Brewing with Grandpa, Part I: On Importing A Very Old Tradition

Has it really been nearly a year since I last posted to this thing?

Actually, it’s been almost exactly a year.

Well, it’s been a busy year. Got married. Tackled the bride. Y’know, pretty typical stuff.

I took the post-wedding downtime to refocus my research and explore some different paths. This winter was particularly hard and solitary, so I had quite a lot of time to myself. I’ve been engaged in some reconstructed historical fighting, and that’s been hella fun and extremely educational. Been a long time since I tried out something truly novel for me, and putting on a steel helm and running around in 95 degree heat for hours on end is certainly novel for me.

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Some time ago, I realized that I was no really terribly longer interested in “typical” homebrewing. I’ve cloned commercial recipes, tinkered with water chemistry, constructed needlessly elaborate devices to semi-automate tasks in some vain effort to copy the professionals – and for what? To make a beer that I could get at a beverage center literally minutes from my house?

I mean, yeah, pride in the craft and all that. It’s good, really excellent stuff, this hobby. Today’s brewing represents a monumental achievement in applied science and engineering – of local flavor and individual vision.

It’s pretty natural for a homebrewer to get involved with some amount of historical brewing – we have a tendency to replicate beverages of a particular time and place lost or inaccessible to us, and it’s a very simple progression to turn back the clock a bit, to a time before the era of Big Beer and white-painted generic cans of fizzy yellow nonsense, and to figure out how it was Way Back When. Deepen our connections to our families and communities.

“How did Grandpa do it? How did his grandpa do it?”

Maybe in those sips of history, we can once more sit down with those people who now only live in memory.

It’s a human thing, and brewing touches on so many aspects of culture that one simply can’t avoid this phenomenon.

Vikings gonna vik.

Vikings gonna vik.

Bjarne, my paternal grandfather (the tall lanky fellow pictured above), had a saying that I heard many many times as a kid: “Wait a while.” It’s so very Norwegian, this phrase. It perfectly conveys that stuck-in-time quality that pervades much of Scandinavia, and captures Grandpa’s saint-like patience and willingness to help.

Whenever we kids would be back in the workshop smashing errantly at some half-baked woodworking idea, we’d hear “Wait a while, wait a while. Now, what are you kids trying to do?” And then he’d help us in whatever youthful mischief we were up to that particular day.

Wait a while.

I’ve been researching the pre-Industrial-era brewing methods of Scandinavia for 4-ish years now, and “wait a while” seems to explain much of the conservation of tools and methodology that I’ve seen throughout my sources. Viking-era brewing has been a mainstay – because the challenge of reconstruction in a dearth of evidence is too delicious to pass up – but I’ve been looking throughout quite a lot of other eras for ideas and inspirations.

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In 1555, the Swedish archbishop Olaus Magnus wrote an encyclopedic work about pre-Industrial Scandinavia. The English translation is A Description of the Northern Peoples, and it was essentially the Scandinavian version of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia – an attempt to provide a complete accounting of the world of the Norse.

In book 13, he talks about grains and what the people of the North do with them. Among other things, he talks about malting and brewing, giving a textual description and a somewhat hard-to-decipher woodcut. The text is somewhat helpful – he describes the malting process fairly well, but doesn’t really have a lot to say about brewing specifics. He does note an interesting method of hopping (by using what is essentially a hop tea), but otherwise the text is fairly nonspecific.

It can be tricky to decipher such writings, particularly when they’re light on details. You can use other sources to help you interpret the information and make educated guesses at the specifics. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the source itself has clues in other sections or chapters that may seem unrelated to the topic at hand.

In the case of Olaus Magnus, though, I remembered “wait a while.” The slow pace of Scandinavian life may be helpful here – what if a tradition had been continued largely unmodified for hundreds of years? Ain’t broke don’t fixt it, right?

Cue the beer nerds and our insufferably pretentious beer talk.

lol fuckin nerds u want flavor lol real men drink horse piss

lol fuckin nerds u want flavor lol real men drink horse piss

Lars Garshol is a Norwegian blogger who writes about beer. Well, he writes about other things too, but I’m focusing on beer because we’re talking about beer. For a good while now, he’s been trekking about learning of various farmhouse brewing techniques around Europe. He has a great series about Lithuanian breweries including farmhouse brewing.

But of course, I’m talking about Norway. Lars wrote extensively about Norway as well, where he embarked on a farmhouse brewing journey largely focusing on the Voss region. The last anyone did this was 1969, and that was a fellow named Odd Nordland, who published a book about it that is very very out of print. I’ve been fortunate enough to actually see and flip through the book, and I know it’s amazing and that I need to get my hands on it.

Lars decided to go on this journey himself, and he helpfully photodocumented it along the way.

Now, I’m not one to claim that we can back-extrapolate a historical practice from a modern one. Cultural changes can happen in the span of one or two generations, and many cultural traditions are carried on without any kind of record. It is not necessarily the case that we can inform Olaus Magnus’ text using modern rural farmhouse brewing – but then again, take a look at his text describing the drying of malt over an oven:

…you get ready a fairly big oven. Over its broad surface you spread thin cloths, light a slow fire beneath it, and bring the barley to spread about and scorched…

Seems an awful lot like the kind of thing that’s being practiced today in rural Norway, and Lars seems to agree. Granted, one can interpret the “surface” of a broad oven in many ways – a wooden slat surface, a stone surface, maybe just a clay dome? Who knows exactly? But it’s certainly worth poking around.

But ultimately, the specifics of a recipe are not quite as important to me as the mindset. I’ve done specific recipes and painstaking analyses of pollen residues in pursuit of reconstructing booze, and while I’m going to continue my crazy-ass experiments – there’s this hopping method I want to play with, and grain I want to grow, and a landrace hop variety I want to plant, and an obscure yeast strain that I want to turn into a house strain, and and and – I’ve been neglecting to incorporate the purpose of these historical brewing methods into my actual brewing.

I’ll get to the crazy science. Just wait a while.

When you get right down to it, these historical methods reflect that ingenious patience, that attitude that says “screw you nature, I will toil for years until I turn this barren volcanic hellhole into something habitable.” What’s that saying? “Necessity is the mother of invention?” These brewers weren’t trying to make a marketable style that could play as well in Indiana as it could it Berlin – they were using what they had on hand, as well as their wits, to make a thing they wanted. They’d use anything around them to do it, without paying attention to whether or not they were doing it the “right” way.

There was no “right” way – there was simply their way.

It’s so goddamn simple, and yet here we are today with like 50 goddamn BJCP styles and competitions and ludicrous production methods –

No, I’m gonna dial it back to an earlier time, one where patience is rewarded with good beer. Let’s start with malting – I’ll make the oven to make the grain to make the beer! Do it from the ground up, the long way, the hard way. If we simplify things, there are fewer things that can go wrong! It’ll be a breeze!

... Well shit.


Well shit.

Huh.

Apparently there’s a learning curve.

Wait a while. We’ll get there.

An Applied Approach to Viking-Era Brewing

If you’ve been following along – and of course you’ve been – you’ll have realized by now that I can get sidetracked by the details. Fall down rabbit holes. Go off on lengthy tangents that few people truly care about. Belabor the point. Beat a dead horse. Drive a joke into the ground so far that it comes out the other side at near escape velocity, sinks into a low orbit, passes funny 7 more times, and eventually makes landfall in an unassuming country bumpkin’s backyard in a fiery cataclysm that obliterates any semblance of joy or amusement said joke may have once imparted – and removes all other sorts of enjoyment with it.

I apologize for nothing. As is tradition.

However, I’ve realized more and more that I might want to make my brewing research somewhat more…approachable. My initial foray into simplification has been fairly successful – though it does take some commitment to peruse a poster and a number of references – but it’s always worthwhile to try new approaches.

In other words, I need to make this doable without digging kilns and drying malt with horse shit.

“But Pete! I love hard labor and the pungent smell of mostly-dried equine excrement!”

I know, I know, gentle readers – who doesn’t love picking over dead languages in pursuit of a pint? But information that cannot be digested by its audience is of little value – the bran muffin of the intellectual world. Boring, tasteless, and probably good for you – but seriously, blueberry is so much better and really the bran is just there to remind you of the better things in life, right?

