Brewing with Egil: The Fine Art of Burning Stuff

So now that I’ve got a prospective method and ingredients list cobbled together, my next phase will involve passes at more accurately re-creating the tools and ingredients that may have gone into making a Viking-era beer.

First up: the malt.

Malt is at the heart of beer brewing. Grains are allowed to partially germinate, and are then heat-treated to stabilize them and enhance their flavor. Depending on the grain, the method of malting, and the method of kilning, you can wind up with a great variation in types of malt, which is turn greatly influence the characteristics of the final product.

The  Senchas Már contains requirements for the production of malt, and I’ve speculated that cultural contact between the Irish and the Scots could create a plausible route of transmission to the Norse. Most large cereal kiln finds from the Viking era exist in Scotland, so it seems plausible that it was a center of production.

Typical fuels excavated from such kilns include local hardwoods, plant matter (sometimes peat), and occasionally dung. Dung is more commonly seen in Icelandic farm mound excavations and other fire pits; an analysis of one such farm mound revealed charred wood and dung alongside charred 6-row barley seeds – the presence of all 3 in the same layer may indicate that their use was concurrent.

Icelandic finds rarely include the larger kilns seen in Scotland. However, the principle of drying over a fire is pretty constant throughout processing technologies – and given that my current model involves a gradual transition from home production to quasi-industrial production, it makes sense that an Icelander may have used a conventional cooking fire for malt drying earlier in the era. It seems plausible that some extant structure in the Icelandic finds pulled double-duty.

The tradition of drying grain over a fire persists in Scandinavian homebrewing to this day, and is expressly documented in Olaus Magnus’ 16th century writings. It seems possible that we may be viewing a sort of living tradition, though I am always skeptical of such things.

So with all that in mind, let’s light some shit on fire.


They probably didn’t do this when it was below zero outside, but screw it – there’s beer on the line.

Up here in New York, the ground is currently frozen solid, which makes constructing an in-ground malting kiln somewhat…challenging. Also, it’s fairly cold up here at the moment, so the prospect of chipping away at frozen earth so I could put a fire in it seemed…well, pretty fucking dumb.

I mean, when it was cold in Viking-age Iceland, they stayed inside. Where it was warm.

So instead of trying to replicate the thermal properties of the kiln/oven (which will come later, when the ground isn’t a block of ice), I opted to try out the notion of directly drying the malt over a fire. I have a smoker, so I figured it would work well for this purpose.

This experiment will help me figure out the fire dynamics, and gauge the effect of a wood fire on the flavor and mash characteristics of the malt. A more elaborate kiln may very well have a different effect, but this will at least help me ballpark it.

First things first, ya gotta malt some grain.


Look at the little barleys, so fully of hope and life.
Theirs is a sad fate.

I used a mixture of an American 6-row barley and steel-cut oats; the oats won’t malt, but they’ll add some grain bulk, and my hope is that excess enzymatic activity in the barley will have some effect.

The method outlined in Irish law takes a bit more than two weeks, but I opted for a very short malting time – partly because modern malting barleys germinate substantially faster than do heritage varieties. The barley in that picture is starting to show acrospire formation, and that’s only been going for 4 days – 1.5 days steeping and the rest of the time being turned in heaps.

I drained the grains a bit, and then set them on top of some aluminum mesh window screening material, to hopefully keep most of the grain from falling into the fire. The fire was started with a little bit of charcoal, but fed exclusively with dried hardwood and the occasional blast of Icelandic kelp. Dung and/or peat would be more accurate, but I have no dried dung and I wasn’t exactly going to go looking for it.

On went the grain, and then began the waiting.


This’ll be great! It can’t possibly take that long!

And the waiting.

And the stirring of the malt.

And the more waiting in the cold and the wind.


This is maybe half dried, and I should emphasize that I was pretty damn cold at this point.

And then I said “screw this, it’s too cold,” fed the fire nicely, stuck the lid on, and sat inside for a bit.


