Brewing with Egil: Holy Hell, It Doesn’t Suck! (Or: Crossing the Streams)

Last time, I talked at length about my latest failure in reproducing Viking-era ale: concentrated essence of vodka-soaked hot dogs.

Can you taste it yet? Can you imagine the cornucopia of flavor in your mouth? The delicious salty smokey flavor of highly-processed extruded meat product, coupled with the mouth-puckering taste of soured honey water, wrapped in the delicate aroma of a half-digested lunch?

My friends, science is dangerous. It removes that part of the brain where “common sense” usually resides, and causes us to put unwise things in our mouths.


But today is not a day for unwise mouths. Today is a day of triumph! The hot dog wars are won! And I’m going to tell you about it!

It’s funny every damn time.

So my latest attempt at making this stuff saw a revisit of my approach. After considerable additional research and discussion with various people, I envisioned a two-part production system for Viking boozemahol: part one involves producing an iteration of a non-alcoholically fermented nutritive/medicinal grain beverage, and then using that product to start a larger quantity of sweet liquor.

I added oil seeds back to a dried malt biscuit (made using peat malt) at a rate of 1:1 by volume, to mimic the ratios documented in the Talmudic description of “zythum” (1/3 grain, 1/3 oil seed, 1/3 “salt” or probably “brine”). The biscuit was already salted, so it was a matter of tossing in some oil seeds. I used a 1:4 biscuit/seed mix (1/2 cup crushed biscuit and 1/2 cup flax seeds), mixed into a quart of water and heated slowly on the stove. The product allowed to cool, and then poured into a Mason jar. Add yeast and wait a while (about a week), then strain the liquid out.

The nutritive beverage essentially serves as a yeast production medium, allowing the yeast to multiply without actually producing significant alcohol. They also digest the grains and assist in extracting oil from oil seeds in the process, creating a sort of nutritive “liquid bread” that could also be used as a medicine. This actually makes a lot of sense; yeast require unsaturated fatty acids (read: plant-derived oil) during growth to synthesize their cell walls, and some nerds have run experiments confirming that, indeed, adding oil to a yeast starter greatly promotes yeast growth – more than even oxygenation.

The experiment above was an interesting one: the filtered liquid had the consistency of oil, was slightly carbonated, had no discernible alcohol (despite having gone for a week), and tasted fucking awful and smelled even worse.

Imagine vomit plus slightly rotting grain and a vague hint of olives. Then put it in your mouth.

That, my friends, is science.

Those who have been following along for a while may remember that my initial research already pointed me at this conclusion – that is, two different production streams for grain beverages in the ancient world: an unfermented or lightly fermented medicinal/nutritive beverage, and a strong alcoholic drink. I had previously thought those two streams were separate, but shared common ingredients. This latest production method essentially involves crossing the two streams at the exudate of the medicinal beverage.

“When someone asks you to cross the streams, you say ‘Back off man, I’m a scientist!'”
I believe this constitutes the greatest density of social currency ever dropped in one place.

In other words, the processing method for making this medicinal beverage would also produce useful byproducts that could be employed for producing other things. Recall that Pliny describes a use for Egyptian “zythum” (or rather, its “spuma”) as a cosmetic applied to the face. Given the oil content of the product I produced, I can see this being rather plausible. Vegetable fats plus vitamins from growing yeast would likely make an excellent facial moisturizer or similar skin treatment. My previous post also discussed my reasoning for seeing this as a precursor to an alcoholic beverage; Anglo-Saxon vocabularies and leechdoms indicate that “gruit” might mean something like “dregs,” both “zythum” and “beor” carry warnings against consumption by pregnant women (indicating that common ingredients may exist in both), and the 14th century Le Ménagier De Paris mentions using “leveçon de cervoise” to start an alcoholic drink.

With all that in mind, I tried it out. I mean, the big question is: does it work?

BwE - The Jug of Stuff BwE - Things In and Around My Mouth

I had ~400 ml of weird oil stuff from the above experiment. I mixed that with 1.6 L of honey-water (which itself was concocted from 320 mL of honey and 1280 mL of water), and have been letting it do its thing for about 5 days now. I literally tasted it an hour ago, and it’s awesome. It’s light, pleasant-to-drink, slightly carbonated, somewhat alcoholic, and has a nice balancing character that I can only presume is added by the medicinal compound. Oddly enough, it smells something like salted olives (which isn’t too surprising, given that it contains both salt and unsaturated vegetable fat); there’s no olive flavor, though there is definitely a savory component that is balancing the sweetness one would normally encounter in such a beverage.

I omitted fruit this time around (so as to not have too many flavors mucking things up), but plums or polar berries would go quite well in this beverage.

And so, I am pleased to report tentative success! We’ll see how this product develops as it continues to age – though I suspect that it would’ve been drunk relatively early on in the Viking era.


Restating the Process

I’ve been told by some that navigating this work is an onerous task, and trust me – it ain’t that easy for me either. So I’m going to attempt a written recap with links to my evidence/prior work; down the road, I hope to construct a sort of “roadmap” that diagrams all the connections between my various findings and pieces of evidence, to help people (including me!) navigate the murky waters of speculation.