Right, right, tangents. Back to business. Here, I will present a summary of the Viking-era brewing process I’ve cobbled together in some more specific detail; following that, I will present several ways that you can implement the principles without drifting too far from your comfort zone.

I am, after all, very concerned with your comfort.

I really just wanted to post this .gif again. Let's say it's something about experiments in human psychology. Yeah, that sounds right.

HE’S BAAAAAACK!

The Viking Method Summarized

1.) The Grains

Archaeological evidence suggests that the dominant cereals among the Norse included barley, oats, rye, and wheat in some locations. “Bread” finds from a number of Viking-age sites show that grains were often combined together. In addition, legumes and vetches were sometimes seen in conjunction with cereals.

Barley is the dominant grain type by far, and has been found as far north as Iceland and Greenland, indicating widespread intentional cultivation of the crop. 6-row barley seems to be found exclusively; a cultivar named “Bere” is believed to be descended from Viking-era barley crops.

Grains were probably sown in the spring and harvested not too long after – many landrace 6-row barleys can reach full maturation in 90 – 100 days. Grain would likely have been processed for storage soon after harvesting.

2.) The Processing

Malting was likely rooted in a form of grain processing that was originally intended to de-husk the grains. Grains would be soaked in water and then dried, allowing the husk to be removed easily. Such a method is also reflected in a fragmentary writing attributed to Zosimos of Panopolis, where a method of de-husking grain involves a few days of soaking in water.

The Senchas Mar, an 8th century Irish legal text, includes a detailed method for the malting of grain. This technique may have been passed along routes of cultural transmission to the Scots, who had contact with the Vikings – indeed, there were many Norse settlements in northern Scotland. A book on Norwegian farmhouse brewing traditions includes information about malting techniques purportedly derived from Viking tradition. In both cases, the processing is essentially the same: grains are steeped, heaped, allowed to sprout, and dried by a fire. The process takes 9 – 12 days depending on your specific method.

Corn-drying kilns in Scotland have been discovered. Fuels include local hardwoods, grasses, dung, and peat. Grains were probably soaked and dried en masse not too long after harvesting, to assist in processing.

Quern finds from Jorvik demonstrate the ability to generate flour. The technique in the Senchas Mar discusses turning the malt into “cakes;” it is plausible that the Viking-era “breads” which are found in the archaeological record are the result of this malting process. The flour would be mixed with water – possibly seawater – and formed into small unleavened biscuits which were dried over a fire.

As noted above, some of the Viking-era “breads” contained oil seeds and herbs. It is unclear when those may have been added, but addition either to the malting or to the grinding of the dried grain both seem plausible. It is unlikely that all grain was fortified, as most bread finds do not include flax or herbs.

3.) The Mashing

The “breads” that would result from processing acted as a method of easily preserving the grains for later use; these would form the “malt” for brewing. There is virtually no evidence pointing to a concrete mashing method employed by the Norse. However, disparate evidence may indicate a method.

Merryn Dineley suggests that structures identified as bath houses may have been brewhouses, and that fire-cracked rocks would have been used to heat liquid contained in wooden vessels. Capacious wooden vessels from the Viking era have been found in the Oseberg burial as well as others. Recent work by Dr. Pat McGovern indicates that heat-treated tree resins (including birch and juniper) were present in beverages from precursor cultures in what would become Viking-age Scandinavia.

A plausible method that joins all of this evidence would be something similar to the Finnish sahti brewing tradition. A wooden vessel (possibly a hollow log like the Finnish kuurna, or else any one of a number of large wooden barrels) would be lined with juniper branches and possibly birch. Grain biscuits and water would be added to the vessel, and hot rocks would be used to gradually heat the batch to near boiling. The liquor would then be drained off to be fermented.

4.) The Product(s)

Two types of beverages would be produced. The first was a common nutritional/medicinal beverage that would be produced with frequency, akin to the “zythum” of the Talmud and other sources. This lightly fermented beverage would double as a yeast propagation medium; the residue of this beverage would remain in a wooden fermentation vessel, and would be referred to as “gruit.”

The second beverage would be a strong alcoholic drink, similar to hydromel. Literary use and linguistic origins relate such a drink to “wine,” indicating a plausible similarity in purpose (sacrament, celebration, mourning, etc). A combination of grain, honey, and fruit was likely collected in a large wooden vessel, and some of the residue of the daily drink was added. This would inoculate the batch with yeast, enabling alcohol production. The beverage was likely sweet, owing to its probably short fermentation time and large collection of sugars.

Herbs (including hops in some locations) may have been added to the drink prior to fermentation. More than likely, the alcoholic version was reserved for special occasions, and its production was a secret known to few.

Um, excuse me, I was told there’d be beer. Excuse me?

Recreating the Past on a Budget

OK, on to the stuff you’re really after – how to do this without reading 1198 rambling words from some pontificating blowhard.

1200, now.

I’ll break the modern version down into the same steps, and go over some possible ways to interpret them easily.

Remember, all steps on the path can be valid. The important thing is to know why you’re making the choices that you’re making, and to document them for review later. It’s an excellent method of learning and developing a process while recreating an ancient technique.

Pick one option for each of the categories below, and plug ’em together. That will give you your method guidelines. From there, you can feel free to experiment by picking other options on another pass. Or invent your own interpretations! After all, I’m not the be-all-end-all on this topic.

1.) and 2) The Grains and Their Processing

Several options exist.

  • You can malt your own grain using sprouting barley or whole oats; barley is easier to find. Soak the barley in water for a couple of days (changing the water a couple of times) until it’s fat, then heap it up and turn it periodically until it starts to sprout. Drying the grain can be achieved in a smoker or on a grill using wood and peat (and dung if you’re adventurous). Grinding grain can be accomplished with a food processor – or if you’re feeling adventurous, a concrete rotary quern modeled on historical example. This will produce a coarse flour which can be made into unleavened biscuits.
  • Optionally, one can use malted barley flour (also known as “diastatic malt powder”) and add some darker crystallized grain to make a biscuit. The stuff is pricey, but if you’re willing to throw money at something to save labor, this method will allow you to make the biscuits in a fairly convincing manner while saving a bunch of work.

Picture1 Picture2 Picture3     3.) The Mashing and Formulation

Obviously, if you’ve chose to go an extract route, mashing is less important. Still, read on for general principles of recipe construction.

Based on physical evidence and batch sizes extrapolated from writings and serving vessel size, we can conclude that the Norse brewed in batches of at least 6 gallons. The ratio of grain to water is unknown, but based on glosses with “hydromel,” it is reasonable to conclude that the product would have been higher-gravity – in the 1.080 to 1.100 OG range.

This can be achieved by using a thick mash (1 qt/lb) typical of a wee heavy, or can be achieved using a thinner mash that is later supplemented with honey. A proportional recipe would more accurately reflect the processing technology the Norse likely had. An example proportional recipe could be (by volume) 1 part honey, 2 parts grain, and 8 parts water. That’s roughly 60% honey/40% malt by weight. Feel free to adjust the proportion of honey to malt as you see fit, or omit the honey altogether – it was rare and expensive then, and not everyone would have it. Smoked, roasted, peated, and crystal malts are all appropriate choices.

The most likely vessel for mashing would be a large wooden bucket, trough, or hollowed-out log akin to the Finnish kuurna. The vessel would be lined with branches from resinous trees (juniper, fir, and pine are the most common), and hot rocks could be inserted to achieve heating.

  • A reasonable way to replicate this is to add wood to your normal mash tun (or even just a big pot). Layer the bottom with birch, juniper, pine, and/or fir. Heat rocks in your oven (grill stones or garden stones work very well) and drop them in one at at time, slowly raising the temperature close to boiling. The high-intensity localized heat from the rocks will caramelize the wort, and heat-treat the tree resins.
  • Most hardware stores and agricultural supply stores will carry wood shavings, chips, and other such products. If you don’t have a source of naturally-occuring resinous wood near you, the store-bought options will suffice in a pinch. Add a good layer of various shavings to the mash and proceed as normal. Hot rocks are still a good idea for mashing.
  • If all else fails, juniper berries are usually pretty easy to find. Add some to your normal mash routine. Be generous, because their flavor can be subtle against a heavy malt bill. Direct-fire or infusion mashing will be fine, though the wort will probably not be as heavily caramelized and the juniper resins may be harsher.

