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:
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.
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.
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?
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.