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

(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.


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.


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.

Take a Cock and Boil Him Well


Last time, I mentioned briefly that I had choked a chicken and made him into beer. This is a thing which requires a degree of elaboration.

Cock ale is a beverage whose earliest attestation dates from the mid-17th century, in the writings of Sir Kenelm Digby. Dibgy is a popular source among SCAdians and other historical brewers, as this text is essentially a large collection of booze recipes; most are various sorts of meads or other honey-based beverages, but we also find a handful of ale techniques, as well as this recipe for something called “cock ale:”

Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.



It’s worth noting a few things at this juncture:

  1. The “gallon” in question at the time (~1669) was most likely the English ale gallon, with a volume of ~288 cubic inches. Of course, measurement standardization was still spotty at such a time, and a range of volumes were possible, from 270 to 288 cubic inches being found. For reference, our standard gallon is 231 cubic inches in volume – that means that a “gallon” of ale in 1669 occupied a space roughly 20% larger than the current US gallon. So that “8 gallons of ale” is more like 9.6 gallons.
  2. The wording in the recipe is not totally straightforward. A fellow historical brewing nutjob, who is quite good at it, has a version of this technique where he boils the chicken in the wort while making the beer. Seems like it can be a valid reading. Another reading seems to indicate that you boil the rooster but don’t do anything with it; the direction to “beat these all in a mortar” seems to refer most directly to fruit and sherry. My reading is that you boil the rooster (after cleaning and gutting him), cut or chop him up, mix him with the fruit and sherry, and put that all in the ale. But that’s just one possible interpretation – nothing is definitive here. A later version of the recipe does agree with this interpretation, so I am confident that this is a plausible method.
  3. Sack” is an archaic term that was used to refer broadly to all fortified Spanish wines. The most commonly available iteration today is sherry, but not all sack is sherry.
  4. The rooster I used is called a Golden Polish, and its roots date back to roughly the 16th century. In fact, evidence of crested chickens goes back to the 4th century CE.
  5. His name was Death Cluck. Don’t you forget it.


Of course, all of this is useless without an ale as a starting point. At this point in brewing history, “ale” and “beer” were distinct products. A late 16th/early 17th century text by Gervase Markham, entitled The English Housewife, contains recipes for both “beer” and “ale” (pp 206 – 209).

In general, “ale” was a higher-alcohol unhopped product that is somewhat akin to barley wines, and which may have been flavored with herbs; “beer” was a mid-range product (~5% ABV) that used hops as a preservative, and rarely had an additional herbal component. Markham’s technique for both versions of “ale” – strong and bottle – would produce high-sugar products with a large potential alcohol content.

Digby documents something he calls “small ale for the stone.” He also documents an “ale with honey,” which is a drink made of honey mixed with small ale. Digby’s use of language is very precise; he says “small ale,” “ale,” and “strong ale” to talk about different products. My conclusion is that his “8 gallons of ale” meant something stronger than a “small ale” but not as strong as a “strong ale.” This is probably more akin to Markham’s “bottle ale” or his own “ale with honey” – as Digby calls this an “ale” expressly.

So to make my “ale” base, I used two other Digby recipes: “small ale for the stone,” which served as the base for “ale with honey.” That “ale with honey” served as the base for the “cock-ale.”


Small Ale for the Stone (~4.5 gallon batch)

  • 3 quarts wheat malt
  • 2.5 quarts Maris Otter pale malt
  • 0.5 quarts crystal rye malt
  • 0.5 quarts chocolate rye malt
  • 0.5 quarts 6-row malt
  • 1/2 oz Hallertau hop pellets

Digby’s recipe ultimately calls for 1.5 pecks of malt and 15 gallons of water. The gallon used to measure water was likely the same as the wine gallon – ~231 cubic inches. He also instructs you to tun it into a barrel of 8 gallons – presumably ale gallons, which would be ~9.5 conventional gallons. You probably wouldn’t fill the barrel completely, so this recipe likely made 8 or 9 gallons of ale.

That’s more booze than I could handle, so I cut the recipe in half (7.5 gallons and 0.75 pecks of malt). There are 4 pecks in a bushel, and the bushel at the time was roughly 9.2 conventional gallons in volume (~2130 cubic inches, close to the actual volume of the bushel today). That means that a peck was 9.2 modern quarts – 3/4 of that is roughly 7 quarts.

The recipe calls for a half ounce of hops (the measures for weight of foods at the time were the same as ours today), but as I already had a half ounce of Hallertau left, and I didn’t want a useless quarter ounce kicking around, I just put the full amount into half the volume. It barely makes a difference in IBU content anyhow. I also didn’t boil the water with hops first – instead, I added them to the second boil (the wort boil), and reduced the ingoing water by 1 gallon (to account for what I would have lost by boiling).

