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.

Cooking with Njall: Burn Baby Burn! Salt-Burn, Anyhow.

As you will remember, I’ve been screwing around with Viking-era salt production methodology. Based on a review of the language and literature, scant archaeological evidence, and good ol’ fashioned guesswork, I’ve been cobbling together a method that involves steeping kelp ashes in water in order to extract their mineral essence. That link back there is proof-of-concept. It can work, at least in principle. Cool, right?As a scientist, I’m never satisfied with an answer. Ever. It’s kind of like the Creator’s Curse, in a way – in the process of investigating a hypothesis, we learn things that often cause us to alter our understanding of that hypothesis. Rarely are you “right” at the outset. More often than not, you’ll be confronted with how the magnitude of how little you actually knew at the beginning – because you’ve gained knowledge in the process.
So we’re doomed to keep asking questions about things we’ve already investigated over and over again, because dammit we just keep learning new things.
Knowing that it’s possible simply isn’t enough. I need to know how well the method works. Is it actually feasible at a production level? Would it make sense from a fuel consumption standpoint? How hard is it to pull off? What kind of product is left behind? These are all things that we can investigate through experimentation and review, and that’s what I’m starting on here. Investigation! Skeptical inquiry! Lighting shit on fire! All the best aspects of science!
Bro, do you even science?

Bro, do you even science?

In order to investigate plausible extraction methodology, I wanted to test two different factors: water source and heat of extraction. Previously, I simply soaked charred kelp in room-temperature water and boiled the runoff. That’s great, but we also know that the solute holding capacity of water increases with temperature – so hypothetically, a hot water extraction should allow more salts to dissolve than a room-temperature one.

I also used water from my tap, which is all good and well – but this is a utility endeavor, and it was practiced on beaches isolated from major population centers. Would a salt-karl really haul fresh water from somewhere just to make salt, or would he use the seawater that’s right next to his setup? Remember, Pliny indicates that many cultures (including various Germanic tribes) made salt by evaporating seawater, and some by pouring it over the hot coals of wood. It’s plausible that seawater plus ashed kelp could be used to produce a salt; Atlantic seawater is only 3.5% salt in composition, and the saturation point for a saltwater solution is around 26% (barring any hypersaline water oddities).

Before I could do anything, though, I needed to burn some shit.


For a dude who writes about Viking stuff, you’d think I’d have more pictures of things on fire.

As I’ve mentioned before, I bought 50 pounds of Icelandic kelp meal some time ago. Since then, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to effectively burn the stuff. The configuration makes it useless as a fuel item; a friend had suggested burning it as food, and even offered up the above-pictured Lodge cookware for it. The test-run many moons ago was successful but stinky – I figured my 60,000 BTU propane burner could get the job done.

Man, did it ever. My previous efforts never resulted in significant combustion, but this stuff really took off after the initial heavy smoke phase. Interestingly enough, it also burned out and never re-ignited; my guess is that most of the carbon content burned off, leaving behind mostly mineral salts. The fire itself produced a fairly noxious-smelling black smoke, with a chewy oily texture.

Let me just reiterate how awful this shit smells. It’s extremely smokey, takes a while to burn off (I think the pot above smoked for 45 solid minutes before catching fire), and smells like a rotting whale carcass stuffed with fermented shark that is also on fire. Also the whale is on fire. Also the entire ocean is on fire.

It’s really not pleasant.

Seems there’s a good reason that “salt-karl” was an insult, and why the Norse did this on a beach well away from other people. When I came in after 3 hours of burning stuff (during which I reduced 12 lbs of kelp to ~5 lbs of ash), my fiancee could only say “UGH. What’s that smell?” And today, two days later, my peacoat still reeks.

A Sunny Day

You could smell it at the porch, and 1/4 mile into the woods down our walking path. Also STANDING NEXT TO IT FOR 3 HOURS.
Man, if only we could BUY salt or something.

So after I finished standing outside freezing my ass off while inhaling fumes of unknown toxicity, I had a tub of charred stuff that smelled fairly awful. It needed to cool overnight before it could really be useful – ashes tend to stay warm for some time. They never fully ashed, not even when combusted – but again, I believe that to be a byproduct of the configuration. Future experiments will look at trying to use sheet kelp as an actual fuel source, rather than expending heating fuel to make ashes.

Once you’ve got cooled kelp ash, it’s time to extract the mineral content! I’m used water as an extraction medium, and tried both conventional tapwater and a seawater analogue consisting of 3.5% salt.

Charred Kelp AshBoiling Water The Setup

It’s always prudent to assemble your materials before you proceed with an experiment. Here, I’ve procured my kelp ashes (~2.35 kg), propane burner and propane (set to 50% maximum output), several measuring containers, a strainer and bowl, and of course a kitchen scale.

The faux seawater solution was prepared by combining 5 kg of tapwater with 175 g of kosher salt, giving a final salt concentration of ~3.5%. Note that I weighed the water as opposed to measuring volumetrically – that’s because water has a density of 1 gm/cm^3 (until it gets near freezing, at least), so that 1 gram = 1 mL and 1 kg = 1 L. Convenient! My scale has better resolution (minimum 1 g) than my volume equipment, so this will allow for maximum accuracy.

Controls are crucial in any experiment, and it’s important to identify needed controls at the outset of an experiment – let your hypothesis govern the choices. In this case, I’m specifically looking to assess the difference in extraction efficiencies between 1) salt and fresh water and 2) low-temperature and high-temperature extractions. Because I will ultimately be measuring a mass of solid product, it’s important to know what will be contributing solids to the extracts. In order to provide controls, I boiled down 1.5 kg each of tap water and “seawater” and measured the mass of residue that could be removed from the pan.

Hard Water Residue Saltwater Aftermath

On the left, you can see the residue remaining from boiling off tapwater. We’ve got hard water here (perfect for brewing), so it’s not surprising that there is a scale left on the pan. However, it proved to be too little to effectively harvest or measure, failing to register any mass on my scale. Thus, 1.5 kg tapwater contributes less than 0.5 grams of solids to final counts. On the right, we see the residue of the “seawater,” representing the base contribution to the method as well as accounting for the losses that invariably occur when trying to harvest the salt.

