Brewing with Egil: “Bread or Beer?” More Like “Beer or Beer.” (And a Summary)

I’ve dedicated 5 posts to a lengthy discussion about some of the roots of modern brewing terminology, and grain processing practices from ancient civilizations. So far, I’ve traced a tradition of barley processing rooted in ancient Egypt, documented in ancient Rome (and the surrounding regions),  connected to early Anglo-Saxon England, and echoed in a 16th century brewing practice for Ethiopia – where the technique came from in the first place.

But I care about the Norse people, particularly during the Viking age and shortly after, during the early Icelandic Commonwealth era. How did they get their drink on?

Sure, I can make an argument that contact with Anglo-Saxons and Finns (Laplanders) would have resulted in cultural exchange; let us not forget that the Kalevala contains what is probably an ancient beer recipe that bears a shocking resemblance to the techniques I’ve already described; barley and bitter herbs are boiled, honey is added, fermentation happens.

The Vikings were also descended from the Germanic tribes around the Roman empire – and I’ve already shown that Pliny (and others) document their grain processing techniques – Tacitus in particular describes a “wine” made from barley or other grain, and other document their methods of making porridges, all of which are quite similar to the Roman method. And of course, good ol’ Zosimos describes a method for making a barley “bread” which is subsequently steeped in water, and the resultant “aquam dulcem” (sweet waters) strained and used as a drink.

I’ve described how these techniques are reflected in Anglo-Saxon medical texts and glossaries, likely a result of Roman influence during the period of Roman Britain. I could just leave it at that – an argument based on trade and cultural contact, and a well-supported one I contend.

But did the Vikings do this too?

Yes, Vikings were that hardcore

Almost certainly. “Breads” have been unearthed at Lovö, Birka, and Helgö. In most cases, the bread was very small (~5 cm in diameter and 0.5 cm thick), and appeared unleavened or possibly sour leavened. The composition of the breads varied widely, but common ingredients include: barley, oats, peas, vetches, flax seed, gold-0f-pleasure (commonly called “false flax”), and various field weeds.

Hm. Grains? Bittering agents (vetches, field weeds)? Flax? Hardtack consistency and size?

That doesn’t sound like “bread” in any meaningful way that we know it. In fact, it sounds exactly like the result of the grain processing techniques documented by Pliny and Zosimos.

Indeed, the Old Norse word for “bread” is commonly held to be “brauð;” however, there is much dispute and uncertainty regarding the exact etymology of “bread,” and even Cleasby-Vigfusson’s Old Icelandic dictionary  indicates that the modern meaning was unlikely to be in use during the Viking age.

Given the “bread” finds that have been unearthed, it seems that this holds water. Small wafers dried out, mixed with bitter herbs and flax, are hardly likely to have been used the same way we use “bread.” Such items would be useful to carry around, and would allow you to make a quick meal when you were on the go by soaking in water or some other liquid.

And, for what it’s worth, the word “brauð” would be pronounced quite a bit more like “broth” than anything else. Given its possible ties to words meaning “brewing,” this may well be the actual case – a processed grain cake that could be broken into pieces, steeped in water, and used as a broth/beverage/pottage.

But did the Vikings have alcoholic beverages?

What, you think this is water?

Absolutely. I won’t bother putting out links, because the sagas are full of references to “öl,” which is yet another root of our word “ale.” And there is little doubt that “öl” was used in a celebratory or sacrificial/sacramental context, much like the Anglo-Saxon “beór.” Egil’s saga includes a tale where “öl” is drunk as a sacrifice to local spirits; Egil kills a man because he was lied to about the availability of good drink.

Never get between a Viking and his beer.

Based on all the evidence I’ve gathered to-date, here’s the picture I’m drawing of Viking-age cereal beverages:


Ealu = brauð: cereal-based beverages, lightly fermented or not fermented, sometimes mixed with honey-water, sometimes mixed with herbs, intended as a nutritional/medicinal drink, and possibly as a base for the cultivation of yeast. This is related to the various grain preparations documented by the Romans, the Talmud, and Zosimos.

Beór = öl: mixed-source fermented beverages, intended to be alcoholic, that function as replacements for wine/mead where those items were extraordinarily expensive. The grain base is likely the same as in the “nutritional” beverages, but honey and/or fruit may be added to add sugar, flavor, and alcohol-producing yeast.


