Back to the Drawing Board

To-date, the projects I’ve discussed on this blog have been successful, to one extent or another.

It seems disingenuous to have written an entire entry about the necessity of being wrong – of screwing it up from time to time – while also never telling you about the times that have screwed up. Had something go awry or unplanned. “Gang aft agley,” to use the words of Burns.

Even the greatest of us can’t be perfect all the time – though I try my hardest.

So let’s talk about salt.

If this was all I had to eat, I’d probably sail somewhere warm and murder a bunch of monks too.

Numerous texts about the Viking era make references to salt of some type or another. This is hardly surprising; salt is generally believed to have been an essential commodity in the ancient world. Hell, it’s pretty essential right now. In the time before refrigeration, salt (combined with other processing methods – typically drying) was really the only way to preserve  highly-perishable meats (and other foods). The average person in the Middle Ages probably didn’t eat a lot of meat as a result of that – it had to be prepared fresh, or else salted beyond most reasonable recognition and used in some other type of dish. This probably explains why roasted meats were often A Big Deal in ancient feasts – having access to fresh meat meant you were wealthy enough to afford it.

But “salt” is a pretty generic term that can be applied to countless products. When we use it, we tend to refer to the familiar processed purified sodium chloride table salt that we use with frequency. The scientific meaning of salt encompasses far more than just white cubes of flavor enhancement; virtually any solid product of a neutralization reaction is a “salt” of some kind.

I’ve also discussed the error of bringing pre-conceived notions into historical research. OK, so we know “salt” generally means some kind of stable ion-anionic compound. That’s probably good enough to figure out what they meant when they talked about “salt” in the Viking age, right?

Maybe not. From a 15th century manuscript in Dublin (23 D 43 from the Royal Irish Academy), we have the Old Icelandic Medical Miscellany, and its recipe for something called “Lord’s Salt:”

One shall take cloves and mace, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, ginger an equal weight of each except cinnamon, of which there shall be just as much as of all the others, and as much baked bread as all that has been said above. And he shall cut it all together and grind it in strong vinegar; and put it in a cask. That is their salt and it is good for half a year.

Wait, what? There’s no mention of anything salt-like in here – just vinegar, bread, and spices.

Remember that our knowledge of ancient methodology is conveyed through translation. At some point, a translator simply has to decide what word best fits the “sense” of what he’s reading. Since salt was used primarily as a preservative in the ancient world (and not a seasoning as is its primary use today), it is conceivable that the word we’re translating as “salt” might mean something more akin to “preservative.”

Indeed, that Lord’s Salt is just a pickling solution – but it would accomplish the goal of preserving whatever went into it. We can see how something as simple as “salt” can be far more nuanced than the translation would lead us to believe.

Pliny documents several kinds of salt, some of which sound like our modern sea salt and others of which sound like other types of mineral salt. He even notes that some people make salt by pouring seawater over burning wood and coals. These various processing methods would all introduce different minerals to the “salt,” which would account for the variety that he documents. Contamination with vegetative matter (i.e. burned wood) would create an alkaline salt with a probably significant nitrate or nitrite content. Some methods involve boiling down seawater over fires; this would likely add a smoky character to the salt, as well as some lighter vegetative contamination.

1000 years from now, some poor bastard is going to do half-assed translation work and make the most interesting ham ever known.

So what did the Vikings probably do? Well, there are several words related to salt in Old Norse:

  • salt-brenna: translates to “salt-burning” and was often used as an insult
  • salt-fjara: A salt-beach, where the burning supposedly happens.
  • salt-ketill: A “salt-kettle,” possibly used in salt production. Maybe a vat to hold seawater which is boiled down over a fire – see below.

“Salt-burning” is an interesting concept. One can see how pouring seawater over burning wood may be thought of as “salt-burning.” “Salt-kettle” makes me think that a kettle may be involved, and Pliny does refer to salt-pans used to boil water – so that’s possible. It may also be a pot to hold something as it burns into salt.

The “salt-beach” is interesting because it has a possible connection to kelp-burning, which has been practiced in Scotland for a while and was allegedly practiced in Iceland as well. This too would make sense as “salt-burning,” and we know that plant ashes contain a variety of salt compounds – so it could actually have a preservative effect. I imagine Icelanders building fires on the shores where they’ve collected kelp to dry, and burning the dried kelp to ash. Totally plausible.

