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

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

Actually, it’s been almost exactly a year.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings gonna vik.

Vikings gonna vik.

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

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

Wait a while.

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


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

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

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

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

Cue the beer nerds and our insufferably pretentious beer talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... Well shit.

Well shit.


Apparently there’s a learning curve.

Wait a while. We’ll get there.

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.

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.


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: 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.



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.


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.



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.




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?


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!

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: Sheep Vat’s Deep Drafts

Man, that’s a mouthful.

I’ve talked about the ingredients that likely went into Viking-era “beer,” and presented my hypothesis about the production of such a beverage. One area that’s critically lacking in the research is an analysis of the equipment that may have been used.

Brewing is extremely process-intensive, and the process is very closely tied to the equipment you use – everything from the gap between rollers in your malt mill to the quality of insulation in your mash tun to the precision of your temperature monitoring equipment can affect your final product.

To that end, I’ve been trying to figure out what the Vikings may have used as a fermentation vessel, and from that extrapolate how they may have fermented their beverages.

Oh god I hope that’s booze.

The word skap-ker (sometimes skaptker) appears in a few places in the corpus of Old Norse text. It is generally agreed to indicate the vessel from which ale is served at feasts – this is documented in a few different sagas . However, no text describes the nature of a skapker – its size, construction, appearance, or any other physical characteristics.

Linguistic analysis may give us some clues. One reference comes from the Elder Edda, in Grímnismál, in a passage describing the goat Heiðrún (Hollander’s translation):

Heiðrún heitir geit,
er stendr höllo á
ok bítr af læraðs limom;
skapker fylla
hón skal ins skíra miaðar,
knáat sú veig vanaz.
Heithrún, the goat
on the hall that stands,
eateth off Læráth’s limbs;
the crocks she fills
with clearest mead,
will that drink not e’er be drained.

I added the emphasis on “skapker” so you can pick it out. The mythology seems to indicate that the “skapker” is the vessel which is eternally filled with mead. Given its mythological use, and the associations between ale and feasting/sacrifice/sacrement, this makes a degree of sense. It may be that the word “skapker” is a callback to the methaphysical beliefs in the Viking age – that is, the physical vat from which ale is served is symbolic of the ever-full vat in Valhalla.

Of course, that’s pure conjecture on my part. Seems logical, but I’m coming at that from a post-pagan Christian-centric perspective. Just because we think that way doesn’t mean they thought that way – but it’s certainly plausible given the context of use.

Dissecting the specific meaning of “skapker” becomes an interesting exercise. It’s a compound – “skap-ker” – whose meaning is somewhat ambiguous. “Ker” is pretty solidly “cask,” “vessel,” or “tub.”

“Skap,” however, may be related to the word for “to work” or “to make.” So could it mean “working-vessel?” If the skapker is a fermenter, this would make sense.

The noun form of the word is also “skap,” and also means “shape” – but it can also mean “mind” or “temper.” Hmmm. “Mind-vessel?” What could that be?

When we look at the entry for “skapker,” we find a note indicating that the word “skap” is actually derived from “skepja,” which is a form of “skapði.” All of these seem to indicate work or creation of some kind.

A related word is the Anglo-Saxon “ge-sceap,” which again means “of shaping or working.” However, the word “sceap” by itself also means “sheep,” and this is confirmed in the Latin-AS glosses I’ve already talked about.

“Sheep-vat?” Really? It’s actually not that crazy if you think about it – the aforementioned goat is extremely closely related to sheep. In fact, many animals called “goat” or “sheep” are distinguished fairly arbitrarily and sometimes erroneously. Add in that they were using very different breeds 1000 years ago, and one can conclude that there may have been very little difference between a “sheep” and a “goat.”

And let’s not forget that all of the works in question were compiled in the 13th – 14th century – where skeps were commonly used to raise bees. It’s conceivable that “skapker” is more like “skepker,” meaning something like “honey-comb vat.” Given the use of honey in ale production, this is also not totally crazy

So the word itself might mean “working vat,” or maybe “honey vat,” or even possibly “sheep vat.”

What might a “sheep vat” be?

Please be wrong.

Please be wrong.

OK, OK, the “sheep vat” thing is a stretch anyhow. If anything, I would suspect it means “sheep’s vat,” an allusion back to the story about the goat with teats that produce mead forever.

All of the possible meanings do seem to make a sort of strange sense, though – we have references to a goat/sheep that fills a “skapker” with mead for all eternity, the “skapker” is used in situations where mead or ale would be appropriate, and “skapker” as “working vat” still has connotations of fermentation (often referred to as “working” the product in medieval sources).

No matter how we slice it, the “skapker” is the vessel from which ale or mead was dispensed for consumption – and given its associations with “working,” I think it’s reasonable to extrapolate that it may have served as a primary fermentation vessel.