Once again, it’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

The action of the fire on the grain is interesting. The stuff dries fairly unevenly; as you can see, some of the grain is charred, some just very heavily roasted, some a nice chestnut color, and some a rich yellow hue. This is interesting, because it means that grain dried over a fire does not provide a homogeneous flavor profile; rather, several different “kinds” of malt will come together to make a richer flavor.

Some of the paler malt tasted a good bit like honey, rather akin to Gambrinus’ proprietary honey malt. That’s a result of grain “crystallization” (where the still-wet grain undergoes a mini-mash in the hull, and the sugars crystallize in the husk) and subsequent heat-based caramelization. Other grains are warm and nutty, and others are more like espresso beans.

What really struck me, though, is the complete lack of smoke flavor. The entire drying process took nearly 3 hours, and roughly 2/3 of that time had the grain being subjected to a fairly hard hot smoke. I did use a fairly clean-burning mild-tasting hardwood – but I still expected something to come through.

Nada. Not even a hint of smoke.

The really interesting part about that is that the Scottish kilns are designed to really minimize smoke intrusion, and also use a cloth (rather than aluminum mesh) to hold the grain. There should be even less smoke flvaor with that sort of setup.

The grain you see pictured is a little more heavily roasted than I’d like – a bit much char. However, I also learned that I have complete control over the rate of heating and drying – covering and uncovering the grain in conjunction with careful fire feeding lets me get some pretty solid temperature regulation. The next time I do this, I think I’ll have a better sense of how it works.

Next time, I’m going to play around with a prototype grain quern, to figure out how this kind of stuff may have been ground, and what it would be like.

Stay warm!

Brewing with Egil: On Nordic “Grog” and How I (Sort of) Totally Called It

A mid-cycle update?! Madness! Pandelerium! Falling skies and cohabitating felines and canines and other social currency references!

Several people have pointed me at some very recently published research coming from Dr. Pat McGovern regarding Norse brewing. If you’re a nerd like me who is conversant with science, the paper is available for free from the journal – ain’t open access grand? McGovern’s analysis of biochemical residues reveals that the ancient Danes may have drunk a concoction of honey, grains, local fruits (cranberries), possibly imported grapes, and local herbs.

Sound 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 made my poster a bit after that.

Yeah, I totally called it.

Physical evidence? I don’t NEED that.

But who’s counting, right? Certainly not I. Truth be told, I was not the first person to come to that conclusion; Ian Hornsey reached a similar conclusion in 2003 in his book  A History of Beer and Brewing.

Until now, the primary issue in figuring out Viking-age booze was the small matter of a near-complete absence of physical or written evidence. No finished product has been recovered, no obvious brewing facilities have been found, and few pieces of ancillary equipment exist. In addition, there is no written method documenting any alcohol production by the Norse – they weren’t a writing-centric society, and even the few written works that do exist don’t bother with something as simple as alcohol production.

My research pulled together linguistic, literary, and indirectly-related archaeological evidence to build a plausible paradigm for Viking-age brewing – including figuring out what ingredients may have gone into it.

McGovern’s findings represent the first complete physical evidence pointing to actual ingredients that may have plausibly been involved in producing Norse alcohol – and that evidence completely supports the hypotheses I’ve been developing for over a year now!

Now, granted, the time period of his findings pre-dates the age of the Vikings – but my current research combined with this new evidence makes a very compelling case for its continuation. In addition, the presence of multiple sugar residues in a vessel is not de facto evidence that all of those were mixed into the same beverage – but considered in conjunction with my research, the case is certainly strong that it was probably being done. And the residue evidence is still not evidence of any particular processing technique – so the paradigm and processing research I’ve done is still fairly speculative.

Really, it’s the processing and goal that matter the most; a brewer could technique a set of ingredients and produce several radically different beverages simply by altering his processing technique. The question is then: what are you trying to accomplish, and how can you accomplish that?

