Brewing With Egil: Sheep Vat’s Deep Drafts

Man, that’s a mouthful.

I’ve talked about the ingredients that likely went into Viking-era “beer,” and presented my hypothesis about the production of such a beverage. One area that’s critically lacking in the research is an analysis of the equipment that may have been used.

Brewing is extremely process-intensive, and the process is very closely tied to the equipment you use – everything from the gap between rollers in your malt mill to the quality of insulation in your mash tun to the precision of your temperature monitoring equipment can affect your final product.

To that end, I’ve been trying to figure out what the Vikings may have used as a fermentation vessel, and from that extrapolate how they may have fermented their beverages.

Oh god I hope that’s booze.

The word skap-ker (sometimes skaptker) appears in a few places in the corpus of Old Norse text. It is generally agreed to indicate the vessel from which ale is served at feasts – this is documented in a few different sagas . However, no text describes the nature of a skapker – its size, construction, appearance, or any other physical characteristics.

Linguistic analysis may give us some clues. One reference comes from the Elder Edda, in Grímnismál, in a passage describing the goat Heiðrún (Hollander’s translation):

Heiðrún heitir geit,
er stendr höllo á
ok bítr af læraðs limom;
skapker fylla
hón skal ins skíra miaðar,
knáat sú veig vanaz.
Heithrún, the goat
on the hall that stands,
eateth off Læráth’s limbs;
the crocks she fills
with clearest mead,
will that drink not e’er be drained.

I added the emphasis on “skapker” so you can pick it out. The mythology seems to indicate that the “skapker” is the vessel which is eternally filled with mead. Given its mythological use, and the associations between ale and feasting/sacrifice/sacrement, this makes a degree of sense. It may be that the word “skapker” is a callback to the methaphysical beliefs in the Viking age – that is, the physical vat from which ale is served is symbolic of the ever-full vat in Valhalla.

Of course, that’s pure conjecture on my part. Seems logical, but I’m coming at that from a post-pagan Christian-centric perspective. Just because we think that way doesn’t mean they thought that way – but it’s certainly plausible given the context of use.

Dissecting the specific meaning of “skapker” becomes an interesting exercise. It’s a compound – “skap-ker” – whose meaning is somewhat ambiguous. “Ker” is pretty solidly “cask,” “vessel,” or “tub.”

“Skap,” however, may be related to the word for “to work” or “to make.” So could it mean “working-vessel?” If the skapker is a fermenter, this would make sense.

The noun form of the word is also “skap,” and also means “shape” – but it can also mean “mind” or “temper.” Hmmm. “Mind-vessel?” What could that be?

When we look at the entry for “skapker,” we find a note indicating that the word “skap” is actually derived from “skepja,” which is a form of “skapði.” All of these seem to indicate work or creation of some kind.

A related word is the Anglo-Saxon “ge-sceap,” which again means “of shaping or working.” However, the word “sceap” by itself also means “sheep,” and this is confirmed in the Latin-AS glosses I’ve already talked about.

“Sheep-vat?” Really? It’s actually not that crazy if you think about it – the aforementioned goat is extremely closely related to sheep. In fact, many animals called “goat” or “sheep” are distinguished fairly arbitrarily and sometimes erroneously. Add in that they were using very different breeds 1000 years ago, and one can conclude that there may have been very little difference between a “sheep” and a “goat.”

And let’s not forget that all of the works in question were compiled in the 13th – 14th century – where skeps were commonly used to raise bees. It’s conceivable that “skapker” is more like “skepker,” meaning something like “honey-comb vat.” Given the use of honey in ale production, this is also not totally crazy

So the word itself might mean “working vat,” or maybe “honey vat,” or even possibly “sheep vat.”

What might a “sheep vat” be?

Please be wrong.

Please be wrong.

OK, OK, the “sheep vat” thing is a stretch anyhow. If anything, I would suspect it means “sheep’s vat,” an allusion back to the story about the goat with teats that produce mead forever.

All of the possible meanings do seem to make a sort of strange sense, though – we have references to a goat/sheep that fills a “skapker” with mead for all eternity, the “skapker” is used in situations where mead or ale would be appropriate, and “skapker” as “working vat” still has connotations of fermentation (often referred to as “working” the product in medieval sources).

No matter how we slice it, the “skapker” is the vessel from which ale or mead was dispensed for consumption – and given its associations with “working,” I think it’s reasonable to extrapolate that it may have served as a primary fermentation vessel.

So what was it made of? How big was it? We’re still at the same place, aren’t we?

When you absolutely, positively, need to get a bunch of people drunk.