Picture4Picture5Picture6 4.) The Product

Once the mash is finished, you should let the wort cool before running it into another vessel. The Norse probably didn’t boil their wort after the mash – the mash temperature is sufficient to kill most microbes, and boiling would just expend additional fuel. Aside from that, no metal or stone vessels of sufficient capacity are found to permit boiling an entire batch.

The wort was probably fermented using the dregs of fermentation of a previous batch; typically, this would have come from a medicinal/nutritional beverage that was being produced on a daily basis. This product would contain grains and herbs, and often flax or other oil seeds. Tart fruit (wild apples, polar berries, sloe, and others) and honey may have also been added at this point to add additional sugar and flavor; honey was rare and expensive for the Norse, so it would have been a very coveted beverage!

Given the lack of good storage options, the product was likely consumed very young – 3 to 7 days typically, and perhaps up to two weeks at most.

  • Use a mix of malt, appropriate herbs, and optionally some flax seeds to create a yeast propagation medium. Ferment in whatever’s handy, and add the residue (or the whole liquid if you’d like) to your batch. Give it a few days and you’re good to go! Appropriate herbs include yarrow, arctic thyme, bog rosemary, and bilberry. Hops would also have been available in southern Scandinavia and were probably used like any other flower or herb.
  • If you’re a brewer, the odds are good that you have a bucket with yeast lying around somewhere during you brew time. Rather than make a specialized starter, you can just dump the beer on an old yeast cake, and sprinkle the herbs on top. They’ll provide flavor and aroma while the old yeast will go to work on the beer. Be careful when re-using old yeast – depending on what they last fermented, they may be stressed and may ferment poorly.
  • Can’t find weird herbs? We have roughly as much evidence supporting the use of hops in Viking brewing as we do any other herb. Hops appear less frequently in finds, but they do exist. Most finds are limited to southern Scandinavia. Get yourself some whole-leaf German noble hops and use them to dry-hop the product; use about 2 grams of dried hop per pound of fermentable. Bittering hops are probably not appropriate for a Viking brew (that’s what the tree resins are for). Use whatever yeast you normally would.

Picture7 Picture8 Picture9   And there you have it! The shortcut to Viking-era beer! Now go forth and make your ancestors proud!

Zythum: An Egyptian Precursor to Beer

*tap tap tap*

Is this thing on?

So it’s been a little while since I last wrote an entry. Fear not! I’m still plugging along, brewing crazy things and writing weird poetry and telling stories about people who kill other people over beer. Good things all around! I’ve just had a double helping of Life and Such, and so things have gone off track.

Enough excuses. Back to writing.

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A couple of weeks ago, I followed up on an opportunity to talk about historical brewing at a local museum. The event was focused primarily on the history of brewing in the Hudson Valley of New York, but as the museum was also running a piece on ancient Egypt, the program director wanted someone to speak about ancient Egyptian brewing.

Through some various channels, I was tapped to give a brief talk on this topic. Now, it’s not my primary area of research, but mindful readers may remember that I touched on a prospective Egyptian precursor to beer as part of my research on Viking-era brewing. I eventually settled on its existence as being somewhat central to my reconstructed processing technique, representing a yeast starter of sorts that would have been prepared daily as a medicine, and which would result in a healthy yeast culture in the residue.

One of the things I’ve begun to question is the oft-repeated “story” of ancient beer – ancient peoples are often alleged to have drunk a weak alcoholic beverage that was filled with yeast and residual grain. It is sometimes argued that this was drunk in lieu of water (an idea which I and others seriously question, and for which extraordinarily little evidence actually exists), and it is sometimes argued that such a beverage would be an extremely nutritious “liquid bread” (though we also know that ethanol inhibits the absorption of many nutrients).

What I’m going to do here is take you through my talk about a particular Egyptian grain beverage called “zythum,” deconstruct the standard story, and reconstruct a plausible alternative (which is also supported experimentally).

Because getting your historical knowledge base from popular TV can't possibly go wrong.  Right guys?  Guys?

Because getting your historical knowledge base from popular TV can’t possibly go wrong.
Right guys?
Guys?

So What the Hell is “Zythum?”

“Zythum” is the Latin equivalent of a Greek word “zythos.” “Zythos” is first seen in the writings of the 1st century BCE Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who wrote the Bibliotheca Historica. There, he describes “zythos” thusly:

κατασκευάζουσι δὲ καὶ ἐκ τῶν κριθῶν Αἰγύπτιοιπόμα λειπόμενον οὐ πολὺ τῆς περὶ τὸν οἶνονεὐωδίας, ὃ καλοῦσι ζῦθος.

Now, as evidenced in the text above, “zythos” is a-

Wait, what? You don’t read ancient Greek? Shame on you!

To be fair, neither do I, and that’s why we often must rely on translations of such writings. Here, try this:

The Egyptians also make a drink out of barley which they call zythos, the bouquet of which is not much inferior to that of wine.

The reason I point this out is that the process of translation is not a perfect one – ideas sometimes have difficulty crossing cultural boundaries, and so we must attempt to capture the “sense” of a word. Sometimes this means that we may obscure part of its literal meaning, or we may lose some nuance that is really only understood by the native culture. And of course, English has this nasty habit of grabbing older words from other languages to talk about lots of things – so sometimes we use an older word from another language to talk about a thing that we do, even if our practice differs from the old one. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

OK, so! If we look at this one source, we can see how one might reasonably conclude that “zythos” is an analogue to beer, right? Diodorus compares it to wine on the parameter of its bouquet, so perhaps we could reason that the two must share some commonalities. I mean, why compare it to wine if it wasn’t being used like wine, right? And it’s made of barley, so we have the possibility of an alcoholic drink made of barley. Heck, even the actual word “zythos” gives us a clue as to its nature – it’s closely related to lots of other words that indicate leavening.

So a barley drink that is related to wine and that is leavened? Sounds like beer to me!

But it’s a poor researcher who limits himself to one source. Let’s look for other evidence of Egyptian barley liquids:

From the Greek historian Herodotus in the 6th century BCE:

For wine, they use a drink made from barley, for they have no vines in their country.

Well, there it is again. We have evidence of a barley drink that is related to wine. Seems that one could draw a line from “zythos” back to at least the 6th century BCE, right? So there we go, reinforcement that “zythos” is beer and it goes back a ways.

Well, not so fast, cowboy. See, “wine” doesn’t have to mean alcohol – that’s our most common sense of the word, but in ancient Greece and Rome, “wine” was used to refer to several different products of the vine. Cato the Elder gives a “wine” recipe in De Agri Cultura that involves diluting the must 1:5, adding seawater and vinegar, and waiting a bit. It makes an excellent vinegar after a fashion. Doesn’t really sound like merlot, does it? And in many places, the juice of grapes is called “wine” as soon as it is pressed – the fermentation doesn’t seem to be the critical factor there. So while Herodotus talks about “wine” and Diodorus talks about “wine,” there’s no guarantee they’re talking exclusively about a strong alcoholic beverage.

Let’s move on. How about Hippocrates, the father of medicine? He wrote an entire treatise on the use of barley in remedies in the 5th century BCE:

Ptisans are to be made of the very best barley, and are to be well boiled, more especially if you do not intend to use them strained.

Fun fact: “ptisan” is etymologically connected to “tisane,” which is a term we use to refer to “teas” made of things that don’t actually involve tea leaves. Neat, huh? Also as a side note: Hippocrates mentions that people routinely refer to various remedies over-broadly, lumping several different things together under a single name. Something else to think about when you read about “wines” made of barley, eh?

But it seems like we’re seeing alternate uses for barley drinks – here, a medicinal beverage is concocted.

How about we jump ahead a bit to one of my favorites, Pliny the Elder, who wrote Naturalis Historia in the 1st century CE. I’ve talked about many of his writings in various places on this blog, but there’s one in particular that is of note here. He discusses a variety of non-wine beverages made from grains:

Different beverages, too, are made from the cereals, zythum in Egypt, cælia and cerea in Spain, cervesia and numerous liquors in Gaul and other provinces. The yeast of all of these is used by women as a cosmetic for the face.

