it’s the processing and goal that matter the most; a brewer could technique a set of ingredients and produce several radically different beverages simply by altering his processing technique. The question is then: what are you trying to accomplish, and how can you accomplish that?

Some of the evidence recovered by McGovern does help tie into the processing methods that I and others have begun to reconstruct. For example, one of the analyzed residues contained evidence of resins derived from birch and pine. I had previously speculated that wooden vessels were likely used as both mash tubs and fermentation vessels – they may have even been used to store finished product for a time. I’ve speculated that a birch and fir vessel may have been used to ferment some part of this product – an excellent avenue for dissolving tree resins. Merryn Dineley has worked on reconstructing mash houses using wooden troughs or vats and hot stones – depending on the wood, the hot water will extract various resins with great efficiency. Either of those methods could account for the presence of the tree resins in McGovern’s findings.

The evidence regarding the presence of grape sugars is also particularly interesting, as it constitutes the earliest evidence of the fermentation of the grape in northern Europe to date. It shows that ancient cultures were trying to – and able to – get their hands on the grape for a long long time. It’s most likely that grapes were still comparatively rare in Denmark and farther north – so their inclusion likely represents a person of wealth and status. It also helps reinforce the cultural parity between these ancient strong drinks and wines – occupying the same cultural purpose, it makes sense that they would perhaps share ingredients when possible.

So I’m excited! Largely because dammit I was right. It’s always good to get solid evidence confirming a speculative hypothesis.

Next up: reconstructing artifacts to pin down the processing method.

Cooking with Njall: Salt Burning, Take Two

A while back, I discussed a failed experiment in Viking-era salt production. The idea was to burn some Icelandic kelp, and use the residue as a “salt” of a sort. It didn’t really seem to do anything, and so I moved on.

But I’ve never been the type to just leave something alone. I’m a scientist, after all – I can’t accept that something is a bad idea until I’ve done it at least 5 times.

Rigor is very important.

I’ve had the remnants of my experiment kicking around in a Mason jar for a while now, so I figured what the hell – let’s give this another go. Refine the technique and try something new.

Salt Experiment Redux 1

I promise I am not making explosives.
Probably.

We were recently down in North Carolina visiting some of my fiancee’s friends (fellow SCA types), and Solvarr gave me a fantastic idea: do a water extraction of the charred crap, and boil that.

In the picture above, I’ve mixed 50 g of charred kelp with 100 g of water, and allowed it to steep for ~30 minutes. The idea is to attempt to extract the salts from the solid phase, separate the liquid, and boil it down to solids.

This seems like something that may have plausibly been done in the Viking era, albeit with fairly different equipment. Recall the various bits of language revolving around “salt” in Old Norse: salt-brenna (“salt-burning”), salt-fjara (“salt-beach”), and salt-ketill (“salt-kettle”). We also see words referring to two different colors of salt: hvíta-salt (“white salt”) and svarta-salt (“black salt”).

The “salt-ketill” was something I hadn’t explored before, but it makes some sense. Ash or char the kelp in a kettle (potash anyone?), mix it with water, strain out the solids (maybe with an open-weave cloth of some kind), and boil the hell out of it. Pliny makes mention of boiling seawater, and this technique is also alluded to later by Olaus Magnus, so there seems to be precedent for the generation of salt by boiling water. Adding kelp ashes would effectively increase the solute concentration, which would in turn improve yield (making better use of precious fuel).

A relatively recent excavation of a Viking-age house in Iceland (paper courtesy of Hrefna) shows an area of high salt concentration in the house. The authors suggest it to be an area used to store kelp ash – they suggest for wool dying, but of course, they could have other uses. It does show that Vikings may have generated and stored ashed and/or charred sea plants for various uses – so mixing some with water to boil into salt seems completely feasible.

Salt Experiment Redux 2

Continuing the fine tradition of putting weird things in my mouth.

After steeping, I strained the stuff through a coffee filter and squeezed the crap out of it. All in all, it generated 42 grams of the above-pictured black liquid. I lack proper volumetric measuring equipment, so I can’t effectively estimate the density of the liquid. No matter – I’m going to boil the crap away and weigh the solids. Into the pan it went, and onto the stove:

Salt Experiment Redux 3

I’m pretty sure I belong on a watch list somewhere.
Still not making explosives.

Holy crap, it worked! I got…stuff! Stuck to my pan! My fancy copper-core frying pan that cost more than I’d like to admit!

Note to self: in the future, use a cheaper pan.

This process didn’t smell nearly as badly as the initial charring experiment did. There was something of an off odor, but that was mostly due to dirty electric stove coils – though there was a hint of kelp in the air.

I scraped the solid crap into a bowl for display purposes. It was a mostly-dry salt, with a bit of residual moisture (think fleur de sel or other hand-harvested sea salt) and a variety of colors. There was some fine grey ash mixed in as well, indicating a fairly complete combustion. We likely did completely combust the kelp during the charring – we just couldn’t separate the ash from the remnant matrix.

Salt Experiment Redux 4

Right? Almost like I planned for this to happen.