These are vessels recovered from the Oseberg find. The pail with the handle is the so-called “Buddha bucket,” and it may have been large enough to hold a lot of booze. An Irish Arts Review paper (sorry, cached copy – can’t get to the full thing) mentions that the thing is 36 cm tall, and tapers from 32 cm to 26 cm in diameter. Using a handy volume calculator, a cylinder 36 cm tall and 32 cm in diameter should have a volume of ~29,000 cc, or 29 L. Of course, this tapers to 26 cm in diameter (a cylinder whose volume is 19 L). Averaging to get a volume estimate for the bucket gives us roughly 24 L – about 6.5 gallons or so. Of course, all of those measurements are probably outside diameter and fail to account for wood thickness – but we’re estimating here.

You can see that the vessel with 4 rings is larger still. And the Oseberg ship itself had a barrel with a capacity of ~750 liters – so the Vikings certainly had the ability to craft wooden vessels of significant capacity.

We also don’t see stone or metal vessels of this size in Viking-age finds. We find them a few hundred years prior in Celtic digs, but Vikings seem to have a decided lack of large stone or metal vessels. We know that their woodworking was excellent – the ships we’ve uncovered show masterful craftsmanship – so this seems to make a degree of sense. It seems that Viking-age vessels of significant capacity may have been made primarily of wood.

One thing to note is that all of the buckets pictured above are made of yew – which is a toxic wood. The toxins dissolve quite readily in alcohol, so I doubt that these specific vessels were used to hold alcohol. One vessel did have wild apples and a ladle, so I suppose it is possible. However, they certainly serve as evidence of a type of vessel that Vikings made, and which could possibly serve as a “skapker.”

I’ve mentioned before that Viking-era drinking vessels were smaller (most are around 6 – 8 fluid ounces), so a 6.5 gallon bucket of ale will go a long way for a lot of people. Ale was most often drunk during celebrations and feast gatherings, so many people would be available to drink it. A 6 gallon batch of ale contains roughly 50 pints, which is 100 servings of ale in Viking-era cups (assuming an 8-ounce average). Plenty of booze to get 20 – 30 people drunk – a size of party that is documentable in the sagas.

In the saga of Hakon the Good, we find that Hakon directed the Vikings to celebrate Yule at the same time as the Christians. He also issued a decree about ale. The decree is often translated as “and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.”

The “meal of malt” part is especially interesting, because the Old Norse text doesn’t actually say that. It says:

ok skyldi þá hverr maðr eiga mælis öl, en gjalda fé ella, en halda heilagt meðan jólin ynnist.

I’ve bolded the part that is usually translated as “meal of malt.” There is an Old Norse word for malt – shockingly, it’s “malt,” – and yet it appears nowhere in this text. In fact, “mælis” primarily means “measure, and the compound “mælis-öl” specifically means “a measure of ale, approximately six and a half gallons” according to Cleasby/Vigfusson.

Well look at that. 6.5 gallons would be about enough to fuel a good party, or a family for a week. And we have direct archaeological evidence of wooden buckets of at least that capacity. The examples are decorated with metal – expensive in the Viking age – so it seems reasonable to believe that they may be reserved for special occasion use.

The figure on the “Buddha bucket” might be connected to a Celtic harvest deity – indicating a possible sacramental intent. A sacramental vessel that is large enough to fit descriptions of containers from the era? It’s plausible.


From all of this, the most reasonable conclusion I can draw is that the “skapker” was probably the primary fermentation vessel used in the production of ale/mead, or whatever the sacramental beverage was. It is also likely that said “skapker” was a specific vessel made of wood, whose capacity was at least 5 – 6 gallons, and was likely decorated with metal or figures to denote its sacramental status.

The “ever-flowing mead” imagery makes me think that they likely kept using the same vessel over and over, dumping onto the dregs of what was left. Even if there were no dregs, wood is absorbent and will harbor yeast – so by re-using the same wooden vessel for years, you create a vessel with a house strain of yeast that will ferment whatever goes into it.

A dedicated “working vat,” made of wood, re-used for generations. Ale is ladeled directly from it through a mead strainer, into horns, and served to guests.

Hey, it sounds better than a “sheep vat,” right?


10 comments on “Brewing With Egil: Sheep Vat’s Deep Drafts

  1. Lilli Haicken says:

    I’ve read about how wooden vessels were used elsewhere in the world for fermentation, simply because people knew that SOMETHING in the wood helped fermentation along. They probably didn’t know how yeasts worked, but they understood that using a vessel over and over again produced good drink.

