Category Archives: Brewing Archaeology and History

Brewing a Viking Era Ale

During the final Ale through the Ages brewing session of the season we brewed a Scandinavian Sahti on March 4th.  This recipe is inspired by the traditional style still being brewed in Finland today.  This was an all-grain batch where we used Pilsner Malt, Rye Malt, Crystal Malt, as well as a small amount of specialty grains that I had previously smoked over pine and juniper boughs.  Once we transferred the wort from the mash-tun to the boil kettle, juniper berries and Hallertau hop cones were added.  However, one exception was made to the traditional Sahti-styles, we used a European Ale yeast to ferment the beer, rather than the normal bread yeast.  This was to ensure a complete fermentation and a bit more carbonation than the usually less carbonated Sahti’s of Finland. Our specific gravity prior to pitching the yeast was 1.072, so, we should expect this sahti to ferment out to around 7% ABV.  At the moment it is bubbling well and should settle down in a few days, at which point I’ll transfer into another fermenter to remove the remaining sediment, before bottling on March 18th.

The Anthropology and Archaeology of Scandinavia

The current population of Scandinavia stands at around 23 million. It is comprised of distinct linguistic and cultural communities with proud and enduring traditions. Humans first entered into southern Scandinavia during the upper Paleolithic (ca 10,000 years ago) where they used stone tools to hunt and forage for wild foods. The earliest evidence of pottery and agriculture comes from the Ertebølle Culture who lived in Neolithic Period, which began in 5th millennium BCE.  Overtime, people began using copper and eventually bronze, which defines the Nordic Bronze Age (ca.1800-500 BCE). This period is characterized by the use of bronze and long distance maritime trade of Amber to the Mediterranean region. By around 2500 years ago, the introduction of Iron marks a new cultural revolution with increased contact and influence with northern European cultures, particularly Germanic tribes. However, one of the most iconic Scandinavian cultural periods began around 1200 years ago with the rise of the Vikings. These marauding men would eventually consolidate power and spread their influences (for better or worse) across much of Europe.

The Origin of Sahti

It is in this period that we look to for evidence of the kind of ale people were consuming in this part of the world.  In fact, the word “ale” is likely derived from the Viking word “aul”.  Moreover, the Swedish word is öl, the Finnish olut, the Danish and Norwegian for ale is øl.  One ale in particular that seems to have great antiquity in Scandinavia and particularly in Finland is a beer called Sahti.  Sahti was traditionally made by women Brewster’s in nearly every village in Finland, some say for more than one thousand years. It traditionally contained malted barley, malted rye, juniper boughs and hops.  Generally, saunas were used to kiln dry or smoke the malted grains (Sysila 1998).

Archaeological evidence for Shati comes from the remains found inside of a wooden barrel that was placed in an elaborate Viking ship burial in Oseburg Norway that dated to ca. 800.  The ship was excavated in 1904 by Professor Gabriel Gustafson of the University Museum of Antiquities in Oslo.  Other sahti barrels were also found on a sunken Viking wreck off Norway in the 1930s. The design of the barrels was dated to the 9th century (Asplund:25)

The earliest known Finnish references to beer date to 1366, when it was noted that a large quantity of Sahti was consumed during the burial of a Bishop Hemminki. Moreover, the Finnish epic known as the Kalevala contains 400 stanzas related to brewing. The exact age of the Kalevala is uncertain, but many believe it was an oral tradition passed down since the Iron Age, before being first written down in 1835 by Elias Lönnrot.

Traditional Methods of Brewing Sahti

There were often two brewing cycles: The first was called tupulisahti (strong sahti) for the men and the second called jälkijuoma (nosedrops) i.e. weak sahti for the women (Ovell 1996).  During the brewing cycle, juniper boughs are placed at the bottom of a hollowed out aspen log called a Kuurna, which is basically a lauter tun for extracting the flavors of the juniper and sugars from the malted grains.  The bottom of the Kuurna is lined with rung-like straight pieces of wood to create a false bottom.  One end of the Kuurna is fitted with a bunghole at the level of the bottom for draining the wort.  In this rendition of Sahti, we placed fresh boughs of juniper at the bottom of our mash-tun.