I. Medicinal/nutritive grain beverage (MNGB):

Both Pliny and the Talmud discuss the product called “zythum,” which is described as a combination of grain, oil seeds and/or herbs (unclear from the text), and salt or brine; a medicinal use is indicated. Pliny discusses it in conjunction with other grain products (one of which is “cerevisa”), and outside of the context of alcohol. He indicates a similar use for all of the products. Pliny also discusses numerous other remedies derived from barley, and discusses the grain/herb/salt/oil seed compound “polenta” and its uses as a nourishment/medicine.

The Anglo-Saxon vocabularies compiled from the 9th to 12th centuries indicate that the word “eala” is cognate with “cerevisa,” which is one of the grain beverages also discussed by Pliny in his mention of “zythum.” He indicates similar uses between the various products, which I say serves to demonstrate possible similarities between the products. The AngloSaxon leechdoms indicate several medicinal preparations, many of which make use of “eala/ealu/ealo,” all of which are synonymous.

Thus, I conclude a degree of continuity between “zythum,” “cerevisa,” and “eala.” All three appear likely to be forms of a nutritional/medicinal grain drink. The probable ingredients for the nutritional/medicinal grain beverage are grain, oil seeds, salt, and possibly herbs. Pliny’s mention of “spuma” likely indicates that yeast were a factor in the drink, though it was probably not an alcoholic beverage.

Archaeological evidence shows that Vikings had small unleavened “breads” consisting of grains, oil seeds, and local herbs.

II. Strong (likely alcoholic) drink

Beór is seen in the vocabularies as being cognate with “hydromel” or “mulsum.” The leechdoms indicate that pregnant women should avoid drinking it, or else they will give birth prematurely. This is listed separately from precautions against drunkeness, indicating that beór is special in some regard. “Zythum” carries a similar warning, despite being glossed with a different drink (“cerevisa”); it is plausible that the two drinks share some kind of linkage.

Beór is glossed differently than eala, and the two are listed as separate options for certain preparations in the leechdoms. This indicates that beór and eala are separate products with different considerations. In some rare cases, the two appear connected by the gloss “sicera,” indicating that while they are separate products, they are probably related in some capacity. Beór is the etymological root of the modern word “beer.” It appears repeatedly in Anglo-Saxon literature, and is defined in Bosworth-Toller as “strong drink.” This gives it a separate context of use from “cerevisa,” primarily associated with celebrations.

It appears that beór is different from, but related to, “cerevisa” and consequently “zythum.”

The poem “Alvissmal” seems to indicate a relationship between the Norse “ol” and the Anglo-Saxon “beor.” In the literature, “ol” is similarly associated with celebrations.

III. Using “gruit” from MNGB to make a strong drink

Bosworth-Toller indicates that “grut” is a remnant of another product: “condimentum cerevisae.” It also means “fine meal,” and is glossed accordingly (with “pollis” in the vocabularies). “Grut” is the etymological root of “gruit,” commonly understood today to indicate a mixture of herbs used for flavoring beer.

In the Treatise of Walter de Bibbesworth, we find a word glossed with “grout” that is meant to be of wheat or barley, used in conjunction with malt to produce an alcohol. This falls in line with the meaning of “grut” as “fine meal,” and also indicates its use (somehow) in fermentation.

The 14th century Le Menagier de Paris talks about leveçon de cervoise used to start an alcoholic beverage.

My conclusion is that “gruit” was likely a grain byproduct that remained after the fermentation of some other beverage. The leavings or some other exudate would be used to produce an alcohol. Given that the word occurs in conjunction with words related to “cerevisa” quite frequently, I speculate that “gruit” is derived from “cerevisa” and/or “zythum.” This would mean that “gruit” also contains herbs and residual oils from the oil seeds in the product; the herbal connection is supported by inclusion of “gruit” in the leechdoms, and further serves to explain how “gruit” came to be associated with a purely herbal product later on.

Given that “beor” and “zythum” carry similar pregnancy restrictions, it seems plausible that one is used to make the other. More than likely, the initial medicinal product is filtered and used for its purposes, and the remaining dregs are used as a starter for an alcoholic beverage. “Zythum” uses safflower oil, and the Viking-era finds have flax seeds; both can be abortiofacients in sufficient quantity, so there seems to be an element of truth to that.

The use of a “starter” beverage to make a “strong” beverage is reflected throughout history and the modern era.

Likely, a specialized vessel was used for preparing the medicinal beverage, as I previously speculated. The strong drink could be derived from honey, fruit, malt sugars, or any combination thereof. Merryn Dineley is researching the equipment Vikings may have used to convert grain starches to sugars.


So there we have it, I think. A precursor medicinal/nutritive product leaves behind dregs that can be used to make alcohol. The medicinal product was probably manufactured in a specialized vessel containing a persistent yeast strain – the yeast would absorb into the wood, allowing the leavings (or perhaps top-cropped yeast) to be used to make alcohol. This would be a very efficient system of production, and would also likely fall to a few specialized people.

My most recent experiment uses the whole product – whether or not this was done is unknown. Future experiments will utilize only the dregs to attempt a fermentation.

Alright, that’s enough for tonight. Digest! Read! Drink! Be merry! Go forth and appreciate that you can just buy a goddamn beer instead of having to write a paper detailing its production.

And I know you probably think I don’t have to write a paper about beer to have beer – but then again, you’re probably a normal, reasonable person.

I’m a scientist. We don’t do things the easy way.


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