So what was it made of? How big was it? We’re still at the same place, aren’t we?

When you absolutely, positively, need to get a bunch of people drunk.

These are vessels recovered from the Oseberg find. The pail with the handle is the so-called “Buddha bucket,” and it may have been large enough to hold a lot of booze. An Irish Arts Review paper (sorry, cached copy – can’t get to the full thing) mentions that the thing is 36 cm tall, and tapers from 32 cm to 26 cm in diameter. Using a handy volume calculator, a cylinder 36 cm tall and 32 cm in diameter should have a volume of ~29,000 cc, or 29 L. Of course, this tapers to 26 cm in diameter (a cylinder whose volume is 19 L). Averaging to get a volume estimate for the bucket gives us roughly 24 L – about 6.5 gallons or so. Of course, all of those measurements are probably outside diameter and fail to account for wood thickness – but we’re estimating here.

You can see that the vessel with 4 rings is larger still. And the Oseberg ship itself had a barrel with a capacity of ~750 liters – so the Vikings certainly had the ability to craft wooden vessels of significant capacity.

We also don’t see stone or metal vessels of this size in Viking-age finds. We find them a few hundred years prior in Celtic digs, but Vikings seem to have a decided lack of large stone or metal vessels. We know that their woodworking was excellent – the ships we’ve uncovered show masterful craftsmanship – so this seems to make a degree of sense. It seems that Viking-age vessels of significant capacity may have been made primarily of wood.

One thing to note is that all of the buckets pictured above are made of yew – which is a toxic wood. The toxins dissolve quite readily in alcohol, so I doubt that these specific vessels were used to hold alcohol. One vessel did have wild apples and a ladle, so I suppose it is possible. However, they certainly serve as evidence of a type of vessel that Vikings made, and which could possibly serve as a “skapker.”

I’ve mentioned before that Viking-era drinking vessels were smaller (most are around 6 – 8 fluid ounces), so a 6.5 gallon bucket of ale will go a long way for a lot of people. Ale was most often drunk during celebrations and feast gatherings, so many people would be available to drink it. A 6 gallon batch of ale contains roughly 50 pints, which is 100 servings of ale in Viking-era cups (assuming an 8-ounce average). Plenty of booze to get 20 – 30 people drunk – a size of party that is documentable in the sagas.

In the saga of Hakon the Good, we find that Hakon directed the Vikings to celebrate Yule at the same time as the Christians. He also issued a decree about ale. The decree is often translated as “and that every man, under penalty, should brew a meal of malt into ale, and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.”

The “meal of malt” part is especially interesting, because the Old Norse text doesn’t actually say that. It says:

ok skyldi þá hverr maðr eiga mælis öl, en gjalda fé ella, en halda heilagt meðan jólin ynnist.

I’ve bolded the part that is usually translated as “meal of malt.” There is an Old Norse word for malt – shockingly, it’s “malt,” – and yet it appears nowhere in this text. In fact, “mælis” primarily means “measure, and the compound “mælis-öl” specifically means “a measure of ale, approximately six and a half gallons” according to Cleasby/Vigfusson.

Well look at that. 6.5 gallons would be about enough to fuel a good party, or a family for a week. And we have direct archaeological evidence of wooden buckets of at least that capacity. The examples are decorated with metal – expensive in the Viking age – so it seems reasonable to believe that they may be reserved for special occasion use.

The figure on the “Buddha bucket” might be connected to a Celtic harvest deity – indicating a possible sacramental intent. A sacramental vessel that is large enough to fit descriptions of containers from the era? It’s plausible.


From all of this, the most reasonable conclusion I can draw is that the “skapker” was probably the primary fermentation vessel used in the production of ale/mead, or whatever the sacramental beverage was. It is also likely that said “skapker” was a specific vessel made of wood, whose capacity was at least 5 – 6 gallons, and was likely decorated with metal or figures to denote its sacramental status.

The “ever-flowing mead” imagery makes me think that they likely kept using the same vessel over and over, dumping onto the dregs of what was left. Even if there were no dregs, wood is absorbent and will harbor yeast – so by re-using the same wooden vessel for years, you create a vessel with a house strain of yeast that will ferment whatever goes into it.

A dedicated “working vat,” made of wood, re-used for generations. Ale is ladeled directly from it through a mead strainer, into horns, and served to guests.

Hey, it sounds better than a “sheep vat,” right?

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.

  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.

  4. “Ancient Roman units of measurement.” Wikipedia article. (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.



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.

Brewing with Egil, Part II: “Ethiopian” Beer and Dead Bees


A while ago, I stumbled across a book called A Description of the Northern Peoples, written by the Swedish Catholic archbishop Olaus Magnus in 1555. The original Latin text is freely available online; I have an English translation published later.