1.5 kg of saltwater with a concentration of 3.5% salt by weight yielded a final salt load of 46 grams. Hypothetical yield was 52 grams, but some salt was lost in processing. Still a fairly efficient extraction. The salt was initially rather wet after drying – something like 70 grams and a consistency not unlike brown sugar – but it was heated in the microwave for 1 minute to fully dry.

For sample setup, I basically drew a Punnet square and did the appropriate combinations. 4 500-gram portions of kelp were measured into appropriately-labeled dry containers. 1.5 kg of either salt or fresh water was added to each sample. Two of the samples (one fresh and one sea) were left to steep at room temperature for 30 minutes, while the other two samples (fresh and sea) were heated in a pot on the kitchen stove. Heated samples were brought to a visible boil, and dropped to a simmer for 5 minutes after the first bubbles breached the surface. Following all extractions (whether heated or room temperature), the water/kelp masses were strained through a wire mesh strainer, and the liquid phase collected. The kelp mass was allowed to drain for 5 minutes, ensuring collection of a significant portion of the liquid.

Steeping Kelp Hot Water ExtractionDraining the Stuff

I didn’t measure the volume of runoff from each (though now I’m wishing I had) since I was only focusing on final solid extract generated by the methodology. However, all 4 extract methods appeared to produce roughly the same volume of runoff – roughly 400 – 500 mL. Future experiments will more accurately determine runoff volume generated by these extraction methods.

Once extracts were obtained, they were boiled down as the controls were. The pan was washed and dried in between each boiling (actually, all common equipment was thoroughly cleaned and dried in between samples to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination), and the same equipment was used to extract the salt from the pan (i.e. a spoon and a spatula). Extract mass was determined using the same scale used to measure all of the ingredients. In order to standardize the moisture level, all samples were microwaved for 1 minute after collection as the saltwater control was.

KRF The Aftermath KRS The Aftermath

KHF The Aftermath KHS Aftermath

I devised an abbreviation scheme to represent the four sample configurations. All samples are identified by three consecutive letters indicating their combination of treatments: K/[R or H]/[F or S], indicating [K]elp, [R]oom-temperature or [H]igh-temperature extraction, and [F]resh or [S]altwater extraction. Top row from left to right shows the solids extracted from KRF and KRS; bottom row from left to right shows extracts of KHF and KHS.

Yields for all samples and controls are given below. Compounded uncertainty in measurements is +/- 1.5 g; the scale has no listed uncertainty of its own, and 10 consecutive weighings of identical volumes showed no deviation. Uncertainty is thus half the value of the smallest unit of measure (1 g), added for each step that involves weighing. In this case, 3 different weighings of different components were used to determine the components of the extraction process – their uncertainties add together.

Sample Name                            Mass of Extract (+/- 1.5 g)

Saltwater control                     46 g

Freshwater Control               <0.5 g

KRF                                            42 g

KRS                                            112 g

KHF                                            90 g

KHS                                           120 g

The results are not terribly surprising. Both of the hot water extractions yield more salt content than the lower-temperature extractions. The difference is greatest when using fresh water for the extraction, which indicates that the charred kelp contains quite a lot of salt to potentially extract. It is curious that the yield from KRS is larger than [KRF + Saltwater]; one would expect that the yield would simply be additive and thus the two would be mostly equivalent.

It appears that the high-temperature extraction with salt water yields the largest quantity of salt, but the gain from heating is minimal compared to a simple room-temperature salt water extraction. It appears that the use of salt water for extracting leads to the greatest gains in salt yield. This is unsurprising, as the salt water contributes a significant salt portion. It may be that the addition of charred kelp to salt water allows the solution to approach saturation; assuming 500 mL of final volume, the KHS solution would have had a solute concentration of ~24% prior to boiling.

Recovery efficiency seems to decrease as final salt mass increases. When evaporating KHS, several larger globs of salt “popped” out of the pan in response to heating. This phenomenon was observed in other extracts, and is generally exacerbated as the amount of salt condensing increases. This may also account for the observed decrease in effectiveness of heating in extracting additional salt from the kelp.

Ultimately, this demonstrates the utility of using kelp ash to increase salt yield from boiling seawater. 1.5 kg of seawater, when boiled off, yields 46 g of salt. The addition of kelp ashes to that same mass of seawater, while reducing final liquid volume, can increase the final salt yield by a factor of approximately 2.5, for a maximum yield of 120 g. This has the potential to consume less fuel (boiling a smaller volume of liquid) while simultaneously increasing salt yield.

It should be noted that expending fuel specifically to ash the kelp is likely a fuel-losing prospect. More than likely, sheets of dried kelp were themselves burned as a fuel source, and the ashes collected and used for various home purposes.

So what’s next? Fuel consumption estimation, liquid extract volume yields, experimenting with sheet kelp as fuel, additional experiments for the sake of rigor…

But before that, I’m a Norwegian, and I have salt. Let’s get some cod and see what happens when I apply kelp-ash salt to it. Next time, we’ll see how that works out.

Final Products

Seriously guys, just buy your salt. It’s way cheaper and your clothes won’t smell like a terrible tragedy at the docks.


Element symbol: amount (ppb)
Note: BDL = Below Detection Limit
1 PPB = 1 ug/kg

Kelp Salt

V: 386.0
Cr: 491.6
Co: 180.0
Ni: 342.2
As (total): 574.2
Mo: 913.8
Cd: 186.3
U238: 96.01

Control Salt (Kosher Salt boiled in a pan)

Cr: 361.6
Ni: 225.6
As (total): BDL
Pb: 79.08
U238: BDL

The arsenic (As) level was not speciated, as it was not considered a level of general concern for salt.

The FDA sets a level of concern for arsenic in juice of 23 ppb, at which point the arsenic must be speciated. Inorganic arsenic in juice has a tolerance level of 10 ppb.

The US does not set an arsenic standard for any other product.