Several things are notable about this statement. For one, the specific chapter in which this is found is in a book that deals with medicinal remedies derived from plants (book XXII). Pliny also discusses “wines” of grain in a completely separate section (book XVIII), and it is clear that these are distinct types of beverages.

“Zythum” is the Latin equivalent of “zythos,” and here we see Pliny discussing it. So now we have yet another possible view of the drink.

One should also note the other listed beverages. Pliny is calling them different things, but sort of lumping them together in the same functional category: a book all about remedies from plants discussing several beverages in the same sentence hints at a similar function. The word “cervesia” is notable because similar words are used to mean “beer” in modern Romance languages. Yet here, it is clearly discussed outside of a “wine” context and in a remedy context.

We also see a common utilitarian purpose; the “yeast” (actually, the word was “spuma,” which means “foam” – one of those interesting translator choices again) is used by women as a facial cosmetic. Such a use may indicate a more frequent production, assuming Roman women were applying facial cosmetic regularly. In order to use it so, there’d have to be enough kicking around frequently enough.

And of course, the mention of “spuma” may help indicate a possibly fermented beverage – but one that is not as strong as wine, and which is used for remedy/utility purposes.

Well, now I’ve done it. I’ve gone and muddied the waters that had previously been clear and over-simplified. While one might be able to look at the evidence for “zythos” and argue for an alcoholic beverage, a more careful look at additional evidence calls that into question. It seems to be related to medicine (and the use of barley medicine is quite old), is noted separately from “wine,” and even the word “wine” may not mean what you think it means.

Many people, in times of confusion or need, have turned to various holy books for guidance. While I don’t normally put stock in such things, it seems that it will take a miracle to resolve this confusion. Let’s see what the gods have to say about this.

"Thou shalt not fruit thy beer, for that is totally lame and only appropriate for yellow swill in clear bottles."

“Thou shalt not fruit thy beer, for that is totally lame and only appropriate for yellow swill in clear bottles.”

The Babylonian Talmud contains numerous laws, and in Pesachim 42b, we find this written:

What is EGYPTIAN ZITHOM? — R. Joseph learned:  [a concoction made of] a third part barley, a third part safflower, and a third part salt.  R. Papa omitted barley and substituted wheat.  And your token is ‘sisane.’ They soaked them [these ingredients], then roasted them, ground them and then drank them. From the [Passover] sacrifice until Pentecost, they who
are constipated are relieved, while they who are diarrhoeic are bound. [But] for an invalid and a
pregnant woman it is dangerous.

The specific section in which we find this is a list detailing additional specific items which must be removed during Passover because they are chametz (typically meant as “leavened,” but Jewish law calls grain chametz in many other circumstances). One explanation for such a list is that they are mainly items which may be in the house, but whose manner of preparation is not known to the keeper of the house. Perhaps they are purchased from elsewhere. It would also seem to follow that the products must not be obviously leavened or fermented, or not obviously grain-based – otherwise, it would be obvious to remove them.

Note that a medicinal use again is indicated, and no specific mention of fermentation is made. One could suppose a sort of fermentation may happen (it is in a book talking about taking leavened things out of the house), but grain is chametz when mingled with water for 18 minutes – so it doesn’t have to be fermented.

Well, OK, so it may or may not be fermented. Probably isn’t obviously fermented, and given the high salt content (more about this later), the stuff would have to be fairly dilute to be reasonably drinkable – so it wouldn’t ferment far if it even did. In fact, it seems like the salt may be an attempt to control the fermentation – either it’ll be too salty to ferment but have a lot of calories from grain, or it’ll be too dilute to have appreciable alcohol.

Now let’s try something from the 10th-century Islamic empire. Here’s a recipe for something called fuqa (lit. “bubbly drink”) from a translation of an ancient cookbook:

Boil water, enough for making 50 beer glasses, and pour it on the malted barley. Stir and mix until only barley shells remain. Set it aside to cool down then strain it and take the amount enough for making 50 beer glasses. Add a suitable amount of salt (pure and white rock salt) so that the beer will be neither too salty nor bland. The best way to judge is for the beer-maker to taste it. Set the liquid aside until it settles and looks like clear water.

The recipe calls for ~1.1 kg of malted barley. A “beer glass” may have been as large as one cup (~250 mL) in capacity, so this recipe could be looking to make up to 12.5 L of liquid from 1.1 kg of barley malt – about a 1.022 OG assuming flawless extraction. That’s not very much at all. Also note the salt addition – seems reminiscent of the Talmud method, eh? And of course, the very beginning of the chapter about fuqa talks about the medical use of barley water – so again we have a medicinal context.

Here, you are ultimately instructed to sort of ferment the beverage – you leave it for 12 hours in a jar that was previously used to brew beer. The text warns against using the same jar too many times – it must be discarded once fermentation is apparent. So again we see evidence of a processing technique that may involve a weak non-obvious fermentation of a very dilute beverage.

Christian scholarship may also give us some clues. A 19th-century German scholar of ancient medicine found a fragment of text that was attributed to Zosimos of Panopolis, a 4th century CE Greek alchemist. You may recall that I discussed this before in another post, but I’ll repost the method here:

Take good pure barley and water, and soak it for a day. Spread it out and put it in a windy place for another day. Again soak it for 5 hours, then collect it in a sieve with handles, and soak it again after it has drained until it becomes puffy.

When this is done, dry it in the sun, until it deflates: The husk is indeed bitter.

Now mill (it), and make a bread-dough, adding leaven as in bread-making, and bake it very well. Then boil it well, and separate the sweet water, straining it through a sieve.

Some heat toasted bread in a pan with water, and cook it a bit, but neither must he boil it nor heat too long, and taking it from the fire, transfer to other vessels, and again heat and reserve (the liquid).

So now we’ve got a bread beer thing that also doesn’t talk about fermentation. Sounds an awful lot like Russian kvass, eh?

Hm. Based on my reading of all this information, I’m putting together a different picture than that oft-repeated story about daily beer. What I’m seeing is evidence of a non-or-lightly fermented beverage akin to a kombucha or kvass, probably made with a weak dilution of grain (and possibly herbs) and salt, that was used as a medicine and common drink. A lot like a fermented barley tea.

And that makes sense when you boil it down, doesn’t it? We know that alcohol is a diuretic, and that it lowers blood sugar, and that it has all kinds of properties that make it nutritionally deficient. At least two full processing methods seem to attempt to minimize ethanol production.

Imagine this: you’re the guy in charge of building the pyramids, and you’ve got your team with you (evidence suggests that the pyramids were actually built by skilled laborers and not slaves as previously thought). It’s hot as hell, and they’re hauling really heavy blocks. Do you want them drinking something that will dehydrate them and drop their energy levels, or would you give them a drink that is mostly water with added electrolytes (salt), carbohydrates (sugar and starch from the grain), B vitamins (assuming a light fermentation, yeast will grow and contribute nutrients), and possibly some poorly-controlled medicinal effects (herbs)? Like drinking pickle brine when you’ve been in the hot sun all day.

When you get right down to it, the idea of daily booze doesn’t make sense, and the evidence really seems to support this sort of fermented tea process.

But that’s all talk. How about some experimentation?
IMG_20140406_164412IMG_20140406_165116IMG_20140410_193602IMG_20140409_081031IMG_20140411_190512 IMG_20140411_192121

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equal parts barley, salt, and safflower (by volume), steeped in water until it was fully saturated, dried as per the method attributed to Zosimos. I was curious about the salt content, so I did a version with salt and another without. Picture 2 is the salted version; picture 3 shows the unsalted version, which began fermenting not too long after being submerged in water. This reinforces the idea that the salt content is at least in part intended to control fermentation.

The mass of stuff I started with in 2 was 134 g; after drying, I had 157 g. The unsalted version gained no mass at all. This indicates to me that the grains took up 23 g of salt during processing – giving a final salt content of roughly 15%.

That’s really damn salty, so I diluted the grains 1:10 as per the method indicated in the Islamic text. That would reduce the salt content in the drink to 1.5% – probably a manageable level. I also wanted to know about fermentation or not, so I did a Punnet square: salted/unsalted and fermented/unfermented.

