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.

An Applied Approach to Viking-Era Brewing

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

I apologize for nothing. As is tradition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Viking Method Summarized

1.) The Grains

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

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

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

2.) The Processing

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

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

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

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

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

3.) The Mashing

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

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

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

4.) The Product(s)

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

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

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

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

Recreating the Past on a Budget

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

1200, now.

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

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

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

1.) and 2) The Grains and Their Processing

Several options exist.

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

Picture1 Picture2 Picture3     3.) The Mashing and Formulation

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

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

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

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

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

Picture4Picture5Picture6 4.) The Product

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

It’s funny every damn time.

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

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

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

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

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

That, my friends, is science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Restating the Process

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

I. Medicinal/nutritive grain beverage (MNGB):

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

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

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

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

II. Strong (likely alcoholic) drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Brewing With Egil: Revisiting the Past

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

We shall see how long that lasts.

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

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

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

On the Meanings of “Gruit” and “Mealt”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hops: The Debate Rages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Method Revised

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

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

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

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

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

So how am I making this stuff now?

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

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

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

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

Hot dogs.

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

Concentrated hot dog water. With booze.

It was not good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?