Codex Alimentarius maintains internationally-recognized standards for contaminants in some products:


The standard for food grade salt is 500 ppb total arsenic, so this slightly exceeds that. However, they also note that marine products (seafood and kelp) routinely have higher levels of arsenic (mostly organic, with ~1 – 3% as inorganic), often up to 50 mg/kg (50,000 ppb).

A 2007 study by Amster et al raised some concern about arsenic in kelp supplements, but was highly criticized because it failed to speciate the arsenic, and thus could not demonstrate the toxic link it claimed. The paper also suffered other severe methodological flaws.

In general, the amount of arsenic observed in the salt is not of concern. 10 g of the salt (twice the RDA for sodium) would contain 5 ug of arsenic, well within the typical human daily consumption range. And it is unlikely that all of the arsenic is inorganic – most is likely the organic (non-toxic) form, rendering the salt largely non-toxic.

But I would not use this salt as a day-to-day table salt, to be on the safe side. As a preservative for fish which is likely to be soaked out, it should be fine.

Thanks to Tom King and the chemistry division of the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets Food Lab!

Brewing with Egil: On Nordic “Grog” and How I (Sort of) Totally Called It

A mid-cycle update?! Madness! Pandelerium! Falling skies and cohabitating felines and canines and other social currency references!

Several people have pointed me at some very recently published research coming from Dr. Pat McGovern regarding Norse brewing. If you’re a nerd like me who is conversant with science, the paper is available for free from the journal – ain’t open access grand? McGovern’s analysis of biochemical residues reveals that the ancient Danes may have drunk a concoction of honey, grains, local fruits (cranberries), possibly imported grapes, and local herbs.

Sound familiar? Well, it did to me – because I reached this conclusion independently in February 2013. I presented it as an SCA class in April of 2013, and of course I made my poster a bit after that.

Yeah, I totally called it.

Physical evidence? I don’t NEED that.

But who’s counting, right? Certainly not I. Truth be told, I was not the first person to come to that conclusion; Ian Hornsey reached a similar conclusion in 2003 in his book  A History of Beer and Brewing.

Until now, the primary issue in figuring out Viking-age booze was the small matter of a near-complete absence of physical or written evidence. No finished product has been recovered, no obvious brewing facilities have been found, and few pieces of ancillary equipment exist. In addition, there is no written method documenting any alcohol production by the Norse – they weren’t a writing-centric society, and even the few written works that do exist don’t bother with something as simple as alcohol production.

My research pulled together linguistic, literary, and indirectly-related archaeological evidence to build a plausible paradigm for Viking-age brewing – including figuring out what ingredients may have gone into it.

McGovern’s findings represent the first complete physical evidence pointing to actual ingredients that may have plausibly been involved in producing Norse alcohol – and that evidence completely supports the hypotheses I’ve been developing for over a year now!

Now, granted, the time period of his findings pre-dates the age of the Vikings – but my current research combined with this new evidence makes a very compelling case for its continuation. In addition, the presence of multiple sugar residues in a vessel is not de facto evidence that all of those were mixed into the same beverage – but considered in conjunction with my research, the case is certainly strong that it was probably being done. And the residue evidence is still not evidence of any particular processing technique – so the paradigm and processing research I’ve done is still fairly speculative.

Really, it’s the processing and goal that matter the most; a brewer could technique a set of ingredients and produce several radically different beverages simply by altering his processing technique. The question is then: what are you trying to accomplish, and how can you accomplish that?

Some of the evidence recovered by McGovern does help tie into the processing methods that I and others have begun to reconstruct. For example, one of the analyzed residues contained evidence of resins derived from birch and pine. I had previously speculated that wooden vessels were likely used as both mash tubs and fermentation vessels – they may have even been used to store finished product for a time. I’ve speculated that a birch and fir vessel may have been used to ferment some part of this product – an excellent avenue for dissolving tree resins. Merryn Dineley has worked on reconstructing mash houses using wooden troughs or vats and hot stones – depending on the wood, the hot water will extract various resins with great efficiency. Either of those methods could account for the presence of the tree resins in McGovern’s findings.

The evidence regarding the presence of grape sugars is also particularly interesting, as it constitutes the earliest evidence of the fermentation of the grape in northern Europe to date. It shows that ancient cultures were trying to – and able to – get their hands on the grape for a long long time. It’s most likely that grapes were still comparatively rare in Denmark and farther north – so their inclusion likely represents a person of wealth and status. It also helps reinforce the cultural parity between these ancient strong drinks and wines – occupying the same cultural purpose, it makes sense that they would perhaps share ingredients when possible.

So I’m excited! Largely because dammit I was right. It’s always good to get solid evidence confirming a speculative hypothesis.

Next up: reconstructing artifacts to pin down the processing method.

Historical Brewing 101: This Is Easier Than You Think

I’m liking this whole “write posts on Sunday” thing. I rarely have things that demand my attention on Sundays, so I often find myself sitting around with time to kill.

Perhaps I shall redirect that killing time to whitespace – fill the void with something useful. Slash and burn pixel forests with self-aggrandizing pontification on topics of incredibly specific interest and arcane origin. Type quickly and loudly simply for the sake of hearing the music of my keystrokes. Fill your eyes with needless words expounding far beyond the point of necessity, into a realm that can only be described as ego-stroking.

You love it and you know it.

So, basically, I think the Sunday post will become the norm. Adjust your calendars accordingly.

And yes, there will be a return to the every-other-week schedule soon. Moving to a new place imminently! Once life stops exploding on my face, we’ll return to the usual.

I expect you all are quivering with anticipation.

See, it's funny because I am also a jolly fat man. That's right, I'm fucking jolly.

See, it’s funny because I am also a jolly fat man. That’s right, I’m fucking jolly.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to teach brewing at an SCA event up north a bit from Albany. It was a great experience – I had several very eager students turn out to learn all about homebrewing from the very basics (as in, “yeast + sugar + water = booze” basic), and it was quite the educational experience for me as well. This is why we teach, after all – as we give knowledge to others, so we receive it in return.

Teaching these classes helped me codify a position I’d long been trying to express; I’d like to share that with you.

