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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

But did the Vikings do this too?

Yes, Vikings were that hardcore

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

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

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

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

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

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

But did the Vikings have alcoholic beverages?

What, you think this is water?

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

Never get between a Viking and his beer.

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


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

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


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

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

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

There is much drinking yet to be done.