Topic Viking beer
CARDIFF, WALES—At the Experimental Archaeology Conference earlier this month, archaeologists Merryn and Graham Dineley asserted that features of Viking settlements previously believed to be bathhouses might actually have been used to brew beer. Their hypothesis is based on the excavation of a stone structure dating back nine centuries at Cubbie Roo’s Castle on the Scottish archipelago of Orkney that, according to their interpretation, included what could be a mash oven and several drains. Further, the stone constructions are often located right next to what are known to be the Viking ceremonial drinking halls.
Article from the 7th experimental archaeology conference
We have been studying traditional malting and beer brewing techniques for 15 years. Graham is a craft brewer with 30 years’ experience of making beer from the grain. Merryn is an archaeologist, completing her M.Phil ‘Barley Malt & Ale in the Neolithic’ at the University of Manchester in 1999 and continuing research independently since then. The brewing of ale is a skilled craft that has hardly changed over the millennia. For the last few years we have been looking into the potential archaeological evidence for the brewing of ale at Viking sites.
We know that the Vikings drank ale
. There are numerous references to it in the Sagas. We also know that the ale was made from malt. In the 10th Century AD, Haakon Haroldson, the first Christian king of Norway, decreed that Yule be celebrated on Christmas Day and that every farmstead “should brew two meals of malt into ale”. One brew was for family, the other for guests. There were fines for non compliance. If they failed to brew for three years in a row their farm was forfeit.
Ale was an important part of the Yule celebrations. Every farmstead had the facilities to make it. The ale was stored in huge vats, close to the drinking hall. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us that Svein Breastrope was ambushed and killed by Svein Asleiferson, who had hidden behind a stone slab by the ale vats in the entrance of the drinking hall at Orphir, Orkney. Since huge ale vats are not easily moved, then the malt must have been mashed and the wort fermented close to the ale store.
The products and by products of brewing ale are ephemeral, leaving no trace in the archaeological record. Ale is drunk, spent grain is fed to animals and residues are washed down the drains. Only the installations and perhaps some equipment may survive. In order to recognise Viking brewing facilities, it helps to understand something about how ale is made from malt.
Making ale from malt
Malt is grain that has been steeped in water, then allowed to grow until the rootlets just begin to appear. This is done on a malting floor within a barn. The malt is dried, then lightly crushed and mixed in the mash tun with hot water to make the liquid malt sugars known by brewers today as the ‘wort’. This is the ‘mashing’ process. A mash tun can be a large metal cauldron or wooden tub and this dictates how the water is heated. A metal cauldron is heated over a fire or a mashing oven. A wooden mash tun is heated using hot rocks. Finally, the wort is fermented into ale or beer, preserved and flavoured with angelica, meadowsweet, heather or bog myrtle.
All brewing equipment, such as mash tuns, cauldrons, fermentation vessels and storage vats must be kept scrupulously clean, to avoid infection and spoilage of the ale. Typically, a brewer uses 5 to 10 times as much water in cleaning the equipment than is used for making ale. Therefore, access to water and substantial drains are essential.
By Graham Dineley, craft brewer and Merryn Dineley, independent researcher
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