So I drilled down and decided to focus on the kelp-burning thing, because it sounded the most wonky and interesting to me. There’s a company in northwest Iceland that harvests kelp for commercial use, called Thorvin; I got my hands on some of their animal-feed meal (I’m going to burn the hell out of it, so who cares if it’s for people or animals), and set to work.

Burning kelp meal is difficult. I started off by trying to burn it in a heap, but the lack of proper airflow in the middle of a kelp pile stopped that from being viable. A friend of mine suggested that we “burn it like food” in a cast-iron pot. Brilliant! That even fits the “salt-kettle” model I’d mentioned before – perhaps this would be a viable method of producing salt.

I will tell you right now that blackening kelp meal smells awful. Imagine the smell of low tide – and then set it on fire.

We burned and burned and burned – and while we never actually combusted any of the material, we certainly got it to change:

Holy shit, it’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

As I said, pyrolysed vegetable matter should provide an appreciable nitrite or nitrate content, so this should hypothetically cure anything to which I apply it. The stuff tasted something like burned ocean – a bit salty, a bit smoky, and a bit gritty. Awesome! This should work!

I ran a little experiment:

From left to right: 160 g of beef treated with a salt/sugar mix (A), a salt/sugar/curing salt mix (B), the burned kelp (C), and not treated with anything (OK, maybe some salt and pepper).

A, B, and C were thoroughly rubbed with the mixes and left in the fridge overnight. The last one was simply left in the fridge overnight untreated. The next day, I rinsed and pan-fried all of them – the un-treated one is shown post-cooking already.

This is what I found for all three products:

The first pictures shows A and B from left to right. You can see that A simply looks like cooked steak (albeit salty and with a more turgid texture), while B has the distinct pink hue of a cured red meat product (with a salty, tangy flavor and turgid texture).

The second picture shows the test, C. The burned kelp.

It tasted like a plain steak. Nice soft texture, no saltiness. Nothing. Just like the control un-treated steak.

In other words, it didn’t work.

I thought this would make a “salt” much more akin to something I’m used to today, and all of my knowledge indicated to me that it was a likely outcome.

Now, a little more elaboration on what I learned from the experiment itself. The burned kelp, when it was applied to the beef, formed a sort of “coating” rather akin to a very thin latex paint. Parts of it would come away together. Interesting. It appears that the burned kelp “sealed” the steak, preventing any water escape – and presumably preventing any mineral diffusion. Upon further analysis, this isn’t actually that surprising, because the way in which we burned the kelp is quite similar to the way in which tar is produced. We effectively removed the moisture content and left behind incompletely-combusted carbon compounds – likely some various hydrocarbons.

Creosote is a similar byproduct of burning vegetative matter, and is the portion of smoke that is responsible for preserving meat. Creosote can build up because of the incomplete combustion of organic matter – much like we did with the cast iron pot.

And creosote was once used to preserve meat. It wouldn’t salt the meat – rather, it would “seal” it and prevent anything external from spoiling it.

This is why I promote the necessity of failure: because it simply shows us a different way of thinking about our ideas. As I look over my failed experiment – results that did not go as I thought they would – I realize that I’ve only just begun to poke at this.

Perhaps this is just another form of “salt” that would have been used – a hydrocarbon-heavy coating that would extend the “fresh” shelf-life of the meat in question, an early method of creosote production that was lost or superseded.

Perhaps I need to figure out a way to combust the kelp – burn it like fuel until I’ve got potash, and use that.

And there are other potential avenues for me to investigate still.

This is how science works. We observe, we hypothesize, we test, we re-design. Even in failing, we gain useful information that we can use to refine our positions – and often, failure helps us to realize that we’ve been stubbornly persisting on the wrong track for some time.

Plus, this gives me a great excuse to over-engineer some contraption to better light shit on fire. Who doesn’t love that?


Take a Cock and Boil Him Well


Last time, I mentioned briefly that I had choked a chicken and made him into beer. This is a thing which requires a degree of elaboration.

Cock ale is a beverage whose earliest attestation dates from the mid-17th century, in the writings of Sir Kenelm Digby. Dibgy is a popular source among SCAdians and other historical brewers, as this text is essentially a large collection of booze recipes; most are various sorts of meads or other honey-based beverages, but we also find a handful of ale techniques, as well as this recipe for something called “cock ale:”

Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.



