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

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

Actually, it’s been almost exactly a year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikings gonna vik.

Vikings gonna vik.

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

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

Wait a while.

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

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

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

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

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

Cue the beer nerds and our insufferably pretentious beer talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

... Well shit.


Well shit.

Huh.

Apparently there’s a learning curve.

Wait a while. We’ll get there.