There could be a lot of variation within these two broad classes, but the core principle of two different production streams is constant. One is unfermented or lightly soured, to assist in digestion and the assimilation of nutrients; the other is fermented strongly, to create alcohol. Both may include herbs of various sorts, to add bitterness or “medicinal” qualities.

I believe I have built my arguments pretty well, but I always welcome hole-punching regarding my theories.

The next stage: experimentation! I will attempt to reproduce some of these techniques, and the beverages they may have created.

There is much drinking yet to be done.

Brewing with Egil, Part V: Ealu, Beór, Wyrt, Grut, and Mealt


Throughout human history, few pursuits have been as fervent as the one to get totally shitfaced.

Pliny even remarks as much in Naturalis Historia:

“and yet, by Hercules! one really might have supposed that there the earth produced nothing but corn for the people’s use. Alas! what wondrous skill, and yet how misplaced! means have absolutely been discovered for getting drunk upon water even.”

In particular, the Anglo-Saxons seemed to love getting blasted; they had several words that describe intoxicating (and some non-intoxicating) drinks, many of which form the basis for those same words in modern English.

Following are my conclusions about the possible realities of these brewing terms, based on my research to-date.

In addition to the research I’ve discussed before, there are a variety of sources that are crucial to this research:

The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft – a 3 volume book of herbal medicine: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies – a 2-volume collection of teaching manuscripts, containing linguistic glosses: Volume 1 (vocabularies), Volume 2 (indices)

Wyrt: This word is the root of the modern word “wort,” which is the liquid that remains following the mashing of grains for beer production.

Interestingly enough, “wyrt” has another meaning in Old English – “herb” or “plant,” especially those in a medicinal context.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising, especially when you recall the names of some well-known plants: mugwort, St. John’s wort, pennywort, and so forth.

It’s not uncommon for one word to have multiple meanings – but those meanings are almost always thematically related. In the case of “wyrt,” it is used on its own to refer to various herbs on their own. Sometimes, “wyrt” has other “wyrts” added to it, making for a very herbal mixture.

The “Leechdom” books are full of references to “wyrt” and the places where it used; in almost all cases, it is connected to “ealu” and “mealt.” Keep this in mind as you continue reading.

Sound familiar?

Mealt and Grut: The exact meaning of “mealt” is somewhat ambiguous. It is the root of the modern word “malt,” the grain used in modern brewing. The root of its use in Old English is a word that means “melted,” “boiled,” “bitter,” or “sour,” and is seen most often in context with words referring to grain (though one Old Norse use of the word “maltr” describes the foul mood of some folks). No references to the production of “mealt” exist, but there are many references to its uses – all of which seem to be tied to the production of “ealu.” It is pretty safe to conclude that “mealt” likely refers to a processed grain product, likely intended to be “melted,” or mingled with water.

The word glosses with the Latin words “bratium,” “bracium,” or “brasium,” which seem to refer to either a very white grain or…trees in the Cypress family. Hm. Interesting.

When one considers that the word itself has connotations of “sour” or “bitter,” the Cypress association doesn’t seem so crazy. It may be a reference to grain mixed with bitter or resiny material – not unlike the “polenta” described by Pliny and other authors.

Even going back to ancient Egypt, we find references to grains mixed with aromatic herbs – that is the “bappir” of the Hymn to Ninkasi.

In addition, the 4th century alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis, in a fragment about “zythos,” describes a method of grain production quite like Pliny’s polenta; the process includes taking the steeped and dried barley, mixing it with herbs and salt, and baking it into a small cake. That cake is later crumbled into water and heated.

The Babylonian Talmud describes “Egyptian zeethum,” which is a mixture of barley, salt, and wild saffron (not the same as the ludicrously expensive spice).

This is doubly interesting given that “mealt” is connected to “wyrt,” which is connected to the herbal medicine tradition. It is unlikely that any of these meanings are coincidence, especially given the very context-dependent nature of Old English translation.

And for added fun? The word “gruit,” used to refer to a mixture of herbs used to spice traditional ale, is rooted in the Old English “grut,” which is also the root of “grout.” In all cases, the meaning of the word is something akin to “coarse meal.” We also see “grut” used in an herbal/medicinal context.