While the SCA has a fairly well-defined mission in “recreating the arts and traditions of pre-17th century Europe,” the truth is that the accuracy of said re-creation varies. A lot. A whole lot. The group casts a fairly broad net in attracting members, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness – we can take in people with a diverse range of interests and cultivate their inner Medievalist geek, but we also don’t separate by interest level or expertise. Thus, you get a very mixed bag in terms of research interest in the group as a whole. It’s a byproduct of being inclusive, and it’s a good thing, I think. Certainly, there are groups which cleave to a higher standard of accuracy and authenticity, but we can find that level in the SCA as well – and you’re more likely to find the SCA than, say, Regia Anglorum.

But what I occasionally run into is a person who not only isn’t engaged in recreating the art of the era – they actively oppose it. “Pfft, why would I make period wines? They were probably crappy!” Or “I don’t care about doing research – I just want to make something delicious.” Or better still, “Research is too hard to do.”

“Research is too hard, so I’m just going to do whatever?” That’s crap. That’s like saying “I don’t want to base my observations on facts – I’d just rather pull things out of my ass.” That is an unfortunately common mindset in the world (one to which we are all vulnerable), and we can work to reduce it by engaging in critical analysis.

I think it’s rooted, in part, in the desire of creative people to invest themselves into a project, and in doing so add to their own social value. We put a lot of ourselves into, say, a song that we write or a beer that we brew. We take our ideas, and using our hard-won skill, translate them into another medium that may be consumed by others. There’s a lot of ego wound up in our creations. We share that with other people. “If they like this, then they’ll like me and they’ll see that I have value!” We ingratiate ourselves to a society by our contributions to it, and we take that to heart.

But when we work from another’s source material – try to recreate someone else’s creation – it seems to us that we no longer are conveying our own ideas. “These are someone else’s ideas! What if they’re wrong? What if their idea sucks? If I create that and promulgate it as my own, everyone will think suck!” We have to remove our own ego from such attempts at re-creation, because we need to think about how someone else did something – whether or not we think that’s a good idea. This creates a situation where someone may dislike a thing and direct that at us, while we stand there helpless trying to defend a thing that never came from us in the first place.

This can be daunting for many. We stand to lose investor confidence. Our social currency will weaken. Purchasing power declines. Our credit rating may be downgraded.  And so, we become fiscally conservative regarding our social currency – stick to what we know works, and don’t take risks.

It’s all a lie. As I will show shortly, the process of re-creating is one of translation – and any translation involves choices on the part of the translator. That’s where you get to invest yourself – but because people are unfamiliar with it, because it is a new direction of expression and investment, they become scared.

Let’s take a look at how to overcome such fears. What follows is an applied form of the scientific method, used to recreate an ancient wine; while I’m focusing on ancient wine, this principle can really be applied (in specific modified forms) in any area of life that involves analysis of information and synthesis of ideas.

What's the worst that could happen?

What’s the worst that could happen?

This is my process summarized:

1) Find a source

2) Identify and list critical steps

3) Ask questions and map possible answers

4) Continue asking questions until you can’t answer (or give up)

5) Pick your answers and justify your choices

6) Reassemble into a novel method

7) Experiment, document, and repeat

Most people who have done this to any extent will look at that list and go “Well, no shit.” This, however, is not always obvious to people, and there are a few other principles that we need to know going in:

  • Perfect replication is probably impossible.

In much the same way that science will never lead you to “100% certainty,” any attempt to replicate an item from history is inherently flawed. That’s OK – impossible goals are still useful, because they ensure that we’ll always  try.

  • Every step along the path can be useful.

This ties back to my “being wrong is good” argument. Even our failures will teach us valuable lessons, and if you’re following a tightly-regimented process, your learning pace will be greatly accelerated. The key is to remember that you will be making choices while also documenting alternate paths – so long as you do that, you will have a map that you can continue to explore, time and time again, until you have satisfactorily exhausted its secrets.

Let’s do this step-by-step:

1) Find a source: You can do this the hard way (see the “Brewing with Egil” series), or you can “cheat” and find something that you want to replicate. Let’s cheat! I’ll start with an ancient Greek technique for something called Coan wine. Keep that open in a new tab as you read the rest of this.

2) Identify and list critical steps: Here, I like to look for things that are both familiar and foreign. Reading over the recipe, it ends with regular wine production: remove the grapes, press them, store the juice. OK, so we know where we’re ending. The initial stages seem bizarre, though. Collect seawater? Dry the grapes? What? It doesn’t have to make sense right now – what you need to do is cobble together a list of summarized steps:

  1. Obtain seawater with sediment removed.
  2. Pick very ripe grapes that have dried after a rain.
  3. Dry grapes: in the sun for 2 days, or outside generally for 3.
  4. Take 10 quadrantrils of seawater and 40 quadrantrils of grapes, in a container that can just hold all of it.
  5. Soak the grapes for 3 days in the seawater.
  6. Remove the grapes, press in the treading room, store the juice.

As I said, you don’t need to know what anything means just yet. In fact, it’s better that you don’t – put everything that might be relevant into your summary, and keep the original source handy in case you missed something. You’ll also need the originals for the next step.

3) Ask questions and map possible answers: What do I mean here? Let’s start asking a few and you’ll get the picture.

Start with step 1, the seawater. I’ll just start asking questions that come to mind:

  • Where is the seawater from?
  • What is the salt concentration of the water?
  • Are there other minerals leftover?
  • What kind of jar is the water stored in?

Now, start answering questions, and “mapping” different possible answers. Sometimes, a question has a fairly straightforward answer – but sometimes, multiple possibilities appear equiprobable. Put it all down. Note your sources – you can ask questions about those too.

  • “Coan” wine, after some searching, comes from the Greek island of Kos, which is just off the western coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea.
  • Global average ocean salinity is 3.5%. Around Kos, it’s 4%. Source.
  • Hm. I have no idea. Seawater has a lot of stuff in it, but I don’t know what will settle out and what won’t.
  • There could be several answers here. We know the Greeks used clay amphorae. They also used wooden vessels. They also used leather vessels. All are possibilities.