In the book, Magnus documents “a method of brewing beer among the Ethiopians or Indians.” It’s worth noting that, in the 16th century, “Ethiopia” was a word used to refer to all of Africa and a chunk of the Middle East; this recipe is not strictly limited to the modern borders of Ethiopia.

You can get the original text (in Latin) for free here:

The recipe is found in Book 13, chapters 30 (in part, to make the bread) and 31. Following are excerpts that convey the recipe. I’ve made the recipe twice so far.

30. On a method of brewing beer among the Ethiopians, or Indians, from a recipe furninshed by my lord Johannes Baptista Habascianus, an Indian priest

“Take flour of ordinary wheat or barley which has not been shaken through a sieve, for better beer comes from this. Make a dough and put in yeast according to the way in which ordinary bread is made. The dough should remain for 10 days before it is baked, but let it be well kneaded daily and sprinkle into it a small amount of flour every day until the tenth day, so that the dough becomes sour. After the 10th day, bake it in the oven until it turns into biscuit. When it is brittle, break it into pieces, put it in a jar, and lay on top a very small amount of sprouted barley. Fill this jar with water and stop it up well for three days…”

31. Making the same beer in a different way

“Take biscuit bread and sprouting barley and put these into a large jar just as I described above, until the third day. Then take a big pot full of honey together with the combs and wax. Afterwards take a large vessel which will hold five times as much liquid as the pot held honey, and wash it thoroughly. While it is still damp turn it with the mouth downwards, to be smoked over dried olive leaves. Next pour in all the honey from the pot, fill the same pot twice with sprouting barley and softened biscuit bread, and put as much water and sprouting barley as you need into the vessel you poured the honey into.
When all these ingredients, including the honey and water, have been mixed together in the vessel that has been smoked, the resulting beer is firmly stopped up with clay for three days. After that open it and, when you have skimmed off all the scum found in the mouth, force it to flow out, as I told you to do with the drink above. Distribute it through a shining white cloth among various clean, handsome jugs, which should then be well stopped…”


He wrote a lot more than that about the beer, but those two excerpts are the bulk of the actual technique. He describes the process for sprouting the barley, extracting wax from the “scum” skimmed off, and talks about the importance of keeping beer away from menstruating women and people “polluted from recent coition.

I decided to take a crack at replicating this recipe, because the technique is unlike anything else I’ve seen. It somewhat resembles the process documented in the Hymn to Ninkasi – but that’s a topic for another time.

I should have used stone-ground flour for this one, with a varied consistency – but I didn’t have access to it. I used whole-wheat flour the first time, and used my barley crusher to make a coarse barley meal the second time.

The “bread” that results from the wheat is pretty interesting. I’ve never let a sourdough go for 10 days; by the end, the dough was the consistency of wet clay, and baked into something not unlike pottery shards. It was also extremely lactic – it tasted quite a bit like a sharp Italian cheese, similar to aged provolone.

The barley bread wasn’t much better – still very hard and dry, but it crumbled more easily than the wheat bread.


The process past the baking is pretty straightforward – soften the bread, mix the bread glop with raw honey (with combs and wax), and drink a few days later. The smoking step is curious at first glance, but olive leaves contain bacteriocidal compounds, so the smoking likely served as some form of sanitation.

The stuff is quite sweet after 3 days, with a strong honey flavor, a nutty breadlike flavor, a touch of lactic sour/tartness, and a very yeasty profile. It’s not unpalatable – it’s just bizarre. Very mildly alcoholic, though it gets stronger as it ferments longer.

When I finished the first iteration, I found a dead bee in the solids – that’s what I get for using raw honey with comb. My friend Fridrikr Tommasson (mka Tom Delfs) helped me name the drink, in honor of the bee’s noble sacrifice: “Drykkjabýdrapa,” or “The Song of the Drunken Bee.” Godspeed, little friend.

I can’t really map it to any modern beverage, and I’m not even sure it was really intended as a “beer” in the way we think of beer. It doesn’t seem like the fermentation is really intended to produce alcohol; rather, it seems to me that the fermentation makes the stuff easier to drink. It’s very thick and rich, rather like a liquid bread. I suspect it may have been intended primarily as a nutrient beverage – a way to make use of the grain that was processed for long-term storage. It’s even conceivable that the yeast content may provide B-vitamins, enhancing the possible nutritive qualities.

This is the recipe that made me start thinking about the potential use of sourdough bread in brewing. Could something like this be reflected earlier in history? What does the sourdough process actually contribute to the beer – since it’s such an obvious specialized processing technique, it stands to reason that the brewers were attempting to manipulate the grains to a particular end.

That is a topic for a different post.