While it took some time before we could drain off the wort through the juniper boughs, we were able to generate at least 8 gallons of shati that is sure to be delicious!  Now all we need are a couple of drinking horns and we’ll be right back in Viking Period.  We promise to keep the marauding to a minimum!


Peter Ovell 1996: Finland’s Indigenous Beer Culture

Ilkka Sysila 1998:  Sahti: A Remnant of Finland’s Rustic Past

Brewing an Iron Age Ale

Brewing an Iron Age Anatolian Ale

During the most recent “Ale through the Ages” brewing series (February 4th 2010) , we brewed up an Iron Age Anatolian Ale, which is based on molecular archaeological analysis of residues found inside bronze vessels found in a 2750 year old tomb of a king at the site of Gordion in modern Turkey (McGovern 2009:134).  In 2000, Dogfish Head Brewery recreated this recipe in a widely celebrated version called “Midas Touch” (Calagione 2006:146).  Therefore, using this basic recipe as a basis for our experimental Anatolian Ale, we brewed 10 gallons of what is sure to be a deliciously strong beer, reminiscent of a barely wine.  It had an original Gravity of 1.074 which was fermented for three days at room temperature, before adding the very sweet Muscat grape concentrate.  We can expect this unique golden ale to be a full bodied grape flavored ale with a distinct smokey finish, from the smoked barley. This delicious ale with both will gain strength and character with age.

Who Were The Phrygians?

Gordion became the royal seat of the Phrygian culture who originally migrated into Anatolia (Turkey) from Southeastern Europe ca. 1200 BCE. They were a sophisticated culture and drew influence from a variety of Mediterranean and Near East traditions. They spoke their own language and even created an alphabet, which was based on a combination of Greek and Semitic. However, their cultural influence declined after a defeat by the Cimmerians of the southern Caucasus Mountains in 695 BCE. In 278 BCE., King Nicomedes I of Bithynia (an ancient kingdom located just to the east of modern Istanbul) welcomed 20,000 European Celts (known as Galatai) to establish their presence at the ancient city of Gordion. They marched into northwestern Anatolia with thousands of warriors, civilians and merchants and quickly took up residence.

Where is Gordion?

The site of Gordion is located about 60 miles southwest of Ankara in central Turkey. Identification of Gordion is based on geographical information from ancient authors, as well as the archaeological evidence uncovered over the past century, mainly by the University of Pennsylvania Museum 1950s -1990s (Young,  De Vries, Sam, Sumner, Voigt, et al.).  The site is situated in an agriculturally rich valley, ideal for cereal grain cultivation.  In addition to the remains of several buildings identified as possible breweries/bakeries at Gordion of charred grains, germinated barley, grinders, ovens and ceramic vessels indicative of beer consumption have also been identified at Gordion.

When was the King Buried?

Particularly noteworthy evidence of a fermented beverage came from the residues found inside a large number of bronze vessels that were buried with a 60-65 year-old male who was laid to rest inside a wooden tomb, over which an enormous earthen mound was constructed.  Known as Tumulus MM (Midas Mound), this elaborate burial was believed to have been for a Phrygian King, initially interpreted to be King Midas.  However, recent tree ring analysis of the tombs timbers indicate a construction date of 740BCE, several decades before King Midas was known to have assumed the Phrygian throne. Therefore, it may be the burial of his father Gordios, after which the city became known.

What was this Kings Drink?

Buried with this elderly king were 14 pieces of wood furniture believed to have been used as serving and dining tables for a funerary banquet eaten by the mourners during the burial ceremony. There were also three large bronze cauldrons that could hold at least a 150 liter capacity.  A lion-headed bucket (situla) and a ram-headed situla were also discovered in addition to two jugs with long spouts, nineteen small jugs and at least 100 bronze drinking bowls.