To start building your “map,” try to visualize the central step about which you are asking questions. Put this first round of questions around that step as radiating lines, and add answers to the ends of those lines. Something like this:

I don’t usually draw a literal diagram like this – this is just how I visualize my process, and how I engage in questioning. The crucial part is to leave your answers lying around as touchstones.

4) Continue asking questions until you can’t answer (or give up): Now you can start asking questions about your answers, and building a web around those. Maybe you pick the “Wood, Leather, or Pottery” answer and start asking questions about it:

You can do this forever. I haven’t even begun to ask all the questions I could possibly ask – and that’s OK. That’s why you’re building the map – you research something until a point where you need to stop (or wish to stop), but leave the map around so you have something to come back to. It becomes a literal guide for your research that you can continue to reference repeatedly.

And with experimentation and learning, you’ll alter that map and find new directions!

5) Pick your answers and justify your choices When you stop, what you’ll have are basic steps, with a huge network of roads and resting points (questions and answers). Follow a road of questions to an answer that suits you, and justify your stop. Any reason is valid, so long as you’re honest about it. Remember, you’ve always got your map, so you can return at any point and keep going down that road.

Perhaps you want to pick one initial answer and explore it until you’ve exhausted all sources of information. Cool. Maybe you want to find enough information to allow you to replicate the product with stuff you have in your house. Also cool. Your purpose will guide the answers you pick, and remarking on why you went where you did will help you when you revisit this map – and yes, you will revisit it. Over and over again.

So remember, you’re in complete control of the journey. It goes as far as you want it to as fast as you want it to, and all steps along the way are valuable. In fact, small incremental experimentation is better than complex multi-variable efforts – it’s easier to analyze your information that way.

6) Reassemble into a novel method Now that you’ve got your answers picked out, you’ll put them together in a logical order, modifying steps as appropriate to incorporate your answers.

So maybe I figure out the exact salinity and mineral content of the Aegian Sea circa 200 BCE. Excellent. I have to somehow incorporate that information into my processing – perhaps I manufacture a purified “seawater” by adding chemicals to distilled water until I hit the right mineral profile.

Or maybe you decided, “Screw that, I live on Kos – I’m just going to go out into a boat and gather up water like they did.” So the boat, the voyage, the destination – those are all part of the method.

7) Experiment, document, and repeat By itself, this is a valuable intellectual exercise – but look, I’m a brewer. I make shit. What good is all this research unless we get something out of it. So we figure out what we’re doing and set up a small experiment.

I did this at the class I mentioned above. I purchased 2 2-quart bottles of concord grape juice (no preservatives), and after a bunch of research and extrapolation, I figured out that I needed to add approximately 35 grams of salt to those 2 quarts of juice to get the right salt content. I used hand-harvested Mediterranean sea salt, because that’s as close as I could get. I used one satchet of wine yeast. Added the salt to one of the quarts, left the other alone, added the yeast.

Easy, right? It would up being ~2 tablespoons of salt, so the rate of addition I figured out is 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of grape juice.

If you’re wondering, it tastes really really weird.

So I tried it, and I just told you what I did (documented) as well as my entire process. Now? I can go back to my map and try it all over again. Like I said, you don’t need to make a literal map – that’d drive you insane – but the principle is one to which you should adhere. Make sure you’ve always got something to go back to, so that you have a launching point for new experiments.

This is essentially an adapted and applied version of the scientific method. We observe, hypothesize, experiment, learn, and do it all over again.

You’ll never be “finished” with it, but you’ll sure as hell make some great progress – and some really interesting products – along the way.

So go forth and try shit out! Dare to fail! Make something really weird! Just make sure you take good notes along the way.

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

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


So I killed a rooster and turned him into beer.

Behold the majesty of my cock. Yes, this post will be full of juvenile cock jokes.

Shockingly, though, I’m not interested in discussing my cock or its majesty at any…length…in this post. A discussion about the production of cock ale will probably be put up much later, so you will have to wait very patiently to sample my cock.


I promise, I’m an adult and a professional government employee. Really.

No, this post is a further examination of a topic I’ve already addressed. In a sense, I’ve already touched upon my cock – but it warrants revisiting.

You see, from time to time I still ask myself, “Self, why are we doing this? Why did this majestic cock need to die?”

I had a lengthy discussion with my good friend Phil (the expert cock handler pictured above) during the weekend where Death Cluck was slated to die; his extensive undergraduate education netted him degrees in Archaeology, Anthropology, and Medieval History. Yes, I mean 3 separate degrees. I don’t know about you, but I was a crappy student in my undergraduate career; that level of education is somewhat intimidating to me.

Yet, despite this intense level of education and intelligence, Phil expressed a sort of dismay at the general uselessness of it all. That no matter what, holding that cock seemed somehow more generally useful than, say, digging up some old pottery shards. That it wasn’t really making a difference. That it just seemed to exist in order to perpetuate its own existence.

We talked at length about our perspectives on the archaeology community and archaeology as a discipline, and we both take a similar view: it’s at best a weak science, and at worst a field of undisciplined and poorly-controlled speculation. Phil expressed a degree of regret regarding his choice of field – what good was it? Does it help anyone? Does it fix any global problems? The community seemed to consist of a circle-jerk telling itself that it was cool and valid and stuff – but what good is that? I found myself generally agreeing with his assessment.

True, as an elite member of the S.T.E.M. master race (to use the vernacular popular of the Internets), it’s easy for me to be dismissive of all those “lesser” disciplines that result in a B.A. or M.A. – or really, anything that awards an “A” as a degree. I have a lot of practice in being an arrogant prick, and even more practice in telling people why they’re wrong and need to re-evaluate their perspectives. A valuable asset to society, no doubt.

But I’ve pondered this more, and I’ve come to something of a conclusion.

Oh please, tell me more about the inferiority of the arts as a field of study.

I mean, OK, we study things because they’re cool. Sure. We dig up ancient artifacts and attempt to reconstruct history because it’s pretty nifty. Is it as “valuable” as curing AIDS or cancer? Probably not, but that’s a really unfair standard – and such comparisons lead to infinite regression or reductionist cycles.