The recipe seems to be a mish-mash of different malts – that’s because I was using what I had on hand, and wanted to get rid of some small weights of grain that weren’t doing me much good. Malt at the time was primarily barley, but could be made of wheat or rye as well, as Markham documents in another work.

I brewed the beer like you do anything else – heat the water up, dump it on the grain, let it sit for an hour, drain the wort, boil with hops, cool, pitch yeast. I used Munton’s dry ale yeast on this guy, because I had it on hand.

My final yield was a touch over 4 gallons – about 4.25. Gravity was 1.048, roughly what I expected. I let this ferment for about 5 days, until the strong fermentation was done, and then dragged it out to Rhode Island for Phase II.

I am a highly-educated, reasonably-paid, ostensibly mature adult.

Ale with Honey

  • 4 gallons small ale (above)
  • 0.5 gallons honey (local raw honey)

Digby works in larger quantites, so I reduced by a factor of 10. For those who don’t know, a gallon of honey weighs ~12 pounds – so this technique has me adding 6 pounds of honey to 4 gallons of finished ale. That’s a lot of sugar to be adding; the recipe becomes roughly 40% grain sugars and 60% honey sugars, making it more like a braggot. Because the ale was done, I didn’t take a gravity reading after the honey addition – but it was probably in the 1.100 range, which is pretty damn strong and has a high alcohol potential.

Before all of this, of course, I had slaughtered, gutted, and cleaned Death Cluck – with some assistance from Phil and his dad. It was interesting to use a heritage breed of rooster that hadn’t been raised for meat; the meat on the carcass was quite dark, and had a liver-like aroma after boiling. That’s likely because of the high blood flow to the rooster’s muscles, as he was running around doing rooster stuff for his whole life.

As I was heating a gallon of the beer to dissolve the honey, I was letting half of Death Cluck’s boiled carcass steep in 1 quart of sherry, 2 pounds of raisins, 4 oz of dates, and ~ 5 grams each of nutmeg and mace (a single nutmeg is ~4 – 5 grams, and I decided to equal it with mace). Since I only had a touch over 4 gallons of ale, and Digby called for 8 (really 9), I just cut the entire recipe in half.

If you’re wondering, Phil and his finacee Chie kept the other half of the rooster and turned him into soup. He was delicious, and will be missed.

Once I had the honey dissolved, everything went into the fermenter – the honey/ale mix, the rooster carcass, and all the fruit and sherry. That went on to ferment for about another 12 days (I got sidetracked), and finished up at a nice 1.010 FG.

Through various testing means, I’ve estimated the final alcohol content of this beast to be ~15%. Trust me, it tastes like it – along with sherry, raisins, a bit of spice, and a touch of umami.

There are several possible reasons why this technique may have been employed. We find a tradition, starting in about the 14th century, of middle-class folks adulterating cheap wines to “improve” them. Additions most often include eggs (still used to clarify wine today), milk or cream, various spices, herbs, honey, fruit, and fortified wines. It seems that the intent was to replicate the flavor profile and texture of the more sought-after fortified Spanish wines, while also clarifying the product. This would save money while giving people a taste of higher-class beverages. It is conceivable that this escalated all the way to adding an actual bird to an ale (which was more like a wine anyway) in order to “improve” it.

It is also conceivable that it was done for superstitious medical reasons. We find at least one instance of cock ale being used as a remedy, and it was alleged that at least one king preferred it to wine. It was said to “raise the spirits” and other such nonsense. Seeing as how the rooster is often associated with masculinity and virility, it makes a degree of superstitious sense.

And seriously, this stuff will put hair on your chest. 15% ABV ain’t no joke.

It’s been fairly well received so far, though the product is far too young to drink right now. I estimate that it will have smoothed out somewhat by the new year – I’ll try cracking some more open then, and seeing how it’s changed.

This has been quite an interesting experiment. I had never thought that the literal combination of meat and drink could work out, but this has been quite enjoyable. It doesn’t taste at all like chicken; the carcass had simply added an earthy richness to the drink, which is complemented nicely by the dark fruit flavors and warm spices. I believe that the use of a heritage breed – that was actually living as a rooster and not a meat animal – was vital in getting that earthiness across. The base product is a very strong ale, so a more mild-tasting chicken would probably have disappeared from the flavor profile. As it is, Death Cluck has added an umami component to the product, making it very rich-tasting. Decadent, to an extent. Very silky and smooth.

But where to go from here?

What? This? Pork sausage. What did you think I was talking about?

Brat-toberfest. You heard it here first – meated beer is going to become a thing for me.

You have been warned.

Brewing with Egil: Now For Some Actual Brewing

I’ve destroyed vast swaths of whitespace and needlessly abused countless thousands of words in my endeavors to describe and explain Viking-age brewing.