I conclude that the most likely scenario is that “gruit” referred to a loose meal consisting of grain and herbs, likely heavy on the herbal mixture. “Mealt” referred to a mixture of grain and possibly herbs baked into a small “cake” that mixed with water later; the “mealt” would likely be somewhat sour from its processing. That same “mealt” might be crushed or ground into “grut.”

When you consider “mealt” and “wyrt” in combination, the connection is quite clear; an herbed grain product is mixed with water (creating an herbal and starchy infusion), and sometimes mixed with even more herbs.

So what’s everyone else gonna drink?

Ealu: This word is the root of our word “ale.” The precise meaning of “ale” is subject to some confusion. These days, “ale” refers to a beer fermented with a top-fermenting yeast. In the Middle Ages, “ale” was a category of fermented cereal beverage that was flavored with “gruit,” and “beer” was the same thing flavored with hops.

However, my research has pointed me at a slightly different use case for “ealu,” based on my research and on readings in the above-linked works.

“Ealu” is attested to primarily in medicinal/nutritional contexts. The “Leechdom” books contain numerous references to its use as the base for medicines. In addition, “ealu” is seen with “wyrte” in almost all of its uses, several times with “mealt,” and a few times with “grut.” Numerous herbal remedies instruct that you make “ealu” expressly for that remedy – implying a beverage that is used soon after its mixture.

Now consider the harmony between “mealt,” “wyrte,” and “ealu,” and consider the writings of Pliny and others. Pliny documents the production a beverage derived from processed grain mixed with water – sometimes boiled. The Talmud describes the same thing. So does Zosimos. And 2000 years before all of them? A prayer to Ninkasi recorded the mixture of dried herb bread with water, followed by a brief fermentation. And all of those authors describe methods of processing a grain/herb mixture and drying it for preservation. Many of these sources speak of the nutritional qualities of such preparations, as well as their potential restorative qualities.

When you examine the glosses for “ealu,” we see a connection to the Latin “cervisa” or “cerevisia,” but no other beverages. “Ealu” seems to have stood in a class by itself, as a lightly-fermented tincture of grains and herbs administered for medicinal and nutritive purposes. I posit that it may have actually been intended as a method of stimulating yeast growth for consumption – which may explain why a word like “cerevisia” eventually became the specific epithet of brewing yeast. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, anyone?

The fine tradition of throwing shit together and drinking what comes out.

Beór: And finally, we reach the root of the word “beer.”

This word shares a gloss with “ealu” – that of “cerevisia” in Latin. We also sometimes see “beór” used in remedies in a manner akin to “ealu.” Though we don’t see “mealt” specifically attached to “beór,” it is reasonable to conclude that give its analogous context and shared gloss, the same ingredients went into both.

But it’s more complicated than that. Unlike “ealu,” “beór” glosses with other beverage words. In particular, it is frequently associated with “hydromellum” and “mulsum,” both of which are words that refer to “mead.” Other texts see “beór” used as an analogy for the wines of other cultures.

The fact that the two are used distinctly (the same passage may refer to both “ealu” and “beór” separately, even in the same herbal remedy), and in a mutually exclusive context (as in, use one or the other), leads me to believe that they must be distinct beverages, brewed for entirely different purposes.

Residues of fermented beverages have been found in Iron Age burial sites, often in a ritual or religious context. Digs in southern France and Germany have revealed evidence of grain processing activities. And evidence of multiple-source fermented beverages exists. Wines have historical use as sacramental and celebratory drinks, so the discovery of alcohol production at burial sites is hardly surprising.

Given the association with wines and meads, and the somewhat lower representation in herbal remedy contexts, I conclude that “beór” refers to any beverage that is produced for alcohol. It is a class of wine-like beverages that were likely produced for sacramental or celebratory purposes. Such drinks would have been more popular in northern Europe during the Dark Ages because actual wine was difficult to get. Mead/hydromel would have been more common, but even then, honey isn’t that common. It is quite probable that any such beverage would have consisted of a mixture of different sugar sources – throw everything you’ve got together, ferment it, and drink the resultant “beor.”


So, in short: the fermented grain beverages from the Anglo-Saxon era were likely divided into two broad categories:

-“Ealu” was a freshly-prepared, short-fermented, cereal-and-herb product intended primarily as nutrition and/or medicine. It was derived from “wyrt” made of “mealt,” a processed cereal “cake” produced in a manner similar to that documented by Roman and Greek authors.