AIDS is solvable with money – so if you’re not tackling novel influenzas, you’re not really helping. But y’know, viruses aren’t even the real issue – we need to improve the infrastructure of developing nations so that they can improve sanitation and thus get healthy. Aw hell, that really pales in comparison to the socio-political biases in the world that perpetuate those situations in the first place. But that doesn’t even matter because peak oil is coming, and everything is going to hell anyway. And none of that will matter if we can’t get off of this rock before we ruin it – so really, if you’re not a gazillionaire funding a ludicrous space colony program, you’re really not helping.

You see why such comparisons are silly? No matter your discipline, someone somewhere will find a way to tell you that it’s useless and you should be focusing on something that’s “more useful.”

Sure, we have to set our priorities and decide what things will get what amount of attention – but that reality doesn’t invalidate any particular field of study.

At its core, the discipline of archaeology is one of examination and investigation of very scant material. It is a necessarily outwardly-building discipline, because there is simply a lack of stuff to fill in any particular hypothesis. It proceeds in a direction somewhat opposite the typical path of science; whereas I take a complex system and break it down into fundamental components, archaeology looks at a component and attempts to extrapolate the system.

This is a very necessary component of critical investigation and knowledge-building. Yeah, we do that in science to some extent – but it’s never really on a big scale. The only reason we have any idea about dinosaurs is because some dudes way back when looked at some bones and said, “What if it was like this?” Good science? Not the best, but a useful thing. It examines and tests the exterior of our knowledge framework, while the sciences concern themselves with describing within that framework.

That outward framework building, fraught with errors and confirmation bias, is really the best way we know to expand our analytical framework. If someone didn’t push at the boundaries of what we can confidently know, we’d progress very slowly. Archaeology is a bit like engineering or architecture, except that it attempts to build a historical narrative of a society – it’s a field for dreamers who want to build new things. Sketch the framework and let the detail-focused people fill it in. Maybe the sketch has to change – that’s OK. The point is that while science is working at tiny level, carefully shading individual pixels comprising the image, archaeology (and other similar disciplines) is trying to outline the picture.

It’s also a way to teach people how to make decisions and formulate plans with little to no workable information. As a scientist, I can be stalled by a lack of information. Too many variables. Directions unclear. Ham-fisted cock joke. But because archaeology doesn’t hold itself to the same standard of verifiability, its adherents are more free to dream big dreams and come up with ludicrously complex ideas. Most are wild speculation, but hey – so are a lot of things.

The back-and-forth between strictly disciplined science and less disciplined investigative fields helps us to fully flesh out our understanding of the world – and that is an ultimately useful and noble goal. Any pursuit that is an attempt to usefully increase one’s knowledge or understanding of the world is a useful one, and the interaction with other people doing similar things allows you to make a very real contribution to the entire progress of humanity. It might not always seem direct, but there it is. And this interaction and the reconstruction of historical narrative helps pull us together – teach us more about our shared history, and we’ll feel even more connected to one another.

Seriously, why not? I mean, except for the whole “freezing to death alone on top of a mountain” thing. Also, cock joke.

Ultimately, the simple pursuit of understanding is a goal in and of itself. It might seem weak, but the truth is that pursuing knowledge because you think it’s cool is exactly what everyone does. People go into robotics because they’re fucking awesome. Prosthetics? Screw you nature, I’ma give this guy his legs back because we’re that awesome. Neurosurgery is amazing. Saving starving children in Africa? Bad-ass. Every single 5-year-old child loves dinosaurs because they’re so fucking cool, and in many cases that has lead those children to pursue careers in science. I can say confidently that I’m into biology because the T-Rex is approximately the most stupefyingly amazing thing we’ve ever discovered except maybe some sweet-ass planets. The image of the T-Rex mount at the American Museum of Natural History is burned into my brain, and that’s just fine.

Sure, we like to feel like we’re accomplishing something more than ourselves, but even that ultimately comes back to making ourselves feel good about who we are. Some people think that helping others is the coolest thing ever – and I’m hard-pressed to disagree. You’re accountable to yourself above all, and since you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself, I can’t see begrudging anyone their chosen passion.

Are you pursuing it because you love it? Are you connecting with the community? Are you taking opportunities to better yourself in pursuit of this thing? Yes? Then we’re all good.

We climb mountains because we can. We build progressively faster cars because we can. Tall rollercoasters, square watermelons, 50% ABV beers, chili peppers hot enough to physically burn your skin – all because we can.

So there’s the answer to the question. Why slaughter a chicken and throw him into beer? Why dig up 20,000 year old pottery and try to reconstruct the culture around it? Why perform open-heart surgery for 20 straight hours?

Yes, we can and should argue the particulars of what to pursue when, but the answer still stands:


The Little White Lie of Science



There are many aspects of my job that I rather enjoy, but chief among them are the opportunities I have to educate groups of aspiring scientists. Our director makes a point of interfacing with local universities, giving students opportunities to learn about science on the ground – from actual scientists in a real-world setting.

For the past 5 years, I’ve given a tour and short lecture to the Microbiology class from St. Rose College in Albany. I use the opportunity to give them a real-life perspective on applied microbiology, demonstrating the ways that the techniques they learn every day can be put to use to solve actual problems that affect real people. I also use the time to expound on some of the more general elements of the biological sciences – without being too terribly political or biased. I try, anyhow. I’m only human.

In my most recent tour, I sort of expounded a bit on a topic that has been an interest of mine for a long time – that of the way we sell a science career to the bright and interested.

There is a certain romance, I think, when we talk about scientific work and the possibilities to change the world. No doubt, I wholeheartedly believe that the scientific method is the single most powerful cognitive tool humanity has yet devised, and I will defend that statement to my last. No system has generated so much sheer utility, nor improved the general conditions of so many by any metrics we care to establish. Sanitation? Medicine? You’re welcome for those, because it’s the only reason most of you are actually alive.

We tell people that with the vast powers of science, you can alter the course of history. You can topple nations, changes hearts, annihilate planets, uncover the very fabric of reality itself. That with sufficient examination and dedication, there is nothing beyond the ken of humans. That we can make ourselves like unto the gods that some of us still fear.