I’m a scientist. Screw this “word” stuff. Let’s make something.

Bappir, anyone?

Pictured are the fruits of my labor so far – my interpretation of Viking-era “malt,” based on the research that I’ve done to-date. Let’s talk about how I got here.

As I’ve previously explained, I’ve drawn connections between the method for the processing of “polenta” described by Pliny the Elder, the method for producing “zythos” or “zythorum” described by Zosimos of Panopolis, and the analyses of actual bread finds from pre-1000 CE Scandinavia. I’ve also drawn inspiration from a recipe for “Ethiopian beer” documented by Olaus Magnus in 1555, which bears a striking resemblance to all of the other processing methods I’ve documented – and to the method presumably described in “A Hymn to Ninkasi.”

So, my method has borrowed from each source, in an attempt to extrapolate a speculative processing method.


Part I: The Grain Bill

First, this is how Pliny describes the ingredients of “polenta:”

But whatever the mode of preparation adopted, the proportions are always twenty pounds of barley to three (pounds) of linseed,4 half a pound of coriander, and fifteen drachmæ5* of salt: the ingredients are first parched, and then ground in the mill.

In Latin: “quocumque autem genere praeparato [vicenis hordei libris] [ternas seminis lini] et [coriandri selibram] [salisque acetabulum], torrentes omnia ante, miscent in mola

Note that the “drachmae” in the recipe is an interpretation of the original Latin “acetabulum;” according to Wikipedia, the “acetabulum” is a liquid or dry unit of measure with a capacity of 68 mL (1/8 sextarius). 1 tablespoon of salt (15 ml) is roughly 20 grams, which means we’re talking about roughly 90 grams of salt.

The “pound” to which they refer is the “libra” in Latin, which is the equivalent of 328 grams – or roughly  72% of a conventional modern English pound. Thus:

20 libra of barley = ~14.5 pounds = 6.56 kg = ~84%

3 libra linseed = ~2.15 pounds = 984 g = ~12.5%

0.5 libra coriander = ~0.30 pounds = 168 g = ~2.25%

Salt = 90 g = ~1.25%

Total mass:  7820 g

I decided to alter the recipe a bit, to make it a little easier to grasp (and to calculate ingredient amounts), and to standardize it a bit better so that I have a more solid platform for experimenting.

85% grain

10% oil seed

2.5% herb

2.5% salt

A healthy spread.

Of course, the Viking bread was not all-barley. The above-linked finds show that breads could contain barley, oats, and legumes – peas were the particular find.

In order to replicate such a bread, this is the final grain bill that I used:

Viking grain bill (proportions by weight) [500 g batch]

35% barley (un-malted, with husk) [175 g]

35% oats (steel-cut) [175 g]

15% peas (green, dried, whole) [75 g]

10% flax seeds [50 g]

2.5% herb (wild Icelandic thyme) [12.5 g – reduced to 4 g to account for dried herbs]

2.5% Atlantic sea salt [12.5 g]

What’s that? Wild Icelandic thyme?

Egil tested, dead men approved.

This was a gift from my younger brother from his vacation in Iceland. The thyme here is dried; since the directions specifically state that the ingredients have to be “parched,” I assume they were starting with fresh herbs. I reduced the amount of thyme used to 1/3 of what I calculated, to account for the difference between fresh and dried herbs.


Part II: Processing the Grains

Zosimos of Panopolis provides a fairly clear method for the processing of the grains, and subsequent conversion to the bread-like substance pictured at the beginning:

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).

*Note: According to Pliny, leaven was either made of must and grain, or fermented porridge, or a bit leftover from a previous batch – in other words, sourdough starters.

I am adapting this method 1) to account for the Viking-era grain bill I’ve identified and 2) to account for climatic differences between ancient Rome and very northern Europe.

First, we take all of the ingredients and steep them in water overnight:

Surprisingly, the liquid tasted pretty damn good.

Next, we “spread it out and put it in a windy place for another day.” In this case, I spread the soaked stuff onto a baking sheet and put it on my table with the ceiling fan running.

It smells and tastes better than it looks.

After this, we soak it again for 5 hours, and then drain it in a special vessel, and soak it some more. The archaeological record of the Vikings does not seem to have a “sieve with handles” in the way that Zosimos describes, so I just sort of sprinkled more water on the grain and left it out while I was at work (~7 hours).

Wow, that really sucked up the water.

The next stage is to “dry it in the sun,” until it “deflates.” Ultimately, this is a method for peeling the grain – soaking and drying will cause the husk to shrivel away from the grain, making separation easier. Now, northern Europe (especially Iceland and northern Scotland) is a cold, wet place. Drying in the sun is unlikely to work. That’s probably why there are so many corn-drying kilns in northern Scotland – they needed a way to dry out their wet grain. Keeping that in mind, I put the baking sheet in my oven at 275 F, until the grain was dried out.