The influence of Rome on northern Europe is documented by various excavations dating to the time of Roman Britain. The likely scenario is that Romans brought their “polenta” technology to these northern tribes, who adopted it into their brewing regimen.

-“Beor” may have shared ingredients with “ealu;” however, its primary purpose was different. It would have been “stronger,” in the sense that it contained more fermentable material. In addition, it would have had sugars from three sources: processed grain, honey, and fruit. The yeasts found on fruit and in honey differ from the flora found in grain; fruit and honey have a greater association with alcohol-producing yeast. It is likely that “beor” was a potent alcoholic beverage, intended to replace wine where grapes were not abundant.

Next time, I’ll look at the journey of “ealu” into the culture of the Vikings, and look for connections between these techniques and their techniques.

There is a Grandeur in this View of Life

There can be only one

There has been a flare-up of an on-going discussion in the SCA bardic community – that of competition. I’ve written a lengthy entry on the topic that summarizes my views on performance competitions.


As to why I prefer a competitive environment?

1. Structure and Equality. A competition is a game, and the players of a game must abide by the same set of rules. This puts everyone on a level playing field. No, you might not be comfortable on that field – but neither is anyone else, really.

Also, how many times have you gone to a bardic circle and That Person just won’t stop hogging the spotlight? It’s rude and disrespectful to other performers – we all know and feel it. We can try to engender that futzy culture of “be mindful of others,” but the structure of a competition removes that possibility entirely.

2. Challenge. I argue that it is impossible to issue a fair challenge to yourself. It’s a conflict of interest due to our amazingly biased perspectives towards ourselves. You can set yourself up for failure, or set a small goal that is easy to accomplish and doesn’t teach you anything. Competitions provide a source of external challenge that is very often unexpected; this often results in a caliber of performance that neither the audience nor the performer expected.

This is not to say that you cannot challenge yourself – only that any such challenge is unlikely to yield a functionally objective self-assessment.

3. Inspiration and Respect. We teach, in the SCA, that we should draw inspiration from one another. This is the heart of a good competition. We draw inspiration from the excellent effort we see around us, and in doing so, we take the opportunity to “rise to the occasion.”

It also helps to engender a spirit of mutual respect. We acknowledge those pieces which we found to particularly powerful; in the uncomfortable environment of competition, such acknowledgment provides relief, which in turn creates a deeper appreciation in the recepient of such acknowledgment.

Approaching other bards on an even playing field also sends a subtle message that serves as a backdrop for the competition: “You are my peer. You are valued as much as I am. You are a worthy competitor.” Good sportsmanship is an excellent method of respecting the other competitors. 

4. Self-Improvement. The reason to have a fair challenge is to test one’s skills, and find the areas of strength and weakness in an objective manner. That allows us to showcase our strengths and work on our weaknesses. Objectivity is important, because sometimes there are things we don’t want to admit to ourselves; competitions can force us to look at those things, rather than shield ourselves from them.

5. Confidence-Building. I don’t think I’ve ever met a bard that doesn’t need any more self-confidence. I say this with love and respect, but seriously, most of us are down on ourselves by default. This is crap. Being successful at a competition requires a touch of arrogance and a lot of confidence – and yes, these are things you can learn. Putting yourself out there at a competition is you saying “I”m good enough to be a contender.” Do that often enough, and you’ll start believing it.

All of these things are fun for me, and I approach them with a mindset of having fun. All too often, the attitude I read is that “competition” and “fun” are mutually exclusive; this doesn’t have to be the case. 

If one approaches with a mindset of 1) learning as fun and 2) wanting to learn about oneself, one can extract a lot of enjoyment out of nearly any competition.

Many competitors have an unhealthy attitude about competition. This is harmful to everyone. Ungracious winners, sore losers, cheaters, and all other sorts of personalities undermine all of those wonderful things I’ve enumerated above.

So I would ultimately argue that the issue isn’t with the nature or principle of competition – but rather with the way that competition is applied, and the attitude underlying it.

Many issues with competitions also stem from people’s underlying insecurities about competitions. Cheaters are selfish people who want to exert more control than everyone else, because they fear their own abilities are insufficient. If we don’t attempt to manage our insecurities in a competition, we will doom ourselves to failure, and will not draw use from it.