    This blog has gotten me more interested in Vikings. Thanks!

  2. Joel Lord says:

    50 pints is enough to get 20-30 people drunk? This stuff would have been lower alcohol content than today’s hard-core beers, 2 of which don’t get me drunk at 140 lbs. I’m guessing 50 pints might be enough to get 10 people good and going (and going…) but not 20-30.

    • Well, my fermentation was far from complete. If we’re looking at serial re-pitching, each batch will get off to a stronger, faster start. So it’s conceivable that we could get about 8% ABV out of that. 6 gallons of that should get a party intoxicated.

      And of course, some herbal additions they used are known to be psychoactive – so it’s possible that it was drugged and boozy.

      But then again, I won’t know any of this until I try it out and see what happens. Time to make buckets!

  3. Kythe says:

    So i’m thinking In Norse mythology, the Poetic Mead or Mead of Poetry (Old Norse skáldskapar mjaðar), I’m more inclined to believe that skapar is the mead beverage itself and not so much the container it’s being made in. You may have a case where the product is behind the container it’s in. Goat Vat Mead may be a better translation after all.

    • Be careful with the words there. “Skapar” and “skapker,” while close, are distinct. “Mjaðar” is the word that refers to mead – “skáldskapar” is really a compound of “skáld” and “skapar.” “Skapar” is rooted in “skapa,” which means “to work.” “Skáld” means, well, “skald” – that is, poet. So the word literally translates to “poet-work.”

      “The mead of poet-work.”

      “Skapker” is more properly rendered “skap-ker.” “Ker” is seen in other places as referring to vessels or tubs. In addition, as we see in the poem above, “skapker” is acted upon by the verb “fylla,” which means “to fill.” The literal word-for-word of that line is “skapker fill she will the pure mead.” Norse poetry tends to be syntactically screwy, but I think we can reasonably interpret that line as “she fills the skapker with the pure mead.”

      Other occurrences of “skapker” help show that it’s a vessel. We see it being carried, and mentioned separately from “ol.” We also see it used to refer to a vessel that holds drink itself: “skapker ok mungát” from Egil’s saga means “skapker of small ale.”

      But the words do seem to come from a similar root. They likely all dance around the same topic – and in reality, if the vessel is tightly tied to the beverage, there may not be much effective separation. We already tie wines to regions, and beer changes completely depending on the container in which it’s fermented.

      I would say that the preponderance of literary evidence is in favor of “skapker” referring to a vessel – but that vessel was probably so tightly tied to the production of a sacramental beverage that the two things share brainspace.

  4. Claire Siconolfi says:

    I think this is my favourite post so far.

    I’m very intrigued by the wood absorbing the yeast and becoming stronger over time. It kind of reminded me of well seasoned cast-iron pots that were passed down through family lines, getting better with age and use.

  5. Carolyn Priest-Dorman says:

    I think the buckets from the Oseberg burial are more likely to have been serving vessels than actual working vats.

    • I think those specific buckets were probably decorative. At least, I’d hope so – all of the finds are made of yew, which is an extremely toxic wood. I haven’t done the math yet, but the rate of absorption of the yew toxin from sawdust dissolved in alcohol is quite high.

      It’s conceivable, though. In smaller doses, the toxin acts as a hallucinogen (shocking!), and it contributes to a feeling of “intoxication.” So I’m not sure.

      My hypothesis is that the working (i.e. fermentation) vat and the serving vat were the same vat. The skapker can definitely be identified as a serving vat, and at least one saga depicts the skapker being carried into the hall so that other vessels might be filled. It seems plausible that you’d have a fancy presentation vessel, and then make some kind of production out of filling serving vessels and carrying them around.

      The mead strainer is what makes me think that it may have also been a working vat. If you have to filter stuff out of the drink, then it means that there’s stuff floating in there – chunks of fruit, grain, yeast rafts, and so on. It’s possible that they had a primary and a secondary vat – but if we’re looking at a somewhat resource-poor environment, I don’t know if it makes sense to have that many extra vessels. It probably wasn’t fermented that long anyway – the saga of Hakon the Good indicates that you had to keep ale for all of Yule, but you could hypothetically brew the day before and be fine – so even the serving vat would be a sort of fermentation vat.

      Do you know of capacitous metal or stoneware vessels from the time period? Everything I’ve seen indicates to me that the wooden vessels were probably the largest, and would be the most suitable for large fermentation vats.

  6. […] I argued that “skap-ker” was a reference to a combination working vat/serving vat. The same vessel that was used to hold the fermenting beverage was also used as a display item. I […]

  7. […] 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 – […]

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