Viking Foods 7 – Booze by Rob Shackleford
In Viking times, one could not have a meal without a drink, and one would not have had the drink without women. Author Mark Forsyth notes how, “serving the drinks was the defining role of women in the Viking Age”. Women were also the first brewers and wine-makers until, as in other cultures, men became involved and eventually dominated the process.
Ale, mead, and wine were made in roughly the same way. A cauldron or vat would be filled with water and placed over a fire to heat, and one then added honey and yeast (for mead). One would bring the mixture to a boil and then place the open vat beneath some sort of fruit-bearing tree to catch the wild yeast. To make ale, one left out the honey and substituted malted barley and, to make wine, one used fruit instead of barley. Alcohol content was regulated by the amount of sugar added (from tree sap), and honey was supplied by bees which were kept in special hives on the property. Besides tree sap, honey was the only sweetener available in Viking Age Scandinavia.
Once the ale or mead was brewed, it was left to settle and then strained into ceramic jugs and stored. Neither ale nor mead was carbonized because the vat, and later the jugs, were not air-tight. The brew would be left alone while the brewer returned to the cauldron or vat to process the dregs for making barneol, ale for children. Everyone, of every age, drank alcohol for health reasons since alcohol was so much safer to drink than water, and the most popular alcohol was ale.
Even so, mead was considered the drink of choice if one could afford it. The primary difference between ale and mead was honey, and not everyone could afford their own private hive of bees or the time and effort it would take to locate a hive in the wild. Wine made from grapes was the most expensive alcoholic beverage because it had to be imported from places like Germania or Francia. Scandinavian wines were fruit-based (apple wine, strawberry wine) and, like ale, syra, and mead, were initially made by women.
Wine was so rare and expensive that it was said to be the only drink of Odin, chieftain of the gods and also the Norse god of alcohol.
Syra, was a sour brew by-product of making skyr – yoghurt, and the buttermilk known as misa. Syra was made from skimmed milk and rennet (curdled milk from the stomach of a newborn calf) and left to ferment for at least two years before it could be served. Like skyr, syra was a popular and cheap drink but it was not considered honourable to offer to guests. The Norse placed a high value on hospitality, and one was expected to offer guests only their best in food and drink. Offering a guest syra – especially if one had ale or mead in the house – was a serious social offense.
The Vikings drank a specially brewed, stronger beer at festive occasions.
Here are a couple of Viking Brewing recipes to try:
Find out more
Viking Life by John Guy and Richard Hall (Ticktock, 1998)
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood (Thames &Hudson, 2000)
Cultural Atlas of the Viking Age edited by Graham-Campbell et al (Andromeda, 1994)
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood (Penguin, 1996). Detailed maps of Viking settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, Iceland and Normandy.
Other Viking Blogs
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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