Wow, that looks an awful lot like a high-kilned malt, with a bit of crystallized appearance. Hardly surprising, given the moisture content. Now, we need to “mill” the grain, add “leaven,” and bake the crap out of it.

Note to self: invest in rotary quern.

I did not have a proper Viking quern (hand-cranked two-stone rotary style – very laborious, but it makes flour), so I had to make due with my Barley Crusher malt mill. I ran the grain through 3 times to try to get it finely crushed, but it wound up being a fairly coarse meal.

I used the “boil some meal into a porridge and let it ferment” method of leaven. However, as I was on a time budget, I also added a pinch of baker’s yeast and a small dollop of the liquid from some plain yogurt. A sourdough is, after all, a symbiotic system of lactic acid bacteria and yeast – and Pliny’s methods of leaven would very likely result in a sourdough. Ideally, the starter would have been a bit of the dough leftover from a previous batch – but as I had no previous batch, this was not possible.

The “starter” was fermented overnight, then mixed in with the coarsely-ground meal and some water until it achieved a dough-ish consistency, and fermented overnight again. After that, I spread the dough mixture out into rounds ~6 cm in diameter and ~0.5 cm thick, and baked them at 300 F until they were rock-hard. See that first picture.

That gives us the Viking “malt.”


Part III: The Brewing

Little-known fact: Vikings invented the non-stick coating when they greased their frying pans with the rendered fat of burned villagers.

Zosimos similarly describes a method by which the bread can be processed into a beverage. However, I’ve identified two different speculative processing streams – one to make “brauð,” and the other to make the wine-like beverage “öl”. I’ve drawn my inspiration for the wine-like beverage from the work of Olaus Magnus, who described an “Ethiopian” beer made from sourdough bread mixed with water and honey.

For both products, I have used a 1:4 ratio of solid:liquid (by volume) in constructing my recipe. This is essentially the ratio documented by Magnus (effectively 1 part bread, 3 parts water, and 1 part honey), and is the ratio very commonly used in the ancient world for the production of mead. 16th century accountings of “ordinary” beer, such as the one described by William Harrison, also use a ratio of roughly 1:4 grain:water by volume (after accounting for differences in units in use at the time). Given that “ordinary” beer was intended as a common drink, I suspect this ratio may have echoes in a far earlier era, where processing methods had not yet evolved into totally separate specialized activities.

One of the biscuits I’ve baked occupies roughly 1/4 cup when crushed up.

For brauð: 8 biscuits were crushed and mixed with 2 quarts of cold tap water in a pot. The liquid in the pot is slowly brought to a boil (took about 1.5 hours) and boiled for ~5 minutes. The liquid is strained into another container, allowed to cool, and then poured into a jug.

For öl: The same essential method is used, though ratio varies a bit. 8 biscuits were crushed and steeped in 6 cups (1.5 quarts) of cold tap water – that’s a ratio of 1:3 biscuit:water by volume. As above, the mixture is heated slowly (~1.5 hours), brought to a boil, and boiled for ~5 minutes (until the protein foam subsides). This mixture was allowed to cool in the pot for ~30 minutes before being strained as above; the warm-to-the-touch liquid was poured into a different jug, and 2 cups of local raw honey were poured into the jug. The jug was shaken to ensure that everything was dissolved.

Why raw honey? Because while the Vikings had honey and apiary technology, they did not have the high-pressure filtration methods we have today. Any honey they used would have been full of pollen and wax. This particular honey has the comb removed, but still contains pollen – and also wild yeast and/or bacterial spores. Raw honey will ferment at about 17% moisture, so this will be an excellent vehicle for promoting wine production.

Both jugs have been left on my counter with the tops open, to promote a sort of open, wild fermentation. The saga of St. Olaf talks about ale being ladeled from an open cauldron into cups – indicating that fermentation was probably carried out in open containers. In the case of brauð, they may have simply left the liquid in the pot in which it was first cooked, or they may have transferred it to another vessel as Zosimos recommends.

These will be fermented (well, hopefully they’ll ferment!) until Saturday, where I’m teaching this whole thing (plus the entire Brewing with Egil series) as a class at the East Kingdom Brewing University this Saturday.


Summary of Process

1) Assemble the grain bill: 35% barley, 35% oats, 15% peas, 10% flax seeds, 2.5% herbs, 2.5% salt. Steep ingredients in water for ~24 hours.

2) Spread out grain and place it in a breezy location for ~24 hours.

3) Re-water the grain and allow it to stand for ~8 hours.