Upon closer scrutiny of the residues found inside these vessels, it was determined by Dr. Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania Museum that these residues included Calcium Oxalate which is indicative of barley fermentation, tartaric acid, which indicates grape wine, as well as beeswax compounds, which suggests a fermented honey or mead addition.  The resulting “Phrygian grog” as McGovern calls it (ibid), was likely a braggot style ale fermented with barley, grapes, honey, and the potential addition of saffron for color, taste and preservation.  If the Midas Touch ale is any indication of the unusually delicious flavors to expect, our recreation should be just as interesting, if not even better!

Designed by K.Cullen

Anatolian Ale Bottle Label


McGovern, Patrick

2009   Uncorking the Past: The quest for wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages. The University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angles, CA.

Calagione, Sam

2006   Extreme Brewing: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Brewing Craft Beer at Home. Quayside Publishing Group, Beverley, MA.

Brewing a Medieval Mumm Ale

During the latest “Ale through the Ages” brewing seminar (January 14th) we brewed a Medieval Period strong ale known as “Mumm” (also spelled mum or mumme). Mumm ale is truly an historic beer, where it earned the reputation from Germany to England as being “strong as six horses, coach and all” (Anonymous author ca.1720). Many attribute its origin to the northern German city of Braunschweig and a brewer by the name of Christian Mumme in 1492. However an invoice dated to 1390 for beer sold to the city of Braunschweig for a feast mentions the drink “mumm”. Therefore it is doubtful that, “mumme” actually derived from the name of a Christian Mumme, because the account was created 102 years before the alleged formulation (Roloff 1955:175).

By the mid 1500s more than five varieties of mumme were being brewed in Braunschweig. Over time the term “Mumme” became a general designation for “dark beer” (Mack 1911:17). By the 16th Century Mumm was being exported to England where it was enjoyed greatly as a potent tonic. It was soon copied and endured as a popular strong ale into the mid 18th Century. “…with Mr. Norbury near hand to the Fleece, a mum-house in Leadenhall, and there drank mum, and by-and-by broke up” (Pepys 1664). The decline of Mumm production in Germany began in the 18th Century due to heavy taxation in addition to changing laws. Today, very few breweries still produce Mumm(e), these include the German breweries of Nettelbeck and Wismarer.

While the brewing of mumm was a closely guarded secret, the version we brewed is based on an English recipe written in The Receipt Book of John Nott that dates to the late 1600s.

“To make a vessel of sixty-three gallons, we are instructed that the water must be first boiled to the consumption of a third part, then let it be brewed according to art with seven barrels of wheat-malt, one bushel of oat-malt and one bushel of ground beans. When the mixture begins to work, the following ingredients are to be added: Three pounds of the inner bark of fir, one pound each of the tops of the fir and birch; three handfuls of dried Carduus Benedictus [blessed thistle], two handfuls of flowers of Rosa solis [sundew]; of burnet, betony, marjoram, avens, pennyroyal, flowers of elder and wild thyme, three ounces of bruised seeds of cardamom, one ounce of bruised bayberries. Subsequently ten new-laid eggs, not cracked or broken, are to be put into the hogshead, which is then to be stopped close, and not tapped for two years, a sea voyage greatly improving the drink” (John Nott 1680).

Therefore, the following recipe is based on this English Mumm recipe and converted to a 6 gallon batch.

It required a significant amount of malted grain (nearly 20lbs of grain) to brew this strong ale, whereby resulting in a specific gravity of 1.80 (i.e. 9% -10% ABV). After the Thames River Valley yeast began to ferment the wort, all of the herbs were added three days later. Mind you, these herbs were first steeped in boiling water for 5minutes to minimize bacterial contamination.

Nevertheless, this ale is sure to be very unique in flavor and quite strong, much like a barley wine. As there are very few examples of this variety of beer still being brewed worldwide, it will be a surprise to taste how it turns out!

