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.


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

  1. The author makes some good arguments for the utility of alcohol in early civilization. However, I’m not confident that “beer” had quite the same meaning that it does today.

    It seems more likely to me that barley was used to create a mildly fermented drink – the slight souring would act as a water preservative or purifier, and the grains provide nutrition. This might be more likely to the be the root of our “beer,” and its alcohol content would have been fairly low (to nonexistent).

    What the author describes is probably true of wine and wine-like beverages; those were less “common” drinks, though.

    I do agree that “beer” probably gave rise to civilization, in that the processing of these grain beverages improved the quality of drinking water and allowed for rapid and efficient assimilation of nutrients. When the value of barley in that capacity was realized, it became advantageous to settle down and develop agricultural techniques. I don’t think that those original beverages were meant as an alcoholic beverage primarily, though.

  2. Needs Mead says:

    I really geek out every time you go into the linguistics of brewing. Two of my favorite things, combined! It’s a very cool and smart way to go about historical brewing research, I think.

  3. […] who have been following along for a while may remember that my initial research already pointed me at this conclusion – that is, two […]

  4. […] 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 […]

  5. […] 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 […]

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