4) Dry the grain by low direct heat (an oven set to 275 F, for example).

5) Grind the grain into a coarse flour/fine meal.

6) Mix the meal with a sourdough starter (ideally a bit left from a previous batch) and some water, and allow to ferment overnight.

7) Form the fermented dough into cakes ~6 cm in diameter and ~0.5 cm thick. Bake at ~300 F (again, relatively low temperature) until they are dried and hard.

8) For brauð, use 1 biscuit in 1 cup of water. For  öl, use 1 biscuit in 3/4 cup water. Crush the biscuit(s) into the water and slowly bring to a boil over a gentle heat.

9) Strain the liquid into an appropriate container. For  öl, add 1/4 cup of honey per biscuit to the liquid once it’s cooled (but still warm enough to dissolve the honey).

10) Ferment for ~3 days, and enjoy!


Commentary, Limitations, and References

There are a few notable limitations in this method. First, of course, is that this is all still speculation on my part. There is no written method for the production of these beverages, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find one.

My 4 primary process limitations are: 1) lack of a proper rotary quern to produce flour, 2) lack of a proper period corn-drying kiln fired by appropriate fuel, 3) lack of a proper period baking setup to replicate the heat profile, and 4) lack of proper period-traceable ingredients.

A minor limitation was my lack of fully-soured leaven, but this is partly related to having a proper flour, and is generally trivially rectified by simply giving myself more lead time to allow the starter to ferment properly. As for the rest, in order:

1) While I cannot obtain an artifact rotary quern, instructions for making a facsimile using poured cement and pie plate tins exist online. While still not a truly period material, this would provide a flour with a more proper consistency. This is a project for the future.

2) The simplest corn-drying kilns are little more than fancy holes in the ground, dug in a two-bowl style. I am in the process of planning a reproduction of such a kiln; this will enable me to dry the grain using a proper fuel. Research indicates that, in addition to local hardwoods, Icelanders used sheep dung as a fuel source. This would produce a very smoky fire, which would impart a smoky taste to the dried grain.

3) Some archaeological evidence suggests that Viking bread may have been baked on iron pans or directly on burning coals. Given the small size of the extant finds, this seems plausible. Other evidence points to earthern ovens being used at the time. Both methods will be attempted and the results compared side-by-side. This is another experiment which will be attempted in the future.

4) Traceable ingredients are difficult to obtain. A variety of barley called Bere has been examined and traced to the Viking age (and earlier); however, Bere is native to northern Scotland, and importing it is difficult. A small group in western Canada also grows Bere, but the cost of exporting a sufficient amount is prohibitive. I will, in the future, either grow Bere or suck it up and shell out for it. Native oats are easier to obtain, and green peas are mostly unchanged.

It’s worth noting that salt in the Viking age was very very likely produced by being poured over burning wood (a method documented by Pliny as being practiced by the Germanic tribes), which would produce an alkaline, smoky product. My salt research is a completely separate topic, but will definitely have an impact here.

So, I am increasingly confident in my conclusion about Viking-era beer brewing. Now that I have established a baseline method, I can begin experimenting with different elements of the process, in an effort to make them more “period.” However, I believe that my current method is a reasonable representation of a product that likely existed in the Viking age.


  1. Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia. Perseus Digital Library. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plin.+Nat.+toc

  2. Magnus, O. A Description of the Northern Peoples. trans. Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgins, ed. Peter Foote, 1996 Hakluyt Society. (originally published 1555 in Rome.)

  3. Zosimos of Panopolis. De Zythorum… trans Gruner CG. 1814. http://archive.org/stream/zosimipanopolita00zosi#page/n3/mode/2up

  4. “Ancient Roman units of measurement.” Wikipedia article. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Roman_units_of_measurement (I know, I know. Wikipedia. I double-checked the sources and they seem legitimate.)
  5. Scott, Sir L. “Corn-Drying Kilns.” Antiquity. Vol. 25. Num. 100. pp 196 – 208. Antiquity Publications Ltd, 1951.
  6. Harrison, W. Elizabethan England. From A Description of England. Ed. Lothrop Withington. Project Gutenberg. Released 30 May 2010. EBook #32593. London: Walter Scott. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32593/32593-h/32593-h.htm



I figured I should add in some pictures of the stuff fermenting. I would up adding a pinch of Munton’s dry ale yeast, just to get the stuff going. Turns out, my apartment doesn’t contain enough wild yeast to start a fermentation. Next time, I’ll just leave the stuff outside.

On the left, we have brauð – the basic beverage used as a food. This one has “fermented” for about 5 days now – longer than was likely typical. However, it’s still a light fermentation, and a stable beverage; the flavor profiles at day 3 and day 5 are the same. It tastes something like a small beer crossed with a broth/stock flavor; it also has a very pleasant citrus-like brightness to it. Almost lemony, actually. This may be a result of the interaction between the wild thyme and the fermentation.