Some of the evidence recovered by McGovern does help tie into the processing methods that I and others have begun to reconstruct. For example, 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 – they may have even been used to store finished product for a time. I’ve speculated that a birch and fir vessel may have been used to ferment some part of this product – an excellent avenue for dissolving tree resins. Merryn Dineley has worked on reconstructing mash houses using wooden troughs or vats and hot stones – depending on the wood, the hot water will extract various resins with great efficiency. Either of those methods could account for the presence of the tree resins in McGovern’s findings.

The evidence regarding the presence of grape sugars is also particularly interesting, as it constitutes the earliest evidence of the fermentation of the grape in northern Europe to date. It shows that ancient cultures were trying to – and able to – get their hands on the grape for a long long time. It’s most likely that grapes were still comparatively rare in Denmark and farther north – so their inclusion likely represents a person of wealth and status. It also helps reinforce the cultural parity between these ancient strong drinks and wines – occupying the same cultural purpose, it makes sense that they would perhaps share ingredients when possible.

So I’m excited! Largely because dammit I was right. It’s always good to get solid evidence confirming a speculative hypothesis.

Next up: reconstructing artifacts to pin down the processing method.

Cooking with Njall: Salt Burning, Take Two

A while back, I discussed a failed experiment in Viking-era salt production. The idea was to burn some Icelandic kelp, and use the residue as a “salt” of a sort. It didn’t really seem to do anything, and so I moved on.

But I’ve never been the type to just leave something alone. I’m a scientist, after all – I can’t accept that something is a bad idea until I’ve done it at least 5 times.

Rigor is very important.

I’ve had the remnants of my experiment kicking around in a Mason jar for a while now, so I figured what the hell – let’s give this another go. Refine the technique and try something new.

Salt Experiment Redux 1

I promise I am not making explosives.

We were recently down in North Carolina visiting some of my fiancee’s friends (fellow SCA types), and Solvarr gave me a fantastic idea: do a water extraction of the charred crap, and boil that.

In the picture above, I’ve mixed 50 g of charred kelp with 100 g of water, and allowed it to steep for ~30 minutes. The idea is to attempt to extract the salts from the solid phase, separate the liquid, and boil it down to solids.

This seems like something that may have plausibly been done in the Viking era, albeit with fairly different equipment. Recall the various bits of language revolving around “salt” in Old Norse: salt-brenna (“salt-burning”), salt-fjara (“salt-beach”), and salt-ketill (“salt-kettle”). We also see words referring to two different colors of salt: hvíta-salt (“white salt”) and svarta-salt (“black salt”).

The “salt-ketill” was something I hadn’t explored before, but it makes some sense. Ash or char the kelp in a kettle (potash anyone?), mix it with water, strain out the solids (maybe with an open-weave cloth of some kind), and boil the hell out of it. Pliny makes mention of boiling seawater, and this technique is also alluded to later by Olaus Magnus, so there seems to be precedent for the generation of salt by boiling water. Adding kelp ashes would effectively increase the solute concentration, which would in turn improve yield (making better use of precious fuel).

A relatively recent excavation of a Viking-age house in Iceland (paper courtesy of Hrefna) shows an area of high salt concentration in the house. The authors suggest it to be an area used to store kelp ash – they suggest for wool dying, but of course, they could have other uses. It does show that Vikings may have generated and stored ashed and/or charred sea plants for various uses – so mixing some with water to boil into salt seems completely feasible.

Salt Experiment Redux 2

Continuing the fine tradition of putting weird things in my mouth.

After steeping, I strained the stuff through a coffee filter and squeezed the crap out of it. All in all, it generated 42 grams of the above-pictured black liquid. I lack proper volumetric measuring equipment, so I can’t effectively estimate the density of the liquid. No matter – I’m going to boil the crap away and weigh the solids. Into the pan it went, and onto the stove:

Salt Experiment Redux 3

I’m pretty sure I belong on a watch list somewhere.
Still not making explosives.

