Brewing With Egil: Revisiting the Past

Huzzah! The move is completed! Life has begun to settle back down, and now I think I can return to a normal-ish update schedule: every other week, on Sunday.

We shall see how long that lasts.

I’ve written a fair bit about the necessity of being wrong and on the need to occasionally revisit your work because of that. This is all good and well. So today, I’m going to revisit some of my earlier research and share with you what I’ve learned since. I’ll also report on my most recently-completed Viking-era brewing experiment (preview: it was awful), and document the next attempt I started literally today.

That’s right, I’m reporting this to you live.

“Gruit goes in, ol comes out, never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.”
To be fair, they couldn’t either.

On the Meanings of “Gruit” and “Mealt”

A bit ago, I talked about my speculations on the exact meanings of words such as “gruit” and “mealt,” and how they may have actually been implemented. I’ve been revisiting my conclusions, and inspired by some other evidence, have been winding down a slightly different path.

Previously, I argued that both “mealt” and “gruit” referred to an herbed grain mixture. This still holds for “gruit,” I contend; between the meaning of “grut,” the connections to herbal remedies in the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, and the method described in the Talmud (which is also medicinal), that connection is well-established.

“Mealt” is a little stickier, though. I never had a solid connection to herbs, and sort of presumed it by its connection to “gruit.” Recently, I discovered a 19th-century translation of the Senchas Márone of the texts compiling ancient Irish law. In it, on pages 241 – 243, we find a description of both the production and the “testing” of malt – which is called “braich.” This may be a general term meaning “grain;” I’m not familiar with Gaelic, so I will accept the translation as presented (for now). There are two critical things about this method: 1) if valid, this is probably the earliest written record of a full production method for ancient malt; and 2) the method describes the stuff being made into “cakes,” but never being mixed with herbs.

There is a possible route of cultural transmission from the Northern Irish to the Western Scots; there are shared linguistic and genetic roots between the two groups. It is conceivable that such processing methodology was passed from the ancient Irish to the people who would become the Scots. We know that the Norse later purchased “malt” from the Scots – so it’s conceivable that they were actually using “malt” that was produced in a manner similar to what is described here.

Given that it was turned into “cakes,” it is plausible that the stuff was still sour-leavened – the rest of my arguments regarding “malt” would hold true. The use of cakes for transportation and storage makes sense; loose grain requires a very solid piece of fabric for sacking material, which would be likely difficult to produce in the era. Cakes could be carried in the equivalent of netting, a more utilitarian form of container that is not as hard to produce. The cakes would probably still be dried in a manner not unlike the “gruit” cake, as the drying would help preserve the grain.

So I am now considering “mealt” and “gruit” to be completely distinct products with some similarities.

Hops: The Debate Rages

There are many impassioned arguments about the usage (or not) of hops in ancient beverages. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one, because that’s a much longer to discussion. To whit:

1) There is no physical evidence directly linking any plant product to any brewing activity in the Viking era – because we really don’t have complete products. All such connections are necessarily speculative, based on plants finds in proximity to sites.

In other words, there is no more evidence that any herb was used in Viking-era brewing than there is that hops were used in Viking-era brewing.

2) There is physical evidence that, among other plants, hops were present on Viking-era celebratory and burial sites.

3) There is documentary evidence that hops were being used in brewing as early as 822 CE (via decree of Abbot Adalhard of Corby).

4) There is physical evidence (the Graveny boat) that Vikings were importing hops.

5) Hops have a traditional use in herbal medicine – which I have already thoroughly connected to Viking-era brewing.

6) There is no evidence that hops were ever used exclusively in brewing in the Viking era.

My most reasonable conclusion I can draw: the above-mentioned “gruit” may have contained hops, but probably did not contain hops exclusively. It would have likely been present in a mixture of other locally-grown herbs.

This should piss some people off, I’m sure of it.


OK, OK, The Vats Weren’t Made of Sheep

I mean, it was fun speculation and all, but I’m pretty sure the vats were made of wood. And I’ve hit on a very specific vat.

Previously, 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 argued that a particular brewing vessel type (the “Buddha bucket”) served as an example of a type of bucket that could fit such a purpose.

I’m starting to believe that there may have been multiple vessels involved in a multi-path brewing process. I also believe I have speculatively identified a bucket that could have actually served as a brewing vessel.

This bucket, figure 94 in the second volume of Osebergfundet vol. II, is very interesting. It’s made of fir, is roughly 5.5 gallons in capacity, is of a “wet” use type, and is fairly plain. It’s bound by 9 beech hoops which are further secured by iron tacks. It’s probable that the hoops were tacked down to ensure that the bucket doesn’t fall apart; “wet-use” buckets typically need to stay wet in order to stay together, as the swollen wood provides the needed tension. The tacks would allow the hoops to maintain their pressure even if the bucket dried out.

It is also inscribed with runes of ownership – a rare thing in Viking-era finds, and a culturally significant phenomenon.  Runes were often inscribed on items that were of extreme importance and significance to the owner – items without which they simply could not be. A warrior might, for example, inscribe ownership runes on his sword.

The runes translate to “Sigrid owns [me].” Sigrid is a female name, and she has inscribed runes on this relatively plain wooden bucket (other Oseberg finds are far more elaborate than this). No other bucket is so marked.

So we have a “wet” bucket, with additional securing measures, inscribed with runes of ownership by a woman. The runes and extra securing measures seem to indicate that the bucket is of extreme importance to the owner. That it’s owned by a woman indicates that it’s for a job that women historically performed. That it is of a “wet” type further tells us that the type of work involves liquid.