We take this romance quite far – nearly to whimsical levels. We venerate the work of great scientists in the same way we venerate stories of the heroes of old – Beowulf and Odysseus and Arthur and every other figure that we’ve built to be “larger than life.” It was Isaac Newton who famously said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

They’re all about this real.

And this is what begat the little white lie of science.

I talked about the necessity of being wrong, and the way that most people (even scientists) are pretty bad at it. Scientists are probably better, but they’re still far from perfect – and that means everyone else is screwed, basically. And it’s a pretty terrible problem, really. It is empirically demonstrable that the less you actually know, the more you think you know, and are increasingly convinced of being correct.

It gets worse. Dan Kahan, of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, has released some really depressing studies (though really really interesting) dealing with public perceptions of scientific issues in the US.

What we find in these and many other studies is the same story: people will accept or reject scientific evidence not on the basis of the evidence itself, but rather on existing cultural norms to which those people adhere. So if your cultural view is that evolution is fake and the Earth is 10,000 years old? Scientific evidence is astonishingly unlikely to convince you. Those who are less scientifically-minded do it more frequently than those who are more scientifically-minded, but the door still swings both ways.

The “little white lie” inherent to science is that empircal evidence collection in the testing of a hypothesis will lead to a well-supported conclusion…that we then accept. We reject our previously-held belief which is obviously wrong, and embrace the new truth.

It’s that last part that sort of underscores the whole thing – that makes it all worth the struggle – and that’s the part that isn’t quite true.

Dammit. I hate being right.

The truth of the matter – and this doesn’t just apply to the sciences – is that it is very nearly impossible to change the strongly-held views of any individual, even with the most rigorous set of facts and reason you can assemble. We simply engage in massive cognitive dissonance and assimilation bias, pick out the information we like, and go with that.

That means you. That means me. That means Professor Hawking. If you don’t believe in climate change, it is literally impossible for me to change your mind. I could throw a stack of research at you, and you will laugh it off because you know for a fact that I am wrong. Likewise, I cannot possibly conceive of evidence that would convince me of the existence of a god. If you showed me some, I’d probably dismiss it, because you can’t possibly be right.

Science will not effect change in the minds of individuals – but that’s not that surprising when we think about the principle of evolution. Evolution does not apply to individual organisms – that’s why the whole “why can’t you evolve a cat into a dog” line you sometimes hear is so laughably wrong – but rather, it applies to populations of those organisms over time. And even then, it’s not talking about radical abandonment of traits  – evolution discusses the frequency with which those traits occur in the population. So, if in 100 years the frequency of the alleles for, say, red hair in humans declines from 17% to 12%? Yup, evolution. Exciting, right?!

This is how the advancement of scientific knowledge actually works. It won’t change your mind, but given enough time and enough people, the population as a whole will shift in a direction that increasingly accepts something which is demonstrated to be factual.

There are no giants in science, nor in the real world. There are no great mythical heroes of power. There are no “amazing breakthroughs that will forever alter everything.” It doesn’t happen. That’s a fiction that we attach to history to make it sexy – giving us all a goal to set. The sad reality is that it’s easier to convince people in the fantastic ability of others to effect sweeping changes than it is to sell them the grey truth of a life of incremental progress.

We venerate scientists like Darwin and Newton and tell everyone about the great strides they made and how indispensable they were. The subtext is simple: “Hey, that could be you some day. Wouldn’t that be awesome?” Truth is, Darwin wasn’t even really Darwin, at least not as amazing as we built him up to be.

Instead of giants, progress is made by stacking regular people on top of each other, and periodically throwing a cloak on top of one of them. The guy whose head sticks up is lauded as a hero, and we call him a giant – ignoring the fact that he is supported by the increments of 10000 people before him.

So there you have it. Don’t go into science because you want to smash the world’s shell, or figure out the thing that’s going to revolutionize particle physics – because it literally doesn’t exist. We make that up to sucker you in and share the misery of our existence.

No, go into science because you give a shit, and  you want to engage in an enterprise that will, eventually, improve the lives of others.

If you’re lucky, maybe someone 50 years down the road will finally look at your life’s work and say, “Hey, there might be something to that.” 200 years later, you might be a dragonslayer or something.

Brewing With Egil Part I: An Analysis of the Life Cycle of Barley

WARNING: Wall of text ahead

Before I embark on an explanation of the evidence in support of my hypothesis, it occurs to me that I may have a more complete understanding of barley biology than the average person, and very likely the average brewer. Since my hypothesis stands in opposition to some long-held knowledge and handling practices regarding barley and brewing, I gathered it might be prudent to start by going over some information about the development of barley, and its interaction with the malting process.

The Australian government has an excellent publication providing a fairly thorough overview of barley biology – primarily from the applied perspective of its role as a cereal crop. You can access it here. The University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension also features a fairly in-depth article.

In summary: dormant barley seeds germinate after soaking up water (a process known as imbibition), and being exposed to the right environmental conditions (temperature, oxygen, and soil pH). The early stages of germination (which we exploit during malting) don’t last terribly long when attempting to grow barley; shoot emergence can occur as rapidly as 72 hours post-imbibition, though exact time varies with variety as well as environmental conditions. Seedling development time (the point at which green leafy material is evident) varies as well, but generally, the seedling emerges from the soil in 10 days to two weeks.

Following emergence, the plant grows and develops multiple stems (tillering), which then begin to elongate. Field barley can have anywhere from 2 – 5 tillers per plant. Not all tillers develop the flowering structure called a “spike” (colloquially called an ear), but this varies with strain. Many modern barleys have been bread to have a high rate of spike development.

The spike is the flowering part of the plant. It develops, and once it flowers (releasing barley pollen), the “fruit” of the barley plant – what we know as a “berry” or “seed” – begins developing.

Barley seeds generally reach full maturity ~25 to 30 days after flowering. During maturation, the grain develops, begins to develop and store starch, and gradually dessicates. Once the seed no longer yields to fingernail pressure, it is considered ripe for harvesting. Dried barley enters a dormant phase, and when properly stored, dormant seeds can last up to 18 months.

What follows is a relatively complex analysis of the biochemistry of barley development. If you’re interested, read on. If not, skip to the end for my summary.