Brewing a Drink of Kings

Brewing an Ancient Irish Mead:
Continuing with the popular brewing series “Ale through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing” on December 2nd we brewed a heather mead inspired by the drink imbibed by the ancient kings of Ireland. Having just returned from Ireland the day before, I was pleased to share photographs from Tara and other ceremonial sites in Co. Meath where ritual feasting and consumption took place as early as the Neolithic Period. We brewed 10 gallons of mead which consisted of 22lbs of honey (10 pounds were generously donated by kind folks at the Urban Apiculture Institute, three pounds of honey malt, six ounces of heather tips and two ounces of elderflowers.

We boiled the wort for a total of 20 minutes, but added the local raw honey from the Urban Apiculture Institute during the last couple of minutes to ensure maximum flavor retention. A specific gravity of 1.078 was obtained, indicating a maximum alcoholic potential of ca. 10%. Normally mead should stay in the fermenter for several months, however we will try to speed up the fermentation process and then stop it in its tracks in two weeks before bottling. Currently the mead is in a vigorous state of fermentation with blow-off hoses attached in case it overflows. These hoses will eventually be replaced with airlocks, once the rate of fermentation decreases. This mead is sure to be sweet with subtle floral hints of heather and elderflower. As with any beer or wine, aging will only improve its character and illicit visions of its glorious past.

A Mead By Any Other Name:
Mead is a wine-like alcoholic beverage principally made of fermented honey. It continues to be enjoyed around the world under different names. It can have a wide range of flavors, depending on the source of the honey, additives, the yeast, and aging procedure. A mead that contains cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg or herbs is called a metheglin. A mead containing fruit, such as raspberries, blackberries, etc. is called melomel. Meanwhile, a mead fermented with grape juice is called a pyment.

Human Procurement of Honey:
Human’s love affair with honey extends back into the unknown depths of time. Exactly how far back may never be known, however one of the earliest examples honey collecting is depicted in Matopo Hills of Zimbabwe that is circa 10,000 years old (Pager 1973:54(2)).

When it comes to apiculture, i.e. keeping bees for their honey and wax, the earliest examples come from Egypt. One notable example of beekeeping can bee seen in a stone bas relief in the tomb of Queen Pabasa at el-Asasif Egypt that is dated to ca. 2400 BCE. Moreover, in 2007 archaeologists from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University were excavating the ca. 3,000 years old ruins of Tel Rehov in northern Israel, when they uncovered the earliest archaeological evidence of beekeeping. In all, there were 30 intact beehives made of straw and unbaked clay, with a hole at one end to allow the bees in and out and a lid on the other end to allow beekeepers access to the honeycombs inside.

Etymology of “Mead”:
The earliest surviving written notation of mead comes from a hymn in the Rig-Veda, one of the sacred books of Hinduism dated around 1700–1100 BCE, in which it states “In the wide-striding Vishnu’s highest footstep, there is a spring of mead.” The etymology of the word mead can be traced to the Sanskrit word, madhu, which became the Old English word Medu and the Irish word Miodh, the precursor to “mead.” Indeed, the term “honeymoon” is considered to be derived from the tradition of newlyweds drinking mead for one month (one moon) following their wedding to ensure fertility. In pre-historic Europe, mead was considered the drink of Celtic royalty and has been found in many archaeological contexts from Germany to Ireland.

Two Archaeological Examples of Mead:

While there is abundant written evidence of meads importance in Europe, from Shakespeare’s Beowulf to Odin’s thirst for mead the in Viking Sagas, there are also several archaeological sites that have yielded empirical data. One noteworthy example comes from a Celtic chieftain’s burial at the site of Hochdorf in southwestern Germany. This burial mound (tumulus) dating to ca. 550 BCE was excavated by Jörg Biel in 1978-79. Beneath the mound a log chamber was found, which held the remains of an elite male laid out on a bronze bench surrounded by drinking and feasting equipment. Of particular note was huge bronze cauldron imported from northern Italy, which contained the desiccated remains of an estimated 92 gallons of mead. Moreover, there were nine large gold decorated drinking horns, (likely from the extinct auroch), the largest of which hung above the chieftain’s head and could hold 10 pints of mead.

