Brewing with Egil, Part III: Secrets of the Runes – A Look at Word Etymologies

It occurred to me at one point during this research that I didn’t know the origin of the word “malt,” or its true meaning in-period. I had a vague idea that it was probably taken from proto-Germanic, like much of our language, but the specifics eluded me.

The Icelandic sagas contain many references to malt, but no saga relates its method of production. We can infer from many of the tales that malt was a grain product processed separately from other grains – they also have words for flour, corn, and the individual grains themselves.  We’re also fairly confident that malt was used to make ale, although there is no recorded recipe for doing so in the corpus of Viking literature. Many contain references to the use of malt in the making of ale – some of these are compiled here.

In fact, there is some ambiguity as to the exact meaning of “ale” in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon ages. When we examine the poetry from those eras, we find a lot of interchange of words; in “Beowulf,” Heorot is referred to as a mead-hall, ale-hall, wine-hall, and beer-hall. In Alvíssmálthe question is posed: “What call they the ale, | that is quaffed of men,
In each and every world?” There are many names given – all different types of drink.

If there’s ambiguity in the exact use of the word “ale” – or even its core concept in the Viking age – it stands to reason that there may be ingredient ambiguity.

Indeed, when examining the etymology of the word “malt,” we find that it first appears in its contextual usage in Old English, where it’s “mealt.” The meaning is pegged to be “melted,” and it is presumed to be related to steeping in water – a critical part of the production of modern malt.

But a quick look at Bosworth-Toller shows that the word is a bit more complicated than that. It may mean “malt,” but it can also mean “cooked, boiled,” and it is also related to an Icelandic word “maltr,” which means “sour.”

It’s possible that these alternate meanings impact our concept of “malt” in the Anglo-Saxon and Viking era. The Kalevala contains a passage where beer is brewed by boiling unmalted barley, and I’ve demonstrated a 16th century “beer” whose grain base is sourdough bread – which may be connected to very ancient brewing.

During the production of that 16th century ale, the gluten in the dough fell apart as it acidified. One could go so far as to say that it “melted.” When I made it with a coarse barley meal, the chunky grain broke down into a somewhat smooth dough over the course of several days – again seeming to “melt.”

And of course, let’s not forget that delicious Russian beverage, kvass.

The word “kvass” is first documented in the Primary Chronicle of Russia, in 989. The word is квас, which means “sour” in Old Russian. The word is used in a passage describing gifts given to peasants – food, water, and “kvass.” This is obviously some kind of gift separate from the other two concepts; tradition shows that “kvass” is a lactic-fermented drink made with bread or bread and honey.

Interesting. “Malt” comes from a series of words whose meaning includes “sour.” “Kvass,” a drink made of bread, originally means “sour” in its contextual use. Kvasir is a Viking character who is slain, and whose blood forms the basis for the mead of poetry.

Word meanings are rarely cut-and-dry, and analyzing the origins of our words can give us insight into historical practices. I find myself beginning to wonder about early medieval ales; they seem less likely to map to our more modern concepts of fermented cereal beverages.

My working hypothesis is that early medieval “ale” represents a class of beverage designed to give fast nutrition. The grains were likely processed into sourdough of some sort before being used in the drink, and other sugar sources may have been used in addition. These same ingredients could be used to make higher-alcohol beverages as well.


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