What I discovered is that the beverage didn’t generate any alcohol at all, not even after days of fermentation. It did encourage yeast growth, and the salted/fermented version tasted something like chicken soup after about 24 hours. The unsalted version were flat and boring, but the salted version were pleasantly full – not quite as strong as pickle brine, but definitely filled with electrolytes. After enough time, the fermented versions became somewhat sour, but not unpleasantly so.

Really, this is like an ancient form of Gatorade. It’s all manner of not bad, and I highly recommend trying it! The high salt content seems to necessitate an extreme dilution of the stuff, and if it was being consumed every day, it really wouldn’t have time to make alcohol. When post people think of a “low alcohol” beverage, they mean 2 – 3% ABV, but I am talking about a drink that is literally non-alcoholic – probably under 0.5% ABV.

The most interesting part of all of this is the connection to other words that we translate to mean “beer.” I’ve used that connection to suggest that this processing method carries forward into Viking-era brewing – a grain/herb mixture fermented frequently, whose residue could be used to start a strong beverage. Makes sense, right? You’ve got a yeast propagation medium with a strong connection to health and cleanliness – seems like the kind of thing that would make a pure beverage, right?

And maybe this technique carried into the Germanic tribes outlying Rome, and maybe some brewers out there saw some pretty flowers growing around a tree and thought, “Man, I bet those would go well in that grain tea I love so much.” Maybe that’s how hops entered the equation all those years ago.

Of course, none of this analysis precludes an alcohol interpretation, either. “Wine” can mean a lot of things, and that includes wine. So maybe there were several traditions that existed at the same time. Maybe the daily beverage existed and a strong beverage was made as well, and both were called “zythos.” Hey, Bud Light and Sam Adams Utopias are both “beer,” right?

This is why we have to interpret archaeological evidence, and consider the paradigm under which we are operating – because sometimes we bring our modern biases into history, and they just don’t belong there.

This is perhaps how beer actually saved the world.

Historical Brewing 201: OK, Sometimes, It’s as Hard as You Think

I’ve talked at you all before about how easy it can be to do historical brewing research and recreation. We often attempt to take the principles of period processing methods and attempt to translate them into modern methodology, to give  a sense of historical practice by varying the familiar.

We can also alter ingredient bills, to attempt to emulate the flavor profiles that may have existed at the time. This is all well and good, and it’s an important part of the process of experimental recreation.

Sometimes, though, the task is not so clear-cut, and attempting accurate recreation becomes a real challenge. How were the ingredients grown? What units of measurement were at play? Water quality? We can’t always answer all of these questions, but the attempt to do so can yield valuable information, and the process of extrapolating will teach us things whether or not we get a useful end-product.

So let’s talk about wood.

Wooden Bottle

SEE WHAT I DID THERE?
(Archaeological Museum of Baden-Württemberg. Photo: Manuela carpenter – click for a link to the gallery page)

This bottle is part of an excavation of Trossingen grave 58, a find in Germany that dates to the 6th century CE. The picture above links to a gallery of the find.

This bottle is identified as a vessel with the remains of a hopped barley beer. This is sort of A Big Deal in the historic brewing world, because this would constitute the oldest existing physical evidence of the use of hops in a fermented beverage ever found. Not only that, but this is solid physical evidence of the use of hops a good 500 years before we had thought hops were really coming into use. This find has the power to really re-shape what we think of the history of brewing and hopped beverages. Neat stuff.

There is a publication which details the find (and its numerous artifacts) which you can obtain here; of course, the entire thing is available exclusively in German, so you may have to find a linguistically-inclined friend to help you out with it. Fortunately, I have some connections, and I managed to acquire the part of the journal detailing the bottle find. A bit of OCR, Google translate, dictionary consultation, and linguistically-inclined friend consultation, and I managed to figure out most of what the find was about.

Evidently, there was pollen residue in the bottle (~3500 grains), and researchers were able to identify the sources of the pollen grains:

Gut 17% davon stammen von Getreide, wobei der Gerste-Typ überwiegt. Getreideunkräuter machen zusammen fast 11% aus, Hopfen und die Weinrebe sind mit jeweils 0,4% vertreten. Mit gut 29% die größte und auch die artenreichste Gruppe sind Pflanzen…

If my translation is right, the contribution is 17% barley, 11% cereal weeds (possibly rye or oats?), 0.4% hops, 0.4% grapes, and 29% “bee pollen” (which is taken as a marker of honey). The bottle also contained evidence of fermentation (oxalate crystals), and so the author concludes that the beverage was probably a mixture of the above ingredients in the mentioned proportions, fermented together and hopped. The beer came first, and it was “enriched” with honey – or so the author concludes.

But I don’t like that analysis. For one thing, the author doesn’t seem to try to figure out the actual proportions of the plant matter represented by the pollen; the text seems to assume that all ingredients will convey the same amount of pollen, which may not be the case. They also don’t elaborate too much on their rationale for their experiments or on the type of hop present – which is too bad, because this is a pretty big find!

So let’s tear this down and show how you can extrapolate a recipe from scant information. What if you wanted to try recreating a beverage like this? No recipe, no method, just some pollen grains in a bottle – how can we do it?

Watch and learn.

holdontoyourbutts

That feel whenever you take off autopilot and try to land the science jet yourself.

When we do this kind of analysis, we often have to make lots and lots of assumptions and extrapolations. In archaeology, the variables are often well beyond our control – so experimental archaeology must try to control what it can or accept the limitations of uncontrolled variables. I’ve advocated a sort of “mapping” approach to redacting and analyzing ancient recipes, and that principle will aid us here as well; by listing out my assumptions and reasoning, I can go back and nitpick and refine and strengthen my arguments.

The goal here is to get to something that resembles a more accurate technique, and in the process to enumerate some other possible and plausible methods. Most of the time, these sorts of analyses are rarely definitive, and tend to leave us with more questions than when we started – but it helps us to focus our inquiries, so that our questioning can be more productive. This is the heart of science.

Let us assume:

1) That a total of 28% of the 3500 pollen grains are attributable directly to barley which has been malted (that would be 17% attributed mostly to barley and 11% attributed to “cereal” weeds – we know that barley is not generally insect-pollinated, so the “bee pollen” probably does not cross with this group);

2) That 29% of the pollen grains are attributable to raw honey (bee pollen shows up often in raw honey);

3) That 0.4% of the pollen grains are attributable to Hallertau hops (they’re alleged to be the first hops that were ever domesticated, and the Trossingen area was close-ish to Hallertau);

4) That 0.4% of the pollen grains are attributable to grapes (though as you will see shortly, I haven’t rolled grapes into my analysis yet because I can’t find information about them);

5) That the ingredients were fermented together in a single beverage (as opposed to the pollen contribution coming from, say, 3 different beverages which all touched the bottle at some point);

6) That a single kernel of barley (which contains three anthers) will produce ~4500 pollen grains, about half of which can be removed relatively freely – so ~2250 pollen grains will survive through malting and will make it into the final beverage;

7) That a single kernel of dry barley weighs one grain (0.06 grams – the origin of the term “grain” is the weight of one kernel of barley), and that malted barley is ~10% less dense than unmalted barley;

8) That raw honey contains, on average, 6000 pollen grains per gram (based on estimates of average pollen load of “normal” New Zealand honey);

9) That hops used were wild, and thus grew at a ratio of 1:1 male:female plants (hops are a dioecious plant, and wild-type examples of such plants grow in a ratio pretty close to 1:1 – this indicates that the pollen load of a male plant reported represents a single female flower);

10) That hops pollinate in a manner similar to their nearest botanical relative, Cannabis (note that hops are a cannaboid) – which produces an average of 36,500 pollen grains per male flower;

11) That the mechanism of wind pollination results in ~95% of the pollen accumulating on the windward (i.e. exterior) surfaces of the plant, and that this pollen load would be removed in hop processing (i.e. the pollen that didn’t make it into the interior of the female flower just falls off);

12) That there are 100 wet hop flowers (we use the female flower of the hop in brewing) per 50 grams of hops, or 0.5 grams wet per hop flower (which translates to roughly 0.1 grams per dried flower);

13) And that these estimates actually apply to 6th century German plants.

pileofshit

Y’know, I never noticed the completely incredulous look on his face until right now.