An example of the importance of mead in Ireland can be seen at the ancient royal site of Tara in County Meath, which at one time was the royal seat for the high-kings of Ireland. Most of the archaeological remains at the site were used as burials and open-air enclosures for ceremonial purposes. Today there are around thirty visible earthworks immediately around the hill of Tara’s summit and at least 30 more have been revealed through aerial photography and geophysical prospection (Fenwick and Newman 2002). Of specific interest is the presence of a huge banquette hall called Tech-Midchuarta or “Mead Hall.” Built around the 5th – 8th Century, this massive structure was 250 meters x 30 meters and was intended to unite the ceremonial landscape of Tara. An illustration in the Book of Leinster (AD 1100) shows a seating arrangement at the great mead hall, highlighting the entrenched social stratification during this period.

Recreating an Ancient Beer of Mesoamerica

DISCOVERY WORLD Milwaukee, Wisconsin

On November 3rd at Discovery World in Milwaukee Wisconsin, we brewed our second ancient ale of the season, a Mayan Maize Ale, as part of the adult education series “Ale Through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing” .

Mayan Maize label

The recipe is inspired by what an alcoholic beverage may have tasted like in Central America over 1,000 years ago. Archaeological and Ethnographic evidence suggests that pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica brewed a fermented alcoholic beverage using corn and cacao as the primary ingredients. Spanish chroniclers described how the Yucatan Indians (descendants of the Maya) made a foaming drink from cacao and maize which was very savory and which they used to celebrate their feasts. This most recent ale of the ages is an attempt to recreate what these alcoholic beverages of ancient Mesoamerican may have tasted like.

Maize Cacao fermentation

Corn (Zea mays) or maize (a Spanish derivation of the Tiano word maiz) was first domesticated around 6000 B.P. (Before Present) in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. What initially began as a wild grass called teosinte, evolved into one of the most important staple crops on the planet. Today there are thousands of varieties of corn grown worldwide.

Evolution of Zea mays

There are many modern examples of brewing corn beer throughout the Western Hemisphere. Most often it is called Chicha, where the traditional method involves the maize being chewed and then spit into a pot or bowl. Natural enzymes in the mouth aid in converting the starch in the corn into fermentable sugars. This mash is then boiled and let to naturally ferment. Today, the Tarahumara indigenous people of Chihuahua in northern Mexico regularly brew a corn beer called Tesguino, which is consumed in large quantities during ceremonial occasions. While we did not spit in our Mayan Maize Ale, a small batch of authentic chicha was made following the traditional method.

Archaeological Examples of brewing with Maize and Cacao in South and Central America

Recent archaeological excavations by a team from The Field Museum in Chicago and The University of Florida uncovered the remains of a brewing complex on the mountain top site of Cerro Baúl in southern Peru. The complex was built by the Wari culture (AD 600-1000) in which stones supported a row of 12 large pottery jars capable of holding 150 liters of liquid each. It is believed that the brewery was capable of producing hundreds of gallons of corn-based beer per week. Further evidence suggests that women were the primary brewers at the site, based on the presence of at least 10 shawl pins that were found on the floor of the brewery, which was ritually burned down around 1000 years ago.

Cerro Baul Brewery plan

Archaeologists from Cornell University working at the site of Puerto Escondido in northern Honduras have recently found the earliest evidence of drinking fermented cacao. Chemical analyses performed on the pottery sherds, some of which were over 3,000 years old, that recovered from the site contained residues of Theobromine, a conclusive fingerprint that fermented cacao was once served in these jars. It is assumed that this chocolate based beer may have reached 5% alcohol by volume.