After all was said and done, I had ~5 grams of that stuff up above left. So from 150 grams (50 grams kelp/100 grams water) to 42 grams liquid to 5 grams solid. Given that the kelp meal itself is 10% salt by weight, this seems like a pretty efficient extraction method! 50 grams go in, 5 grams come out. Not too shabby, doubly considering the small quantities in use.

As is tradition, the ultimate test lay in putting that shit in my mouth.

My friends, I made salt.

There’s a hint of kelp and something burned, but no real grit. Fairly crystalline texture and appearance. Very salty. Complex tasting, too – like an interesting sea salt. No funky aroma – just a hint of burnt nothingness.

It worked. Kelp ashes + water + fire = salt.

This is not the only method I tried tonight: I also attempted a different manner of direct-fire burning. I’d bought some metal mesh screen material, and this time tried building a fire underneath the charred kelp, figuring that increased oxygen flow would do the trick.

Nope.

Salt Experiment Redux 5

Also not making drugs. Or explosives.
Or salt.

I tried several configurations (the tin can there was used as a chimney starter and to try to contain the heat), but to no avail. I got the damn stuff glowing like charcoal, gave it lots of oxygen, stirred it around, left it alone, dumped lighter fluid on it – nothing.

Charred kelp meal is evidently the most flame-retardant substance known to man.

This is probably a byproduct of the configuration of the kelp – it just will not conduct oxygen and heat in such a way as to promote combustion. I’m sure that sheet kelp would actually combust like fuel – but they may very well have still mixed the ashes with water to produce the salt, as that is a good way to separate the gritty crap from the useful salt.

So my proposed method for salt production involves:

1) Charring or ashing kelp

2) Mixing that product with water

3) Separating the solids

4) Boiling the remaining liquid until only a residue remains

I have yet to experiment with actually using the stuff like salt – but at least now I have a process that will allow me to get rid of my remaining 50 pounds of kelp meal!

Future experiments will involves meat curing and fish salting using this product, to see what properties it would impart on the food. Salt is, after all, fairly fundamental in food chemistry, and the exact type of salt used can radically alter a product.

Different kettle materials can also affect the product. Iron pots, for example, will leach iron into the final salt – affecting the chemistry and flavor of any food made with it, and the diet of those who ate it.

——————————————————————————————————————

Of course, this all assumes that they were even using salt for food preservation. A redditor from the Faroe islands posted some pictures of traditional Faroese fermented lamb (skerpikjøt, which literally means “sharp meat”) over in /r/meat:

Fuck it, you win.

They slaughter the lambs in October, hang them up in a shed for a couple of months, and then eat them. Mind you, the average temperature in the Faroes at this time ranges from 4 – 8 C, so the whole place is basically a giant refrigerator. No salt, just the breeze from the North Sea blowing through the shed constantly. Air-dried and mold-covered. And they eat the stuff raw, like prosciutto but with more microbial action. It also has a very very strong gamey flavor.

My ancestors ate some weird shit, man.

Hell, they still do.

So that’s what’s in store for this series: weird-ass foods, which will eventually be coupled with weird-ass beers.

You know you love it.

Decorating the Truth

I’ve spoken before about the practice of writing praise poetry as a skald, and spoken at length about the importance of carefully authoring your life story. When we consider these two things together – praising others with careful authorship – we run into an interesting consideration of historical accounts: the decorated truth.

I wrote a poem a little while ago, as part of an SCA job duty – my task was to write a poem commemorating the deeds of a particular group of warriors at the Pennsic War. Now, I couldn’t actually make it to Pennsic this past year, so that put me in an odd position. How do I write a truthful accounting of something I never actually witnessed?

That, my friends, is the function of the storyteller.