So, basically, I’m making shit up. “Educated guesses” if you’re feeling generous – but I’m basically winging it in the absence of any more useful information.

One thing that we can definitely see by my analysis so far: it is a great mistake to assume that all of the ingredients going into a beverage would have the same pollen representation per gram.

Let’s look at my numbers. Each barley grain produces 2250 pollen grains, each gram of honey has 6000 pollen grains, and each hop flower has 1825 pollen grains (5% of 36.5k). Let’s convert these to a standard measure: pollen grains per gram of plant matter.

Barley: 37.5k pg/g
Honey: 6k pg/g
Hops: 3650 pg/g

Now, how about the proportional representation of pollen grains in the find? 3500 pollen grains total, so:

Barley: 28% = 980 pg
Honey: 29% = 1015 pg
Hops: 0.4% = 14 pg

And then we just do the math to figure out the possible mass of plant matter that delivered that pollen load!

Barley: 0.026 g
Honey: 0.17 g
Hops:  0.0038 g wet (1/5 as much dried)

That gives us a ratio of barley:honey:wet hops (by weight) of 26:170:3.8, or to make things easier: 7:45:1

So let’s turn this into amounts that make more sense, shall we? Let’s also not forget that malted barley weighs 10% less than “green” barley:

63 g malted barley (about 2 oz)
450 g honey (about 1 pound)
10 g wet hops (2 g dried)

The first thing I notice straight away – this ain’t a barley beer. Not by any stretch. The mass of barley is so small that it really seems much more like a flavoring or additive than anything else. The vast majority of sugar here is coming from the honey – enough that I’d really call this a “mead.”

Of course, as you will remember, the word “beor” (which is a root of “beer”) is glossed with “hydromel,” which refers to a honey-based strong beverage. So really, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that one could call a honey-based drink a “beer” in the ancient world – it seems to have fulfilled that role.

In fact, the amount of barley is so small that I really think about a starter biscuit more than I do an actual source of grain sugar. Remember how I’ve been hypothesizing about Viking-era “breads” really being used as yeast starters? This may be the sort of thing I’m looking at here. And remember how I’ve talked about those same breads really being grain/herb mixtures? And how that grain/herb mixture, once fermented, could be used as the basis for fermenting a strong drink?

Pliny specifically discusses the various methods of making “leaven,” and one method is to incorporate grape must into barley flour and make a biscuit. Grape must incorporated into such a “bread” as I’ve talked about previously could explain the grape pollen in the original find. The use of herbs in the bread may give us a clue as to how the hops came into play; perhaps grape must and hops were mixed into barley flour, and the resultant “cake” was used as a yeast starter to then ferment a honey/water solution.

We can make a wide number of recipes simply by varying the amount of water that goes into such a thing. Generally, “hydromel” was a 1:4 honey:water ratio. A pound of honey occupies a space of about 10 fluid ounces, so we’d need about 40 fluid ounces of water to properly dilute that honey. Do that, add in your 65 grams of barley/dried hop mix (which has been previously fermented), and wait a bit. Yeast from the grapes eat those sugars, and you get a little more than a quart (about 1.5) of slightly hopped mead.

How hopped? Well, 2 dried grams of hops at that density of sugar yields ~12 IBU – roughly the same bittering content of Budweiser. For reference, an English Ordinary bitter is somewhere in the 25 – 35 IBU range. American pale ales are in the 50’s, and IPAs are up in the 70’s or more.

You could even add a bit more water – maybe go to half a gallon of final volume (1:5 ratio) with all that honey, which would give you a lighter-bodied beer with only 8  IBU. A little less sweet, a little less hoppy. The evidence still supports such an idea. Hell, it supports a lot of ideas.

Or you could go heavier (1:3 ratio) and make something really sweet with about 16 IBU. It’s all up to you and what you prefer!

Therefore, based on my analysis of the evidence, I conclude that the Trossingen bottle may have contained the remnants of a lightly hopped mead, which may have been fermented using the residue of a light grain fermentation.

Possible OG (Original Gravity) Range: 1.059 – 1.120
Possible bitterness (IBU) Range: 8 – 16
Possible volumes (quarts) Range: 1 – 2

—————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The lesson here: archaeological evidence always requires interpretation. Using the same set of facts, we can come up with very different conclusions simply by varying the manner of our interpretation and the set of assumptions used to perform an analysis.

This is far from a definitive answer. I have thirteen listed assumptions, any variation on any of which can completely alter my outcome. I have no idea how much water was added, or how long it was fermented, or what proportion the grapes represent. We could re-analyze the model with an attempt to figure out what “cereal weeds” means and re-evaluate the contribution of plant matter from those (here’s a hint: rye produces ~10x the pollen that barley does – so there may be even less grain in this recipe than I’ve indicated).

But at least for now, I have something to work with – and that’s how science works.

Brewing with Egil: I Wanna Rock! (Or Two)

Well, life exploded a fair bit not too long ago, and I’m still slowly re-forming. I’ll facilitate this process by keeping the snarky, rambling, ego-stroking pontificating to a mini…

Ah, who the hell am I kidding? Read on…if you’ve got the stones.

GET IT?

Hm. Probably not.

Behold My Stones

I was going to fill this post with Twisted Sister lyrics – but my fire is faded and I can’t feel it no more. Instead, have some awful puns.

In my never-ending quest to more accurately reproduce a speculative Viking-era ale, it became “necessary” to reconstruct a Viking-era grain quern. This is the device that would be used to grind grain prior to being fashioned into “cakes” for subsequent use in beer production. I decided to make a mock-up using concrete, using an extant quern find as guidance. Volume 17 of the York Journal of Archaeology describes several quern finds. The majority are fragmentary querns from Mayen (a region in Germany) basalt, with the next largest group being gritstone (dense sandstone). Most finds lack any sort of “dressing” (grooves in the stone to aid grinding), and this seems to be common of Viking-era finds – dressed stones seem to be a post-Viking invention by and large.

I focused on find 9700, which is described on page 2628 at the above link. It’s a gritstone runner (upper) stone with a diameter of 35 cm and a thickness of 6 cm. It has a central perforation with a diameter of 7.5 cm.

I had difficulty getting a form that would give me a rock of the appropriate size, so I compromised. I cut the top off of a 5 gallon Lowe’s bucket (~12″ diameter) and used that as the form. I used Quickrete and cast a stone 30.5 cm diameter, 7.5 cm thick, with a central perforation ~4 cm in diameter. After accounting for the volume loss due to the central perforation, this wound up being pretty close to the same volume of stone as find 9700 (~5.4 L vs. ~5.5 L for the original find). Assuming that the base stone would have been approximately the same size (as seen in this Jorvik museum piece), it was cast with similar dimensions (though without quite the same amount of central perforation). In order to seat the spindle (wooden peg around which the upper stone turns) correctly, I simply jammed a length of wooden dowel about halfway into the base stone while the concrete was still wet.

There’s a joke in there, but I’m too classy to make it.

Weep Upon The Pile

This even looks kinda vulgar, if you’ve got a warped imagination.

Grain is fed into the central hole of the runner stone (that’s malted wheat in the picture above), and the handle is turned in a circular motion to grind the grain. The upper stone travels in a mostly elliptical path, pushing the grain out from the central hole into the broader surface area between the two stones.

You can see from the pile in the above picture that the upper stone sort of “floats” on a pile of grain. As the handle is turned, that pile shoots in between the two stones, which gradually grow closer together as the grain is ground down. Grind down too far, and the stones make significant contact – making your job that much harder. Of course, the increased friction between the stones seems to grind a finer flour, so it’s a constant balancing act.

That was almost clever.

There is a “rhythm” to using the stones – turning the handle while periodically feeding grain into the central hole. Once the stones are “primed” with some grain, and as long as there’s always a central pile of some sort, the upper stone turns fairly readily.

“Fairly” is a subjective term, of course. I’m still basically rubbing a 25 pound coarse rock against another 25 pound coarse rock, and that takes some effort. After about an hour and a half of grinding grain and separating coarse material, I had ~2 cups of flour and a good sweat. Quite the forearm workout.