It’s worth noting a few things at this juncture:

  1. The “gallon” in question at the time (~1669) was most likely the English ale gallon, with a volume of ~288 cubic inches. Of course, measurement standardization was still spotty at such a time, and a range of volumes were possible, from 270 to 288 cubic inches being found. For reference, our standard gallon is 231 cubic inches in volume – that means that a “gallon” of ale in 1669 occupied a space roughly 20% larger than the current US gallon. So that “8 gallons of ale” is more like 9.6 gallons.
  2. The wording in the recipe is not totally straightforward. A fellow historical brewing nutjob, who is quite good at it, has a version of this technique where he boils the chicken in the wort while making the beer. Seems like it can be a valid reading. Another reading seems to indicate that you boil the rooster but don’t do anything with it; the direction to “beat these all in a mortar” seems to refer most directly to fruit and sherry. My reading is that you boil the rooster (after cleaning and gutting him), cut or chop him up, mix him with the fruit and sherry, and put that all in the ale. But that’s just one possible interpretation – nothing is definitive here. A later version of the recipe does agree with this interpretation, so I am confident that this is a plausible method.
  3. Sack” is an archaic term that was used to refer broadly to all fortified Spanish wines. The most commonly available iteration today is sherry, but not all sack is sherry.
  4. The rooster I used is called a Golden Polish, and its roots date back to roughly the 16th century. In fact, evidence of crested chickens goes back to the 4th century CE.
  5. His name was Death Cluck. Don’t you forget it.


Of course, all of this is useless without an ale as a starting point. At this point in brewing history, “ale” and “beer” were distinct products. A late 16th/early 17th century text by Gervase Markham, entitled The English Housewife, contains recipes for both “beer” and “ale” (pp 206 – 209).

In general, “ale” was a higher-alcohol unhopped product that is somewhat akin to barley wines, and which may have been flavored with herbs; “beer” was a mid-range product (~5% ABV) that used hops as a preservative, and rarely had an additional herbal component. Markham’s technique for both versions of “ale” – strong and bottle – would produce high-sugar products with a large potential alcohol content.

Digby documents something he calls “small ale for the stone.” He also documents an “ale with honey,” which is a drink made of honey mixed with small ale. Digby’s use of language is very precise; he says “small ale,” “ale,” and “strong ale” to talk about different products. My conclusion is that his “8 gallons of ale” meant something stronger than a “small ale” but not as strong as a “strong ale.” This is probably more akin to Markham’s “bottle ale” or his own “ale with honey” – as Digby calls this an “ale” expressly.

So to make my “ale” base, I used two other Digby recipes: “small ale for the stone,” which served as the base for “ale with honey.” That “ale with honey” served as the base for the “cock-ale.”


Small Ale for the Stone (~4.5 gallon batch)

  • 3 quarts wheat malt
  • 2.5 quarts Maris Otter pale malt
  • 0.5 quarts crystal rye malt
  • 0.5 quarts chocolate rye malt
  • 0.5 quarts 6-row malt
  • 1/2 oz Hallertau hop pellets

Digby’s recipe ultimately calls for 1.5 pecks of malt and 15 gallons of water. The gallon used to measure water was likely the same as the wine gallon – ~231 cubic inches. He also instructs you to tun it into a barrel of 8 gallons – presumably ale gallons, which would be ~9.5 conventional gallons. You probably wouldn’t fill the barrel completely, so this recipe likely made 8 or 9 gallons of ale.

That’s more booze than I could handle, so I cut the recipe in half (7.5 gallons and 0.75 pecks of malt). There are 4 pecks in a bushel, and the bushel at the time was roughly 9.2 conventional gallons in volume (~2130 cubic inches, close to the actual volume of the bushel today). That means that a peck was 9.2 modern quarts – 3/4 of that is roughly 7 quarts.

The recipe calls for a half ounce of hops (the measures for weight of foods at the time were the same as ours today), but as I already had a half ounce of Hallertau left, and I didn’t want a useless quarter ounce kicking around, I just put the full amount into half the volume. It barely makes a difference in IBU content anyhow. I also didn’t boil the water with hops first – instead, I added them to the second boil (the wort boil), and reduced the ingoing water by 1 gallon (to account for what I would have lost by boiling).

The recipe seems to be a mish-mash of different malts – that’s because I was using what I had on hand, and wanted to get rid of some small weights of grain that weren’t doing me much good. Malt at the time was primarily barley, but could be made of wheat or rye as well, as Markham documents in another work.