On the right, we have öl. This has some alcohol content at this point, and is the only one of the two with some carbonation. It is, however, quite sweet – it tastes like mostly un-fermented mead. This one may become more alcoholic (and balanced – it’s really damn sweet) with time. I definitely see how something like this could be glossed with “hydromel.”

Brewing with Egil: “Bread or Beer?” More Like “Beer or Beer.” (And a Summary)

I’ve dedicated 5 posts to a lengthy discussion about some of the roots of modern brewing terminology, and grain processing practices from ancient civilizations. So far, I’ve traced a tradition of barley processing rooted in ancient Egypt, documented in ancient Rome (and the surrounding regions),  connected to early Anglo-Saxon England, and echoed in a 16th century brewing practice for Ethiopia – where the technique came from in the first place.

But I care about the Norse people, particularly during the Viking age and shortly after, during the early Icelandic Commonwealth era. How did they get their drink on?

Sure, I can make an argument that contact with Anglo-Saxons and Finns (Laplanders) would have resulted in cultural exchange; let us not forget that the Kalevala contains what is probably an ancient beer recipe that bears a shocking resemblance to the techniques I’ve already described; barley and bitter herbs are boiled, honey is added, fermentation happens.

The Vikings were also descended from the Germanic tribes around the Roman empire – and I’ve already shown that Pliny (and others) document their grain processing techniques – Tacitus in particular describes a “wine” made from barley or other grain, and other document their methods of making porridges, all of which are quite similar to the Roman method. And of course, good ol’ Zosimos describes a method for making a barley “bread” which is subsequently steeped in water, and the resultant “aquam dulcem” (sweet waters) strained and used as a drink.

I’ve described how these techniques are reflected in Anglo-Saxon medical texts and glossaries, likely a result of Roman influence during the period of Roman Britain. I could just leave it at that – an argument based on trade and cultural contact, and a well-supported one I contend.

But did the Vikings do this too?

Yes, Vikings were that hardcore

Almost certainly. “Breads” have been unearthed at Lovö, Birka, and Helgö. In most cases, the bread was very small (~5 cm in diameter and 0.5 cm thick), and appeared unleavened or possibly sour leavened. The composition of the breads varied widely, but common ingredients include: barley, oats, peas, vetches, flax seed, gold-0f-pleasure (commonly called “false flax”), and various field weeds.

Hm. Grains? Bittering agents (vetches, field weeds)? Flax? Hardtack consistency and size?

That doesn’t sound like “bread” in any meaningful way that we know it. In fact, it sounds exactly like the result of the grain processing techniques documented by Pliny and Zosimos.

Indeed, the Old Norse word for “bread” is commonly held to be “brauð;” however, there is much dispute and uncertainty regarding the exact etymology of “bread,” and even Cleasby-Vigfusson’s Old Icelandic dictionary  indicates that the modern meaning was unlikely to be in use during the Viking age.

Given the “bread” finds that have been unearthed, it seems that this holds water. Small wafers dried out, mixed with bitter herbs and flax, are hardly likely to have been used the same way we use “bread.” Such items would be useful to carry around, and would allow you to make a quick meal when you were on the go by soaking in water or some other liquid.

And, for what it’s worth, the word “brauð” would be pronounced quite a bit more like “broth” than anything else. Given its possible ties to words meaning “brewing,” this may well be the actual case – a processed grain cake that could be broken into pieces, steeped in water, and used as a broth/beverage/pottage.

But did the Vikings have alcoholic beverages?

What, you think this is water?

Absolutely. I won’t bother putting out links, because the sagas are full of references to “öl,” which is yet another root of our word “ale.” And there is little doubt that “öl” was used in a celebratory or sacrificial/sacramental context, much like the Anglo-Saxon “beór.” Egil’s saga includes a tale where “öl” is drunk as a sacrifice to local spirits; Egil kills a man because he was lied to about the availability of good drink.

Never get between a Viking and his beer.

Based on all the evidence I’ve gathered to-date, here’s the picture I’m drawing of Viking-age cereal beverages:


Ealu = brauð: cereal-based beverages, lightly fermented or not fermented, sometimes mixed with honey-water, sometimes mixed with herbs, intended as a nutritional/medicinal drink, and possibly as a base for the cultivation of yeast. This is related to the various grain preparations documented by the Romans, the Talmud, and Zosimos.

Beór = öl: mixed-source fermented beverages, intended to be alcoholic, that function as replacements for wine/mead where those items were extraordinarily expensive. The grain base is likely the same as in the “nutritional” beverages, but honey and/or fruit may be added to add sugar, flavor, and alcohol-producing yeast.