The dormant seed is where we start the malting process. The importance of malting barley for the production of beer is widely understood, and most people understand the story in the same way; that is, during malting, we slowly and evenly take the grains through the early stages of germination, to develop enzymes that we will later manipulate in brewing. Those enzymes include proteolytics, to denature the protein matrix (called hordeins in barley, and broadly lumped in with the gluten proteins) that contains the starch; alpha- and beta-amylases, which convert stored starch into fermentable sugars; and debranching enzymes, which help “chew” the starch up into chunks that the amylases can more easily handle.

I was under the impression – as are many brewers – that malting is absolutely essential in order to develop the enzymes necessary in order to convert the stored starch to sugar. That is, until I learned about barley maturation in more detail.

As it turns out, mature barley seeds contain some completely functional beta-amylase enzyme. The linked paper shows that roughly 40% of the beta-amylase content of resting barley can be recovered with a saline solution. A survey of other literature appears to indicate that alpha-amylase is synthesized during maturation, and is not present in dormant grains.

The remaining 60% of beta-amylase in barley is present in a “bound” form – that is, it is attached to a larger protein inhibitor. Sopanen hypothesizes that the inhibition is likely due to steric hindrance – a phenomenon in chemistry where reactions are slowed because of the actual size and conformation of the molecules involved. In other words, 60% of the beta-amylase in mature barley seeds exhibits attenuated activity because there’s stuff in the way of the active site.

The activity of so-called “bound” beta-amylase was thought to be latent; however, Sopanen demonstrates that the enzyme can be as much as 70% as active as “free” beta-amylase. However, it also appears to matter little; the “free” beta-amylase content of ungerminated barley is sufficiently to convert the entire starch content of the seed – if the starch molecules are made available to the amylases.

Alpha-amylases are also bound with endogenous inhibitors. In this case, the inhibitor reduces the activity of alpha-amylase by nearly 90%. This is likely important to barley maturation; it has been demonstrated that premature alpha-amylase production leads to a reduction in seed size and starch content. This makes sense – alpha-amylase has a greater rate of activity against larger starch molecules than does beta-amylase.

It has been known for some time that gibberellic acid plays a crucial role in barley metabolism. Work by JV Jacobsen (over many years) has led to an in-depth understanding of the role of gibberellic acid in barley; he started by demonstrating that the application of GA induced the production of multiple alpha-amylases, and went on to study the hormone extensively.

So, at first glance, it appears that germination is required for the production of gibberellic acid, which is needed for the production of alpha-amylase. But the barley kernel has sufficient beta-amylase to allow for conversion prior to germination. What’s the deal?

We have learned – thanks to advanced technology – that the maturing barley kernel prepares for germination while on the ear. It does so by switching to a sort of “preparation” mode, wherein it generates thousands of mRNA’s (messenger RNA’s, generated from genomic DNA and sent to the ribosome for translation into proteins) and stores them. In addition, the barley kernel generates and stores gibberellic acid precursors prior to full maturation.

The full sequence is actually quite complicated. Abscissic acid (ABA, produced during maturation) and gibberellic acid have antagonistic effects – that is, they each cancel each other. This creates the possibility of a biochemical “switch,” where the synthesis of one hormone takes over the other and changes gene expression. ABA is responsible for inhibiting alpha-amylase production; the synthesis of GA precursors prior to that is what enables the activation of the enzyme.

In fact, barley kernels generate mRNA’s for all sorts of proteins prior to dormancy – the full machinery for the resumption of transcription/translation duties is available in the dormant, un-germinated grain. Dessication of the grain halts the normal activity of the growing grain – in fact, the data from Sreenivasulu et al suggest that there is little effective separation between maturation and germination from a biochemical standpoint. The plant makes a smooth transition from one to the other. Dessication works as a “pause” function, and the plant prepares for this pause by storing mRNA transcripts – along with ribosomal proteins and RNA’s – that will allow for the resumption of development upon imbibition.

Most of the proteins required for the early stages of germination – those we need during malting – are not generated de novo from genomic transcription, but rather are synthesized from stored mRNA’s and ribosomal machinery. Some proteases are present, but more are produced during germination, along with ubiquitin (a universal enzyme cofactor found in all eukaryotes).

But the story these data tell is somewhat different than what is commonly understood; rather than germination being critical for the development of these enzymes, it is the existence of those enzymes (and their precursors) in the resting grain that allows germination to proceed at all.


So what does this mean for malting? Mature, un-germinated barley grains contain all the necessary mRNA transcripts, ribosomal machinery, and endogenous enzymes necessary to start and maintain germination. There is enough beta-amylase present in a mature barley grain to convert its entire starch content without further enzyme release. Why do we even need to malt barley in the first place?

It seems that the most critical stages in early germination are the production of gibberellic acid from stored mRNA, and the increased expression of proteolytic enzymes that degrade the protein matrix of the barley kernel. GA is a hormone that, among other things, removes inhibitors from alpha- and beta-amylases. The degredation of the protein matrix allows access to the starch in the kernel, which is converted by the amylases. Debranching enzymes are synthesized from stored mRNA’s during this time.

So it seems that some sort of time-centered processing is necessary in order to allow stored biochemical machinery to provide the grounds for the conversion of starch to sugar.

Does this have to be our modern method of malting? I don’t believe so. The presence of beta-amylase in those quantities indicates that the most critical need is the exposure of starch via the degredation of the protein matrix. You could accomplish this in other ways; you could, for example, perform an acid digestion of the barley, and then treat it with enzymes to convert the starches to sugars.

So again, why malt? It’s more efficient from an industrial standpoint – the division of labor means that someone else prepares the raw material for use by the brewer, who can then spend an hour mashing it to get the sugar. Alternate processing streams may affect grain flavor, or increase the total labor used to generate a beverage. Malting is a purposefully slow germination process, to allow for very even development of the grain; this ensures maximum yield from a barley harvest.

However, it doesn’t seem like that could be the only way to do it. There may exist an alternate system that allows for the generation of maltose from barley starch – but I’ll leave that for another time.

Drink up!