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!

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.

IMG_20131213_075617

IMG_20131215_155719

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.

IMG_20131215_155927IMG_20131215_204653IMG_20131215_205600

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.

IMG_20131216_154844

IMG_20131216_154916

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.

IMG_20131216_155812

IMG_20131216_185433

IMG_20131216_185729

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?

IMG_20131216_200902IMG_20131216_201014

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!

Brewing With Egil: A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

Or is it 10,000 words? I dunno, numbers were never my strong suit – that’s why I’m a microbiologist!

Whatever. This is going to be a first for me, folks: a post of fewer than 500 words.

I’m shocked.

I promise that I will return to my regularly-scheduled ego-stroking pontification in my next post.

In an efforts to yet again collect, explain, and outline just whatever the hell it is that I think I know about Viking-era brewing, I’ve come up with a nice visual representation of my research pathways. The goal is to eventually make a fully-hyperlinked drawing, where you could click on any part of it and get more information. Pop you over to a specific reference. All that good stuff.

If you get really really drunk, and look at it sideways, and also have some brain damage, it kinda makes sense.

If you get really really drunk, and look at it sideways, and also have some brain damage, it kinda makes sense.

Alright, so that probably doesn’t explain shit to most of you. But! I thought this was a neat little diagram, so I used it as the centerpiece of a much more useful bit of summary: a poster.

Yes, that’s right – I’m going legit. Posters all up ins. Paper to follow. Publication? It could happen!

I don't fuck around.

I don’t fuck around.

Click that picture for the embiggened version. Go ahead. You know you want to.

I don’t know if I need a new hobby, or if I’ve found exactly the right hobby.

I promise, this will all eventually lead to beer.

And that’s it! Look at that! Short and sweet!

Maybe I should just unnecessarily kill some whitespace. Y’know, to keep with tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There we go. Much better.

Until next time!

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

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

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

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

Repeatedly.

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

It’s funny every damn time.

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

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

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

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

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

That, my friends, is science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————————

Restating the Process

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

I. Medicinal/nutritive grain beverage (MNGB):

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

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

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

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

II. Strong (likely alcoholic) drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

Brewing With Egil: Revisiting the Past

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

We shall see how long that lasts.

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

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

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

On the Meanings of “Gruit” and “Mealt”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hops: The Debate Rages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

Previously, I argued that “skap-ker” was a reference to a combination working vat/serving vat. The same vessel that was used to hold the fermenting beverage was also used as a display item. I argued that a particular brewing vessel type (the “Buddha bucket”) served as an example of a type of bucket that could fit such a purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Method Revised

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

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

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

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

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

So how am I making this stuff now?

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

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

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

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

Hot dogs.

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

Concentrated hot dog water. With booze.

It was not good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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