Holy crap, it worked! I got…stuff! Stuck to my pan! My fancy copper-core frying pan that cost more than I’d like to admit!

Note to self: in the future, use a cheaper pan.

This process didn’t smell nearly as badly as the initial charring experiment did. There was something of an off odor, but that was mostly due to dirty electric stove coils – though there was a hint of kelp in the air.

I scraped the solid crap into a bowl for display purposes. It was a mostly-dry salt, with a bit of residual moisture (think fleur de sel or other hand-harvested sea salt) and a variety of colors. There was some fine grey ash mixed in as well, indicating a fairly complete combustion. We likely did completely combust the kelp during the charring – we just couldn’t separate the ash from the remnant matrix.

Salt Experiment Redux 4

Right? Almost like I planned for this to happen.

After all was said and done, I had ~5 grams of that stuff up above left. So from 150 grams (50 grams kelp/100 grams water) to 42 grams liquid to 5 grams solid. Given that the kelp meal itself is 10% salt by weight, this seems like a pretty efficient extraction method! 50 grams go in, 5 grams come out. Not too shabby, doubly considering the small quantities in use.

As is tradition, the ultimate test lay in putting that shit in my mouth.

My friends, I made salt.

There’s a hint of kelp and something burned, but no real grit. Fairly crystalline texture and appearance. Very salty. Complex tasting, too – like an interesting sea salt. No funky aroma – just a hint of burnt nothingness.

It worked. Kelp ashes + water + fire = salt.

This is not the only method I tried tonight: I also attempted a different manner of direct-fire burning. I’d bought some metal mesh screen material, and this time tried building a fire underneath the charred kelp, figuring that increased oxygen flow would do the trick.


Salt Experiment Redux 5

Also not making drugs. Or explosives.
Or salt.

I tried several configurations (the tin can there was used as a chimney starter and to try to contain the heat), but to no avail. I got the damn stuff glowing like charcoal, gave it lots of oxygen, stirred it around, left it alone, dumped lighter fluid on it – nothing.

Charred kelp meal is evidently the most flame-retardant substance known to man.

This is probably a byproduct of the configuration of the kelp – it just will not conduct oxygen and heat in such a way as to promote combustion. I’m sure that sheet kelp would actually combust like fuel – but they may very well have still mixed the ashes with water to produce the salt, as that is a good way to separate the gritty crap from the useful salt.

So my proposed method for salt production involves:

1) Charring or ashing kelp

2) Mixing that product with water

3) Separating the solids

4) Boiling the remaining liquid until only a residue remains

I have yet to experiment with actually using the stuff like salt – but at least now I have a process that will allow me to get rid of my remaining 50 pounds of kelp meal!

Future experiments will involves meat curing and fish salting using this product, to see what properties it would impart on the food. Salt is, after all, fairly fundamental in food chemistry, and the exact type of salt used can radically alter a product.

Different kettle materials can also affect the product. Iron pots, for example, will leach iron into the final salt – affecting the chemistry and flavor of any food made with it, and the diet of those who ate it.


Of course, this all assumes that they were even using salt for food preservation. A redditor from the Faroe islands posted some pictures of traditional Faroese fermented lamb (skerpikjøt, which literally means “sharp meat”) over in /r/meat:

Fuck it, you win.

They slaughter the lambs in October, hang them up in a shed for a couple of months, and then eat them. Mind you, the average temperature in the Faroes at this time ranges from 4 – 8 C, so the whole place is basically a giant refrigerator. No salt, just the breeze from the North Sea blowing through the shed constantly. Air-dried and mold-covered. And they eat the stuff raw, like prosciutto but with more microbial action. It also has a very very strong gamey flavor.

My ancestors ate some weird shit, man.

Hell, they still do.

So that’s what’s in store for this series: weird-ass foods, which will eventually be coupled with weird-ass beers.

You know you love it.