I brewed the beer like you do anything else – heat the water up, dump it on the grain, let it sit for an hour, drain the wort, boil with hops, cool, pitch yeast. I used Munton’s dry ale yeast on this guy, because I had it on hand.

My final yield was a touch over 4 gallons – about 4.25. Gravity was 1.048, roughly what I expected. I let this ferment for about 5 days, until the strong fermentation was done, and then dragged it out to Rhode Island for Phase II.

I am a highly-educated, reasonably-paid, ostensibly mature adult.

Ale with Honey

  • 4 gallons small ale (above)
  • 0.5 gallons honey (local raw honey)

Digby works in larger quantites, so I reduced by a factor of 10. For those who don’t know, a gallon of honey weighs ~12 pounds – so this technique has me adding 6 pounds of honey to 4 gallons of finished ale. That’s a lot of sugar to be adding; the recipe becomes roughly 40% grain sugars and 60% honey sugars, making it more like a braggot. Because the ale was done, I didn’t take a gravity reading after the honey addition – but it was probably in the 1.100 range, which is pretty damn strong and has a high alcohol potential.

Before all of this, of course, I had slaughtered, gutted, and cleaned Death Cluck – with some assistance from Phil and his dad. It was interesting to use a heritage breed of rooster that hadn’t been raised for meat; the meat on the carcass was quite dark, and had a liver-like aroma after boiling. That’s likely because of the high blood flow to the rooster’s muscles, as he was running around doing rooster stuff for his whole life.

As I was heating a gallon of the beer to dissolve the honey, I was letting half of Death Cluck’s boiled carcass steep in 1 quart of sherry, 2 pounds of raisins, 4 oz of dates, and ~ 5 grams each of nutmeg and mace (a single nutmeg is ~4 – 5 grams, and I decided to equal it with mace). Since I only had a touch over 4 gallons of ale, and Digby called for 8 (really 9), I just cut the entire recipe in half.

If you’re wondering, Phil and his finacee Chie kept the other half of the rooster and turned him into soup. He was delicious, and will be missed.

Once I had the honey dissolved, everything went into the fermenter – the honey/ale mix, the rooster carcass, and all the fruit and sherry. That went on to ferment for about another 12 days (I got sidetracked), and finished up at a nice 1.010 FG.

Through various testing means, I’ve estimated the final alcohol content of this beast to be ~15%. Trust me, it tastes like it – along with sherry, raisins, a bit of spice, and a touch of umami.

There are several possible reasons why this technique may have been employed. We find a tradition, starting in about the 14th century, of middle-class folks adulterating cheap wines to “improve” them. Additions most often include eggs (still used to clarify wine today), milk or cream, various spices, herbs, honey, fruit, and fortified wines. It seems that the intent was to replicate the flavor profile and texture of the more sought-after fortified Spanish wines, while also clarifying the product. This would save money while giving people a taste of higher-class beverages. It is conceivable that this escalated all the way to adding an actual bird to an ale (which was more like a wine anyway) in order to “improve” it.

It is also conceivable that it was done for superstitious medical reasons. We find at least one instance of cock ale being used as a remedy, and it was alleged that at least one king preferred it to wine. It was said to “raise the spirits” and other such nonsense. Seeing as how the rooster is often associated with masculinity and virility, it makes a degree of superstitious sense.

And seriously, this stuff will put hair on your chest. 15% ABV ain’t no joke.

It’s been fairly well received so far, though the product is far too young to drink right now. I estimate that it will have smoothed out somewhat by the new year – I’ll try cracking some more open then, and seeing how it’s changed.

This has been quite an interesting experiment. I had never thought that the literal combination of meat and drink could work out, but this has been quite enjoyable. It doesn’t taste at all like chicken; the carcass had simply added an earthy richness to the drink, which is complemented nicely by the dark fruit flavors and warm spices. I believe that the use of a heritage breed – that was actually living as a rooster and not a meat animal – was vital in getting that earthiness across. The base product is a very strong ale, so a more mild-tasting chicken would probably have disappeared from the flavor profile. As it is, Death Cluck has added an umami component to the product, making it very rich-tasting. Decadent, to an extent. Very silky and smooth.

But where to go from here?

What? This? Pork sausage. What did you think I was talking about?

Brat-toberfest. You heard it here first – meated beer is going to become a thing for me.

You have been warned.