There could be a lot of variation within these two broad classes, but the core principle of two different production streams is constant. One is unfermented or lightly soured, to assist in digestion and the assimilation of nutrients; the other is fermented strongly, to create alcohol. Both may include herbs of various sorts, to add bitterness or “medicinal” qualities.

I believe I have built my arguments pretty well, but I always welcome hole-punching regarding my theories.

The next stage: experimentation! I will attempt to reproduce some of these techniques, and the beverages they may have created.

There is much drinking yet to be done.

Brewing with Egil, Part V: Ealu, Beór, Wyrt, Grut, and Mealt


Throughout human history, few pursuits have been as fervent as the one to get totally shitfaced.

Pliny even remarks as much in Naturalis Historia:

“and yet, by Hercules! one really might have supposed that there the earth produced nothing but corn for the people’s use. Alas! what wondrous skill, and yet how misplaced! means have absolutely been discovered for getting drunk upon water even.”

In particular, the Anglo-Saxons seemed to love getting blasted; they had several words that describe intoxicating (and some non-intoxicating) drinks, many of which form the basis for those same words in modern English.

Following are my conclusions about the possible realities of these brewing terms, based on my research to-date.

In addition to the research I’ve discussed before, there are a variety of sources that are crucial to this research:

The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft – a 3 volume book of herbal medicine: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3

Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies – a 2-volume collection of teaching manuscripts, containing linguistic glosses: Volume 1 (vocabularies), Volume 2 (indices)

Wyrt: This word is the root of the modern word “wort,” which is the liquid that remains following the mashing of grains for beer production.

Interestingly enough, “wyrt” has another meaning in Old English – “herb” or “plant,” especially those in a medicinal context.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising, especially when you recall the names of some well-known plants: mugwort, St. John’s wort, pennywort, and so forth.

It’s not uncommon for one word to have multiple meanings – but those meanings are almost always thematically related. In the case of “wyrt,” it is used on its own to refer to various herbs on their own. Sometimes, “wyrt” has other “wyrts” added to it, making for a very herbal mixture.

The “Leechdom” books are full of references to “wyrt” and the places where it used; in almost all cases, it is connected to “ealu” and “mealt.” Keep this in mind as you continue reading.

Sound familiar?

Mealt and Grut: The exact meaning of “mealt” is somewhat ambiguous. It is the root of the modern word “malt,” the grain used in modern brewing. The root of its use in Old English is a word that means “melted,” “boiled,” “bitter,” or “sour,” and is seen most often in context with words referring to grain (though one Old Norse use of the word “maltr” describes the foul mood of some folks). No references to the production of “mealt” exist, but there are many references to its uses – all of which seem to be tied to the production of “ealu.” It is pretty safe to conclude that “mealt” likely refers to a processed grain product, likely intended to be “melted,” or mingled with water.

The word glosses with the Latin words “bratium,” “bracium,” or “brasium,” which seem to refer to either a very white grain or…trees in the Cypress family. Hm. Interesting.

When one considers that the word itself has connotations of “sour” or “bitter,” the Cypress association doesn’t seem so crazy. It may be a reference to grain mixed with bitter or resiny material – not unlike the “polenta” described by Pliny and other authors.

Even going back to ancient Egypt, we find references to grains mixed with aromatic herbs – that is the “bappir” of the Hymn to Ninkasi.

In addition, the 4th century alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis, in a fragment about “zythos,” describes a method of grain production quite like Pliny’s polenta; the process includes taking the steeped and dried barley, mixing it with herbs and salt, and baking it into a small cake. That cake is later crumbled into water and heated.

The Babylonian Talmud describes “Egyptian zeethum,” which is a mixture of barley, salt, and wild saffron (not the same as the ludicrously expensive spice).

This is doubly interesting given that “mealt” is connected to “wyrt,” which is connected to the herbal medicine tradition. It is unlikely that any of these meanings are coincidence, especially given the very context-dependent nature of Old English translation.

And for added fun? The word “gruit,” used to refer to a mixture of herbs used to spice traditional ale, is rooted in the Old English “grut,” which is also the root of “grout.” In all cases, the meaning of the word is something akin to “coarse meal.” We also see “grut” used in an herbal/medicinal context.

I conclude that the most likely scenario is that “gruit” referred to a loose meal consisting of grain and herbs, likely heavy on the herbal mixture. “Mealt” referred to a mixture of grain and possibly herbs baked into a small “cake” that mixed with water later; the “mealt” would likely be somewhat sour from its processing. That same “mealt” might be crushed or ground into “grut.”

When you consider “mealt” and “wyrt” in combination, the connection is quite clear; an herbed grain product is mixed with water (creating an herbal and starchy infusion), and sometimes mixed with even more herbs.