And I am in no way denigrating non-competitive performance; indeed, that is the essence of creating our collective fiction. Competitions are often rather non-immersive, because we all know what’s going on.

Ultimately, I use the two for entirely different purposes.


While I spoke of bardic competition in the SCA specifically, this applies to all manner of competition.

Admit it: you love cardboard subjugation

Jane McGonigal has spoken about the positive aspects of gaming, and this is true of competitive gaming; the skills we learn from such applications are taken with us into the “real world,” where we pass those lessons on to others. The SCA is a game, and bardic competitions moreso; the approach to any competitive game will teach us things about ourselves, and allow us to grow and improve as people.

But don’t take my word for it – there are studies demonstrating the positive effects of competition on a person’s performance and intrinsic motivation.

A healthy approach to a fair competition gives us a great opportunity to grow.

Is it the be-all-end-all? Hardly. A singular approach is insufficient for robust growth; however, many people shy away from competitions for various reasons, and this is inadvisable.

We need a wide range of experiences to complete us, and like it or not, competition is part of being alive.

Context is Everything

Iceland: it’s cold

This past weekend, I participated in the King & Queen’s Bardic Championship. In the SCA, the King and Queen often select Champions of various disciplines – to serve as sources of inspiration for the populace, and to instruct people in and generally elevate their particular field. These are positions of great honor and prestige, and people work very, very hard to achieve them.

I chose to do an in-persona piece; that is, I performed as though I was actually Magnus hvalmagi, and not Peter Olsen telling you a story that Magnus may have plausibly known. I let the character speak for himself, and showed some of his personality. The challenge was to tell Their Majesties what inspired you; I responded with some lines about the cold.

This, in and of itself, was kind of an interesting piece. I wasn’t playing Magnus telling you a story, nor Magnus reciting some poetry that he wrote. No, I was trying to speak as Magnus would have spoken, to respond as though I was he and he is answering your question. Getting into his head, or the head that I imagine he has. Being the character as opposed to being in character.

Every now and again, I ask myself why I like to get dressed up and do this whole “living history” thing. Why do I want to make Magnus come to life? Why do I want to perform ancient pieces of poetry like they’re really super relevant and you should care about them a lot?

The answer, I think, lies with the act of creating context.

Way more interesting, useful, and awesome than the actual book

Sure, we can sit down, read a book, and intellectually grasp its points – but that doesn’t mean we grok those points. We can translate that intellectual understanding to a more functional form – extrapolate a real-world application from sterile, controlled laboratory experiments – but when we do that, we throw our ideas against heretofore untested variables. Invariably, it breaks somewhere, because we neglected to implement the right controls. We didn’t synthesize the ideas in the right context – and even most intellectual attempts to do so will fail at some level.

But when we attempt to make a person come to life, to make a piece come to life – we are really trying to create its proper context.  I never enjoyed Beowulf when I was in school, but when I performed it? Magic. People around me were telling me about this awesome guy who did these awesome things and I should care because he was so awesome and now he’s dead and aren’t we screwed?

When we create a historical backdrop – speaking like an ancient person, wearing their clothes, conducting ourselves in a manner in which they would have – we actively destroy the modern context that has shaped the audience and supplant it with our own interpretation of that work’s context. Sure, we’re often warping or assuming some aspects of the historical background – but the point is in the act of re-shaping. Putting the audience in a different mindset. Re-setting their expectations. We build a new emotional connection between ourselves, the audience, and the material – and so people invest themselves more heavily in the story. They want to understand the piece, and so it carries a much greater impact.

It’s a lot like playing D&D or any other RPG – we all buy in to the same world, and then tell stories that (while silly outside of that world) have a great impact for us within that world.

It’s like LARPing, only way nerdier

A lot of “legitimate academics” scoff at what the SCA does, and rightly so in some cases. We’re not about 100% accuracy – nobody wants to die of the plague, and women really don’t want to be property. That will invariably create a situation where we disregard fact in favor of colorful fiction.

That doesn’t de-value the truly legitimate academic research that many do – and that doesn’t invalidate the principle of what we do on the whole.

I may have to sacrifice some accuracy in order to build a bridge between my audience and my material, but I do so to create a deeper level of understanding of the material in question. To help the audience move from knowing to understanding. Once they’ve made that jump, we can get the facts straight.

It is a thing that I think more people should try out. Who knows – you might just learn something. I sure did.