Note: Viking women are srs bsns. Do not anger them.

So what does the flour look like?

The Ceaseless Grinding of Dust The Pitiful Rewards of Diligence

On the left, you can see both ground and unground malted wheat. The flour you see there is the result of a single pass through the stones. Not bad! Definitely some coarsely-ground material in there, but there is also quite a bit of flour.

On the right, we have some barley that I malted. That flour has been generated by grinding the grains 3 times (as in, re-grinding the product of the stones multiple times), and then bolting (sifting) the flour through a single layer of cheesecloth. As you can see, the malted barley flour has a somewhat sandy texture, but there is a good proportion of fine flour as well. Not pictured is the coarse material that was left behind after bolting – there was at least as much of that as the fine flour.

In retrospect, three passes seems unnecessary. Pass 2 and Pass 3 seemed to produce roughly the same consistency of flour, indicating that there is an upper limit to the fineness that can be generated in a mixture prior to separation of the flour. My speculation is that grain would be ground twice, bolted, and then the coarse material remaining would be fed back into the stone for another pass.

The resultant flour is also very “gritty,” as the action of grinding also loosens some grit from the concrete. I only let the stones cure for a week, which allows concrete to achieve ~60% of its final strength. Even then, concrete has similar physical properties to sandstone, which is noted by the Jorvik museum to add grit into the flour it generates. Most Viking-era quern finds are basalt, which is considerably harder; it’s conceivable that harder stone produced a less gritty flour. I’ll figure that out once I can get a line on some basalt.

My speculative brewing method involves rendering the malt into “cakes,” reflecting a malting method documented in the early Irish Senchas Már (which discusses “tests” of the malt made before it is “made into cakes”). After mucking about with the grinding stones, it seems that this was probably a necessary consequence of the method of grinding. The grain is ground much finer than we typically grind for mashing today, and excessive grinding can cause problems in conventional mashing setup by impeding the flow of wort. It’s also easier to transport and store cakes than it is to store loose grain or flour, so this really just seems to make sense.

Into the Inferno

Flatbreads or dung cakes? You know what, let’s just skip that question and sail somewhere that isn’t a frozen volcanic hell.

Even the “fine” flour seems to create a coarse bread. The bolting wasn’t as efficient as I’d have like; some husk and larger coarse bits did make it through. This is consistent with Viking-era “bread” finds, though, so I don’t think I got it “wrong.” It’s also worth noting that these breads are gritty. Like a mixture of tasty grain and sand.

What? Of course I put it in my mouth.

There is a lot of speculation that Viking toothwear patterns may have been the result of grit in their bread. After trying this out, I can see how that’s a plausible scenario. Of course, I also speculate that many breads were used for making a beverage rather than being eaten outright. Perhaps softer stones made malt cakes and harder stones made bread flour, or perhaps a Viking would eat bread until his teeth were bad enough that he’d need to drink it instead. Or maybe the toothwear comes from something else. There are many possible scenarios that can be constructed from the same evidence, so there probably wasn’t a “one true way” of doing things.

For the sake of experimentation, I went ahead and “mashed” some of the cakes to make a beer:

Drowned in Ashes A Caged Hell

I’ve revised my “beer” recipe, and I think I’m happy with it now. 1 part of crushed malt cake is mixed with 4 parts cold water. This mixture is heated slowly until it’s just shy of boiling, and then the liquid is drained off. Mixed with that is 1/2 part honey, and some fruit if so desired. In this case, I tossed in some dried juniper cones in the mash (to give a bit of a juniper flavor), and used dried cranberries as a fruit additive once everything was mixed.

My reasoning behind that is the gloss between “beor” and “hydromel.” Most “hydromel” recipes that I can find around the time are a 1:4 honey:water ratio that is fermented for a short time. Such a ratio produces a fairly sweet beverage (for the brewers, an OG around 1.095), so my goal was to replicate that sweetness. 1 part crushed biscuit contributes roughly 40% of the needed sugar content, and removes roughly half its volume via absorption. Add in the lost volume as honey (hence half a part), and you also make up the other ~60% of needed sugar. Funny how these things work out, eh?

Interestingly, all of the grit in the bread seems to have settled to the bottom during mashing and formed a thick wet layer of clay-like grain/grit material. Perhaps making the gritty bread into a liquid was also a method of “cleaning” the bread of its gritty material? The stuff pretty well stayed put as I was separating the liquid, and there was quite a bit of stone grit left behind in the pot.

In the picture on the right, you can see the result of the mixture after ~3 days of fermentation. In the mason jar is my “ealu,” revived from a previous batch using 2 small grain/flax “crackers” (remember those?) and 3 cups of water; the stuff was fermented overnight, and then some of the dregs were used to start the beer. After ~3 days of fermentation, the beer is still pretty sweet, nicely bready, a bit fruity, and somewhat alcoholic. Not bad! Exceedingly pleasant!

So what next? I’ve been poking around at my recipe and production method in light of Dr. Pat McGovern’s grog paper; in particular, the heat-treated tree resin finds imply to me a processing method that involves localized high-intensity heat being applied to a solution containing suspended tree resins. He suggests a birch syrup production method, but I find that unlikely given the lack of evidence to support such a thing. I’m working on a method inspired by Finnish sahti brewing that turns the kuurna (hollowed-out log bedded with juniper branches) into a mash tun that is heated by hot rocks. Hypothetically, one could bed a hollowed-out log with evergreen branches, fill it with water and malt cakes, and plop in hot rocks until the temperature is right. The rocks may provide sufficiently intense localized heat to produce heat-treated tree resins. Let it cool, run the liquid into a vessel where you add honey and fruit, toss in some dregs from your magic bucket, and wait a few days.

That will have to wait till it warms up a bit more and this snow gets out of the way. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just sit here and play with my rocks.

What else is new?

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.

Brewing With Egil: To Leaven or Not To Leaven?

By now, most of you should have at least a vague understanding of the brewing process I’ve speculatively identified in the Viking age. Of course, most of that work has been book research tied together with a handful of demonstrative experiments.

My next “phase” is to begin drilling down and deeply analyzing each step of the process. Is that the right grain? What’s the angle on that bucket supposed to be? Should I try to get a custom lava flow produced so that I can correctly mimic the mineral composition of the basalt quernstone finds prevalent in the Viking era?

Will this stuff ever be good?

These questions will all be answered in due time.

To recap my process:

1) Biscuit: A “biscuit” consisting of a combination possibly including grains (primarily barley and oats), legumes, oil seeds (flax and false flax), local herbs, and salt is produced. The ingredients are mixed together in some proportion (possibly according to individual household taste), steeped in water for a time, dried over a kiln or fire, ground into flour, turned into a biscuit, and baked until dry.

2) Food/Medicine: Biscuits are mixed with hot water, or heated with water, until a liquid results. That liquid, if unfermented, can serve as a quick food item (think chicken stock or broth); when fermented (by being poured into a specialized bucket dedicated to the task), the resultant liquid may be used as a medicine.

3) Booze: The leftovers from medicine production are “grut” or “gruit,” and will consist of brewing dregs – spent grain, settled yeast, and herbs. If a yeast raft is floating on top of the medicine, that could be scooped off and used to start an alcoholic drink. It is also possible that sweet liquor could be dumped into the medicine bucket on top of the dregs of a previous batch. In either case, exudates from the medicinal beverage are used to start alcohols – using any combination of honey, fruit, and grain sugars.

Today, I’m going to attack a portion of #1: the biscuits. Since I recently ran out of my biscuit supply, I figured this would be a good time to experiment with a couple of items in the production technique!

It's cool, nature. I don't really need any more bacon.

It’s cool, nature. I don’t really need any more bacon.

So this was originally going to be an experiment in more “proper” grain drying techniques. I was going to construct a pseudo malting kiln in line with the specifications of the era, and fuel it with the proper items – typically local hardwoods, plant detritus, and dung.

Perhaps it’s for the best that my plans were snowed out – I’m not sure if my tastebuds are prepared to handle the delicate cornucopia of flavor that can only be provided by a good shit-smoked malt.

Another time.