My conclusion: this is the working-vat for brewing. The wood may contain a native yeast culture, which would serve to explain the ownership runes – that particular bucket was essential for Sigrid’s work, because it probably contained her personalized yeast strain. It’s also conceivable that it was a bucket for medicinal preparation – but then again, medicine and brewing are already tightly connected.

A Method Revised

From this, I conclude a two-part brewing system: one involves the production of “ealu” or “brauð” using “gruit” in a specialized vessel, and the second part involves mixing the first product with a quantity of sweet liquid to make “öl.” The sweet liquid could be honey-water (“hydromel,” glossed as I’ve discussed before), or could possibly be a liquor derived from “mealt” (which I now understand to be distinct from “gruit”).

The ingredients for “gruit” are probably still the same as I’ve described before: grain, oil seeds, herbs, and saltwater. This essentially serves as a yeast culture medium; the grains provide nutrients, while the oil seeds provide a mild antimicrobial effect. The herbs would provide flavor and whatever medicinal properties they may have. When dumped into the designated bucket, the liquid becomes a medium for yeast growth as the trapped yeast cells now have a food source. Fermentation proceeds.

The result of that fermentation could also be combined with other sugars as I mention above. Anglo-Saxon writings advise pregnant women to avoid consuming beór, and the Talmud’s “zeethos” carries a similar warning. It’s worth noting that both flax seeds and safflower seeds have been associated with miscarriages and spontaneous abortions; it seems reasonable that both beór and zeethos shared oil seeds as a significant ingredient. This helps corroborate the use of “gruit” as a precursor ingredient.

“Gruit” is also used to indicate the “dregs” of brewing in the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms, again seeming to indicate that it is fermented prior to being used to make beór.

Such a technique is still in use today – many modern breweries will make a “small” beer, and then use the leftover yeast to start a “big” beer. Running through an easy fermentation ensures that you have a healthy, thriving yeast population; pitching healthy thriving yeast ensures a rapid and clean fermentation. For many high-gravity beers, pitching actively growing yeast is the only way to get them to start – and given that “beór” is glossed with “hydromel,” I’m willing to bet that it was a high-gravity brew.

So how am I making this stuff now?

This tasted like beef gravy. Have you ever fermented beef gravy? Here’s a hint: DON’T.

Somewhat interestingly. The above-pictured experiment is from a modification of my original mucking about; here, I omitted the flax seeds (because I had them packed up – but as I indicate above, they were probably always in use) and used peated malt as my base grain. Finds of corn-drying kilns from Scotland indicate a variety of woods as the possible fuel sources, as well as peat. As you get farther north in Scotland, peat becomes more prevalent; this is most likely the type of fuel that would have fired a kiln in the Orkneys in the Viking era.

So I took peated malt, herbs, and salt, and made them into sourdough biscuits as I’ve done before. I kept the same ratio as in my initial experiment: 4 biscuits (~1 cup crushed) per quart of water. Heat slowly to just under a boil. Mix with honey, and ferment. This time around, I also added some fruit to the mix – plums, as they’re found all over the place in the Viking era (as are crab apples and polar berries – other good candidates for additives).

It took me a while to place the flavor that resulted, but after a friend of mine tried it and nearly vomited in disgust, the answer was found:

Hot dogs.

The formula  of 1 part biscuit, 1 part honey, 3 parts water, and brewer’s yeast produces something that tastes exactly like the water leftover from boiling hot dogs, albeit highly concentrated.

Concentrated hot dog water. With booze.

It was not good.

This concerned me, because I really didn’t want to make something terrible. It also didn’t really taste sweet at all, so I figured that was a good enough excuse to say “NOPE! BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD!”

A normal, rational person would make hot dog water ONCE and then learn from it. But I’m a scientist: I have to do this at least three times before I can accept that it’s a bad idea.

So, obviously, I have to add back in the flax seeds (since they’re probably a very major component of gruit) – because if there’s anything that can improve hot dog water, it’s flax seed. This time, however, I’m altering the ratios.

Given that I’m looking at a two-stage fermentation in two different vessels, it stands to reason that different mixing steps might apply. The 1:4 fermentable:water ratio is reflected all throughout brewing history; I’ve decided to stick with that quite firmly, and apply it twice.

So the glop in the above-pictured jar is 1:4 biscuit/flax:water. 1 cup of a 50/50 mix crushed peated malt biscuit and flax seeds, and 4 cups of water. Heated slowly as I’ve done before. The whole mess is getting fermented by some dry Nottingham yeast.

Whatever liquid results from this will be mixed in a 1:4 ratio into some honey water which itself was prepared in a 1:4 ratio. So if I have 500 ml of fermented hot dog/flax water, I’ll add that to 2 L of honey water (with some fruit thrown in because hey it can’t get worse) which is made from 400 mL of honey and 1.60 L of water. That hot dog water is derived from ~250 mL of biscuit added to 1 L of water.

That should severely reduce the impact of the peated malt (taking it from 20% of the contents to something like 5%, which is far more normal for peated malt use) and bring this much more into the realm of a Scotch ale style. I’m considering using a strong ale base instead of honey water – that’d make it much more like a wee heavy, and given the prospective path of true malt production, it’s much more feasible than before.

Experiments are afoot! I’ll report back when I have findings, but for now: I’m going to stop all this typing and get back to reading.


4 comments on “Brewing With Egil: Revisiting the Past

  1. Kythe says:

    When you started talking about Hotdog water, I was expecting that .gif where the guy shakes the kelbasa. I’m very disapointed it wasn’t there.

  2. […] my latest attempt at making this stuff saw a revisit of my approach. After considerable additional research and […]

  3. […] 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 – they may have even been used […]

  4. […] speculative brewing method involves rendering the malt into “cakes,” reflecting a malting method documented in the early Irish Senchas Már (which discusses […]

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