Bodega Brown Bottle; Puerto Escondido; cacao jar

November 10th marked the bottling of the Mayan Maize Ale. We added a bit more cocoa powder and and 3/4 cups of corn syrup to the batch prior to bottling. The bottling went extremely efficiently, resulting in a total of some 60 12oz. bottles. It should be ready for consumption by mid December and ought to have a distinct maize flavor with a delicious chocolate body with a hint of serrano pepper on the end. Final Alcohol by volume is anticipated to be around 5.5%.

Mayan Maize bottling

Ale Through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing

October 7th 2009 marked the second season of Discovery Worlds exploration and indulgence into the ancient tradition of brewing beer, during an adult program called “Ale through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing”. An enthusiastic group of adults were on hand to witness and partake in the brewing exercise, while enjoying a variety of beers generously donated by Lakefront Brewery Inc.

The newest experimental ale resurrected from the depths of brewing history, is a German style rye-based ale we call a Rhineland Roggenbier. While beer production has been a human innovation for at least 10,000 years in parts of eastern and western Asia, central Europe and Germany in particular were late comers in comparison. For example, a burial excavated in 1935 near the village of Kasendorf, in northern Bavaria contained a male individual from the Celtic Hallstatt period, ca. 800 BCE. Among the artifacts buried with him was an amphora-shaped vessel with the remnants of a black wheat beer inside of it. Thus far, this marks the earliest archaeological evidence of beer consumption in Germany.

Hallstatt Period grave goods from Kasendorf Germany ca. 800 BCE

Hallstatt Period grave goods from Kasendorf Germany ca. 800 BCE

The use of rye (Secale cereale) in beer production certainly predates the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) of 1516 that declared “… in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water…” Rye was omitted because it was deemed a vital food source, so as not to be depleted for excessive beer production. Prior to the early 16th century quality control measure, the use of rye in brewing beer was a commonality throughout northern Europe, because it is very tolerant of cooler climates and can grow in more acidic soils than wheat or barley. The plant itself was likely first domesticated in eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran during the Neolithic Period ca. 5000 BCE, but doesn’t begin to show up in central Europe in its domesticated form until the late Bronze Age ca.1800-1500 BCE (Zohary & Hopf 2000:75). In Europe, it likely grew as a weed in the crop fields of early farmers, until its largest grains were isolated and selected for continued cultivation, i.e. domestication.

Rhineland Roggenbier Recipe

Therefore, this roggenbier is inspired by references to rye ales that were being brewed in southern Germany during the Roman and Early Medieval periods. Indeed, the Roman author Publius Cornelius Tacitus wrote in the year 98 that “the Germanii serve an extract of barley and rye as a beverage that is somehow adulterated to resemble wine” (De origine et situ germanorum). Moreover, in 1256 the author Aldorbrandino of Siena Italy wrote that ale made from “rye or rye bread with mint and wild celery as additives was the best kind of beer” (Li Livres dou Santé).

Specific Gravity 1.044

Specific Gravity 1.044

Prior to pitching the European ale yeast on the morning following the brewing session of Wednesday October 7th, a specific gravity reading was taken. The hydrometer settled on the 1.044 line, ca. 6% maximum ABV, though it will likely bottom out at around 5%. Much like a dunkelweizen, this roggenbier is expected to be amber colored with malty notes, mildly hopped and a crisp minty rye finish. Due to a large amount of sediment from the all-grain mash, it will undergo secondary fermentation in one week, followed by a bottling session here at Discovery World on October 21st.

Grain mash undergoing vermicomposting in our biology lab by hundreds of red wiggler worms (Eisenia foetida)

Grain mash undergoing vermicomposting in our Biology Laboratory by hundreds of red wiggler worms (Eisenia foetida)

The final stage in this transformation of the all grain mash was recycling, in this case back to soil with the aid of hundreds of red wiggler worms. Currently they are devouring the mash in two large pails. The entire mash was mixed with equal parts soil/mulch obtained from Growing Power Inc. It is important to monitor the soil temperature for optimal decomposition and worm comfort. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to break down the grains into usable soil. Updates to follow!