Fortunately, I have other questions to answer. As you will remember, I’ve made a biscuit product before. Trouble is, I’ve been working from whole grain in the husk – and I have no real way to de-husk the grain. Consequently, I’ve been grinding husk along with the grain whenever I produce flour – and the husks radically change the consistency and flavor of the biscuit.

Viking-era querns would very likely be much better about separating grain from husk. I’ve been using a food processor to make flour, and the blades shred the husk material. A basalt quern is more analogous to my modern malt mill – it “squeezes” the grains out of the husks and then continues to grind them away. The husks should be left far more intact than they would be with a food processor, and consequently you’ll get a much smoother dough. This is corroborated by Viking-era bread finds, which very rarely show very minimal contamination with husks. This implies some kind of fairly adequate bolting/winnowing process that separates grain and husk quite adequately.

To deal with this, I’m trying out a different grain: gluten-free steel-cut oats. This also has the advantage of being safe for my fiancee to consume, should she desire so. Ideally, I’d find gluten-free sproutable oats – they would actually undergo a fairly vigorous malting during the soaking. Those are hard to find, though, and I have the steel-cut version available to me – so that’s what I’m using until I can find a suitable replacement.

I’ve also been curious about prospective biscuit preparation and drying methods. Archaeological evidence has been interpreted to indicate unleavened biscuit products – but the root texts I’ve considered describe a sourdough processing method. Perhaps it’s possible that the biscuit finds are actually sour-leavened – after all, sourdoughs are much more dense than pure yeast doughs, so they may appear to look unleavened in archaeological finds.

Then there’s the matter of metal contamination. Evidence shows that many of these biscuit breads exhibit small holes contaminated with iron. The current interpretation is that the biscuits were baked, and then strung or carried on some sort of iron wire hanger. Seems to me, though, that you could make your dough, put it in disks on some wire, string the wire across a cooking fire, and have the biscuits dry while you do other things. Serves to explain the iron contamination, and seems to fit a little better into the idea of a home processing system – it makes use of already-active cooking or hearth fires that we know were present in the home.

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The first step is to mix and soak the ingredients. Here, I’m going with a roughly equal proportion of grains and “other stuff.”

By volume, I’ve got a mix of 3 parts steel-cut oats, 2 parts flax seeds, and 1 part imported Icelandic herbs (well, it was 1/2 part, but they were dried – so I figured that after soaking, it’d be closer to 1 part).

This is sort of a callback to the Talmudic instructions: equal parts grains and safflower. In this case, my “equal part” of non-grain is a combination of oil seeds and herbs – both are found in Viking-era “breads.”

To steep the stuff, I’ve chosen to use saltwater. I don’t yet have a solid grasp of Viking-era salt production techniques (but keep an eye out for my “Cooking With Njall” series, debuting soon!), and my current understanding is that salt was somewhat harder to get in Iceland than in other places. Seawater, however, would be plentiful – and since the grains have to be soaked in water, it kind of makes sense to me that they may just used seawater. The Atlantic is roughly 3.5% salt, so I mixed up a brine in that concentration (35 g of salt per liter), and added enough of it to the mix to cover the grains.

As you can see above, I started with ~1/2 L of dry ingredients, and after two days of soaking, it nearly doubled in volume! I’m not sure how long they’d steep the grains, but something like “until all the water is absorbed or the grains stop soaking up more” seems like a reasonable metric. Easy visual indicator. That’s what I went with.

After that, the grains are dried and ground into flour.

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This is where the fuel experiment would have happened, but as it New Yorked all over my yard, I was relegated to my very non-Viking electric oven. A temperature of 250 F seemed reasonable, and I kept the door cracked to keep constant airflow. The idea was to attempt to emulate something of the convection system of a kiln. In the future, I’m going to build a small-scale replica of an appropriate kiln or oven, in order to properly dry this grain.

One thing to note is that we don’t tend to find grain kilns in the Scandinavian countries themselves. Most sizable kilns seem to be concentrated in northern Scotland; this implies to me a transition towards a more centralized quasi-industrial production system later in the Viking era (around the mid-10th century). Earlier, it’s plausible that small-scale grain processing was done using the same facilities that were available in the home. Ultimately, if you’ve got a heat source, you can dry grain somehow. It’s conceivable that Viking-era cooking fires and/or sunken ovens could pull double duty as grain drying devices.

Once the grains were dried, I pulverized them in my coffee mill. Terribly Viking, I know. Quern stones from the era appear to be made of dense sandstone (called “gritstone” today) or lava rock – particularly basalt. The majority of finds of rotary hand querns are basalt, actually. Soon as I have a source of basalt, there will be a hand quern.

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At this point, I decide to run another little experiment: leavened or unleavened biscuits? I prepared two batches of dough.

The first was 1/2 c flour and 1/3 cup of water with a bit of yogurt whey and bread yeast. This was mixed thoroughly, covered, and left at room temperature for 24 hours.

The second was prepared the next day, right before baking: 1/2 c flour, 1/3 c water. Knead into a dough.

Both had the consistency of wet clay, though the sour-leavened dough felt somewhat lighter and spongier than the unleavened dough. Each log of dough was shaped into 7 biscuits, each approximately 5 cm in diameter and 0.5 cm thick, in accordance with the majority proportion of Viking-era “bread” finds.

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I wanted to see if there was any difference in the resilience of the two doughs when baked on wires. If the biscuits were actually baked directly on some kind of metallic wire, they’d need to be resilient enough to stay put during baking.

Archaeological finds suggest iron wire, but I didn’t have any locally available. The Norse did have copper, and I could find untreated uncoated copper wire – so that’s what I went with for now. I strung the two different batches of biscuit along copper wires, attached them to the oven, and allowed them to dry (again at 250 F).

This drying method would seem to fit with the home processing scale likely in place earlier in the era. You’d probably be working up small-ish batches of biscuit, and it might not necessitate taking a trip out to a communal bread oven or otherwise taking up a lot of cooking space. String them on some wires over an already in-use fire, though, and you can make very efficient use of space and heat.

In the first picture, the unleavened biscuits are at the front, and the sour-leavened biscuits are at the back. In the second picture, sour-leavened biscuits are on the left, and unleavened are on the right.

As you can see, the sour-leavened biscuits did not hold up to being baked directly on a wire – 4 out of 7 fell off during baking. However, the unleavened biscuits held up like champs – every single biscuit remained on the wire during the entire process. This seems to mesh pretty well with the archaeological finds – unleavened breads exhibiting small holes contaminated with iron.

You can see in the third picture that the “bread” has a coarse, mealy texture. The biscuit is resilient, but yields to being bitten. There was a very slight taste difference between the leavened and unleavened biscuits, but nothing really worth noting. They were mostly identical apart from the differences in resilience.

So what happens if I mash the stuff?

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It’s surprisingly not bad! One biscuit cooked in 1 cup of hot water yields a rich broth-like beverage. Two biscuits per cup makes a porridge-like substance. Seems to be a versatile and easy-to-use food package. Need broth? Throw a biscuit in a bowl and heat it with water. Want something thicker? Another biscuit.

The broth itself had a toasty aroma with a hint of spice, and a hint of rich sweetness. It reminded me very vaguely of liquid gingerbread. The flavor was quite pleasant – warm, with a good thick mouthfeel, hints of nutty and toasty flavors, and a slight background of some kind of unidentifiable spice. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Ensure – and really, that makes sense with my “nutritional beverage base” take on things.

I’ve got plenty of biscuits leftover – more than enough to try fermenting the stuff and testing it out.

While small, these experiments serve as a proof-of-concept for some small, technical parts of the process – the biscuit base could indeed be made unleavened from a mixture of grains, oil seeds, and herbs, and be successfully baked after being strung on metallic wire.

This has also confirmed for me that, most likely, the dough was not leavened prior to being baked. Of course, it’s also possible that a more thorough leavening could change things – but why go through all that extra effort when not leavening just works?

Of course, there’s a lot of equipment to change up. A proper kiln, a lava quern, soapstone bowls for heating – but the principle seems to be viable. From here, the liquid could be fermented, and the exudate used for alcohol production.

Next time, I’m going to work on drilling down some more fermentation specifics. For now, though, keep your feet warm and your cups full!