So what’s everyone else gonna drink?

Ealu: This word is the root of our word “ale.” The precise meaning of “ale” is subject to some confusion. These days, “ale” refers to a beer fermented with a top-fermenting yeast. In the Middle Ages, “ale” was a category of fermented cereal beverage that was flavored with “gruit,” and “beer” was the same thing flavored with hops.

However, my research has pointed me at a slightly different use case for “ealu,” based on my research and on readings in the above-linked works.

“Ealu” is attested to primarily in medicinal/nutritional contexts. The “Leechdom” books contain numerous references to its use as the base for medicines. In addition, “ealu” is seen with “wyrte” in almost all of its uses, several times with “mealt,” and a few times with “grut.” Numerous herbal remedies instruct that you make “ealu” expressly for that remedy – implying a beverage that is used soon after its mixture.

Now consider the harmony between “mealt,” “wyrte,” and “ealu,” and consider the writings of Pliny and others. Pliny documents the production a beverage derived from processed grain mixed with water – sometimes boiled. The Talmud describes the same thing. So does Zosimos. And 2000 years before all of them? A prayer to Ninkasi recorded the mixture of dried herb bread with water, followed by a brief fermentation. And all of those authors describe methods of processing a grain/herb mixture and drying it for preservation. Many of these sources speak of the nutritional qualities of such preparations, as well as their potential restorative qualities.

When you examine the glosses for “ealu,” we see a connection to the Latin “cervisa” or “cerevisia,” but no other beverages. “Ealu” seems to have stood in a class by itself, as a lightly-fermented tincture of grains and herbs administered for medicinal and nutritive purposes. I posit that it may have actually been intended as a method of stimulating yeast growth for consumption – which may explain why a word like “cerevisia” eventually became the specific epithet of brewing yeast. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, anyone?

The fine tradition of throwing shit together and drinking what comes out.

Beór: And finally, we reach the root of the word “beer.”

This word shares a gloss with “ealu” – that of “cerevisia” in Latin. We also sometimes see “beór” used in remedies in a manner akin to “ealu.” Though we don’t see “mealt” specifically attached to “beór,” it is reasonable to conclude that give its analogous context and shared gloss, the same ingredients went into both.

But it’s more complicated than that. Unlike “ealu,” “beór” glosses with other beverage words. In particular, it is frequently associated with “hydromellum” and “mulsum,” both of which are words that refer to “mead.” Other texts see “beór” used as an analogy for the wines of other cultures.

The fact that the two are used distinctly (the same passage may refer to both “ealu” and “beór” separately, even in the same herbal remedy), and in a mutually exclusive context (as in, use one or the other), leads me to believe that they must be distinct beverages, brewed for entirely different purposes.

Residues of fermented beverages have been found in Iron Age burial sites, often in a ritual or religious context. Digs in southern France and Germany have revealed evidence of grain processing activities. And evidence of multiple-source fermented beverages exists. Wines have historical use as sacramental and celebratory drinks, so the discovery of alcohol production at burial sites is hardly surprising.

Given the association with wines and meads, and the somewhat lower representation in herbal remedy contexts, I conclude that “beór” refers to any beverage that is produced for alcohol. It is a class of wine-like beverages that were likely produced for sacramental or celebratory purposes. Such drinks would have been more popular in northern Europe during the Dark Ages because actual wine was difficult to get. Mead/hydromel would have been more common, but even then, honey isn’t that common. It is quite probable that any such beverage would have consisted of a mixture of different sugar sources – throw everything you’ve got together, ferment it, and drink the resultant “beor.”


So, in short: the fermented grain beverages from the Anglo-Saxon era were likely divided into two broad categories:

-“Ealu” was a freshly-prepared, short-fermented, cereal-and-herb product intended primarily as nutrition and/or medicine. It was derived from “wyrt” made of “mealt,” a processed cereal “cake” produced in a manner similar to that documented by Roman and Greek authors.

The influence of Rome on northern Europe is documented by various excavations dating to the time of Roman Britain. The likely scenario is that Romans brought their “polenta” technology to these northern tribes, who adopted it into their brewing regimen.

-“Beor” may have shared ingredients with “ealu;” however, its primary purpose was different. It would have been “stronger,” in the sense that it contained more fermentable material. In addition, it would have had sugars from three sources: processed grain, honey, and fruit. The yeasts found on fruit and in honey differ from the flora found in grain; fruit and honey have a greater association with alcohol-producing yeast. It is likely that “beor” was a potent alcoholic beverage, intended to replace wine where grapes were not abundant.

Next time, I’ll look at the journey of “ealu” into the culture of the Vikings, and look for connections between these techniques and their techniques.