The world was joyous – wealth and peace were
found in all the lands – few were troubled.
But idle minds and idle souls
flourished in those fair fields of plenty.
A sin begat a greater sin,
and soon the ills of ailing hearts
tainted and tortured the track of men -
evils arose to wreak their doom.
Far to the west was found a cleftland
stretching deeply – still it is so named.
Deep in the belly of boiling earth
was birthed a beast of burning rage.
Of ache and hurt – of heart-woe and
sinful vengeance was sired the monster.
The enemy of man was eager to work
his schemes and plots through the sky-burner.
The worm of flames on wings of smoke
took to the sky and scoured the land.
It razed cities and ruined farmland -
its greed begat a grief profound.
Too little it owned – the land was ripe
and rich with prizes it possessed not.
Its wanting grew for want of grace,
and with it grew the rage of the wrathful demon.
To the East it gazed – a gainsome plot
it thought that place – a prize to claim.
From the air it loosed an oily flame-gout
and landed in the ruins it left behind.
Where trees once stood now stained earth
alone could be found – no life survived.
The woodlands rusted like weapons of iron
where the creature stopped – still they are so named.
To the north lay the linden-halls.
A cry went out – the oaks of battle
moved to reclaim their calloused soil!
Fierce the fighting – the flame-clash of
sturdy trees of trials was felt in
every land – and in every hearth.
Terrible their losses, but at last the woods
of wounding-poles repelled the corruptor!
Back to the west the wyrm retreated -
fleeing at once the wasted rustlands.
To fairer fields far it hastened,
to tend its wounds – and tender its revenge.
A host of the dead it dragged from the grave -
tattered banners and bloody flags
raised from the depths – red with corpse-mud
that cuprous lake – it is called this still.
In the East rallied an army valiant,
with strong-limbed and long-remembering
warriors eager as wolves at the feeding.
They marched to that place – that mire of death -
to meet the host of the hell-fiend
and put an end to the evils of men.
Hall-Konr lead them – that hero of old -
none since the Geat were known as well!
Met at midfield the mass of spears -
no din of swords since was as deadly.
The fiercest of men fell to the past -
but the pure souls of savage Tygers
welled in their breast as they battered the foe!
Soon they pressed the sea of rotting
back to their graves – that ground they took
and that lake was cleansed – cleared its good name.
But victory was brief – that villain with fury
descended from the sky and scoured the ranks.
Its hell-fires flooded the plain
and rent to ash the ashes of valor.
Countless their dead – their courage faltered -
no blades could bite that beastly hide.
Mighty Hall-Konr hacked at the fiend,
but stony claws struck him to the earth.
Slinked and stalked the serpent of hell
to the fallen liege, that lion of men.
A great breath it gathered to loose
a river of death – a red flame-sea.
The gout erupted – but razed no man,
the shower parted by a shield of iron.
Clad in a byrnie of black and gold
was an oak alone – lost is his name.
That brave warrior buffered his king -
saved his sovereign from certain death!
With dwarf-steel he struck at the beast,
hewed its hide with a hungry blade.
The wretch howled and hurried away -
but he grabbed its tail with a grip of iron.
Then homeward hied the hell-fiend and foe -
and never again were they known to roam.
The day was won by a warrior unnamed -
a hero hidden in the heart of battle.
All that remained was the mantle he’d worn,
a scrap of fur from the frozen north.
Said the warriors who’d watched as he fought
that strong as ice he stood his ground -
a frozen mountain – a frigid beorg
of stone and snow – and still we are so named.

So, nothing in this poem ever actually happened, not in the sense of some hard testable demonstrable reality. It does, however, contain truth of a sort.

The poem is dense with references to SCA-specific geography and history (like “Hal-Konr,” which is Old Norse for “hill-royal” and is a reference to Richard of Mont Royal, first king of the SCA), the central one of which is the unnamed warrior clad in black and gold – the colors of the Snowberg tabard. I mean, sure, there was never a dragon that raised the undead or some dude with a magical sword that beat it – but there are certainly acts of valor attributed to the people who form the unit.

I have a friend who is fond of saying that she “never lets the facts get in the way of the truth,” at least when it comes to storytelling. And that’s really a good way of looking at it. A storyteller is not a camera – we do not take pictures nor record video.

Rather, we tell the sort of truth” that is felt, rather than that which literally occurred. We recount the feelings, emotions, and connections that bind a group together. The facts matter less than the effect or the perceptions of each person, and that’s what we choose to remember.

I used to think my grandfather was 8 feet tall, at least when he sat us kids down to tell us nonsense stories about Indians living across the lake. And I lived my life reacting to my grandfather as though he was that tall – I gave him my attention and paid him heed. So what if he was shorter than me? My emotional connection to him rendered him taller in my perception, and that connection is as “real” as numbers on a tape.

We forget sometimes that our emotions are real things – the byproduct of biochemical reactions that proceed in discrete pathways. We can manipulate stimuli to produce reliable results. Feeling sad or happy is as real as pain or glycolysis. The result is a bit different, but so be it – does that make it less valid? Of course not!

When we recount stories or memories or really any event in the past, we’re really recalling our perceptions and interpretations of those events. We are biased and fallible. Different eyewitnesses will recount the same tale differently because they all experience a literally different reality – nobody’s brain “sees” the same information; that’s why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Your brain creates a literally different reality than that which exists in someone else’s brain. Your memory is the way it happened – for you.

So if we all experience different events, and we all remember them differently, why focus so much on literal truth? I mean, sure, we often need to know what “really” happened – but if you’re telling a story about this party you threw this one time, why not let the tale grow taller in the telling? This is part of crafting your own story – you choose how you will be remembered, and how you will remember other things. By letting a story grow larger, we emphasize our emotional connection to it and the connection we share with those who experienced the same thing.

Yeah, we can burst someone’s bubble: “That’s not how that happened!” I’ve been there and done that. But y’know what, life can be pretty shitty much of the time. Instead of relentlessly pursuing factual accounts, it can be nice to let some whimsy take over – and remind us of the parts of life that we truly cherish.

Those are things worth celebrating and decorating. The nuts and bolts of how it happened? Well, that’s not as important as the effect the events had on you – and if you choose to remember it being a bit greater than reality, so be it. Truth is not limited to a blow-by-blow retelling of objectively true information – your reactions to information are also a part of that truth. Those reactions govern how you behave, right? You live your life as though they’re real - so just make them real.

And then kill the stupid cat before it lets your secret out.

This is how to get attention on the Internet, right? Pictures of cats? That’s the real moral of the story – put a cat in it, and people pay attention.