Boiling up Bochet, medieval style

The obscure history of Bochet, a sweet French honey drink.

Interested in my video tutorial? Check out the Mother Earth News Fair Online  where it is featured alongside tutorials by Jereme Zimmerman of “Make Mead like a Viking” and Hannah Crum of “The Big Book of Kombucha” fame.

Not all that long ago, the homebrewing community discovered Bochet, a medieval French beverage, and the resulting burnt-honey mead style has gathered quite a few enthusiast followers. This enthusiasm is in large part due to the unique and challenging way of process, as the modern interpretation of bochet is a mead made from caramelized honey, spices optional. Hearing the stories of smoking honey and tasting the delicious caramelly results I wanted to know more about this unusual mead. Surprisingly, I found that the modern mead variety is based off of just one historic recipe from 14th century Paris, France. When Le Ménagier de Paris (1393), a medieval household manual detailing a woman’s proper behavior in marriage and running a household, was newly translated and republished as The Good Wife’s Guide: a Medieval Household Book by the Cornell University Press in 2009, its collection of recipes – including one for bochet – became easily available to the general public. As the word bochet is not connected to a modern definition, the original French name of the recipe using caramelized honey was retained, and the word bochet became to signify the product of this one recipe: a mead made with caramelized honey.

Let’s take a closer look at historic bochet
There are not many historic sources that mention the product bochet, but while Le Ménagier might be the most elaborate source, it is not the only source. Interestingly, these other sources more or less collectively point at a different definition for what makes a beverage a bochet. The word itself is not currently in use in modern French, with the governmental Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales defining bochet as a drink made with water, sugar, honey and various spices (especially cinnamon). Cursory searches on-line find that Bochet as well as Boschet are in active use as surnames. Eighteenth century French sources use both words as a diminutive of Bois (forest): boschet (small bush; thicket) and bochet (Le bois / la garenne / le bochet; second decoction of sudorific woods). The connection between bochet and sudorificus, from Latin sudor ‘sweat,’ is intriguing, as the ‘sweat’ of forests could be interpreted as honeydew, a sticky sweet sap exuded by certain trees during specific weather conditions and likened to honey in medieval times. Along this same line of thinking falls the bouchet pear, plausibly likened to bochet due to its sweet juice.

The earliest variants of bochet as a beverage are: bochetus (1292); bocheto (1301); boschier (1330); bochet vero [true bochet], boischet, boschet & bouchet (1348); bochet (1385) and boschet (1404).

The earliest literary mention of bochet does not give much information about the beverage itself.

1301 CE: Item pro uno Bocheto, sito in loco ubi dicitur en Bruier. Boschet, ibid. (Carpentier 1766, 569) Also in place of a Bocheto, in this location called Bruier. As well as Boschet.

Another source, contemporary to Le Ménagier by nearly a decade, confirms bochet is a beverage, and indicates the beverage is (served) hot.

1385 CE: Ledit Alain comme tout esbahi, bout a arrière de li ledit Gieffroy, & en c’est boutement a çopa ledit Gieffroy, s’il qu’il che en une cuvée de Bochet, qui mise y estoit pour reffroidier. (Carpentier 1766, 569) Said Alain all appalled / amazed, at the back of said Gieffroy, & in this raising of his cup by said Gieffroy, in that he cheers with a vessel of Bochet, which is put there to cool down.

The most interesting source in regards to this article is the inspirational recipe from Le Ménagier de Paris, “the Parisian Household Book” from 1393. Le Ménagier includes two detailed recipes for bochet, as well as detailed instructions on how to caramelize honey for this bochet.

Bochet. To make 6 septiers of bochet, take 6 quarts of fine, mild honey and put it in a cauldron on the fire to boil.  Keep stirring until it stops swelling and it has bubbles like small blisters that burst, giving off a little blackish steam. Then add 7 septiers of water and boil until it all reduces to six septiers, stirring constantly. Put it in a tub to cool to lukewarm, and strain through a cloth. Decant into a keg and add one pint of brewer’s yeast, for that is what makes it piquant – although if you use bread leaven, the flavor is just as good, but the color will be paler. Cover well and warmly so that it ferments. And for an even better version, add an ounce of ginger, long pepper, grains of paradise, and cloves in equal amounts, except for the cloves of which there should be less; put them in a linen bag and toss into the keg. Two or three days later, when the bochet smells spicy and is tangy enough, remove the spice sachet, wring it out, and put it in another barrel you have underway. Thus you can reuse these spices up to 3 or 4 times. (Greco 2009, p. 325)

Surprisingly, the recipes from Le Ménagier du Paris are not the only historic recipes available detailing the making of bochet. Jean Longis included one in his 1556 book “The great owner of all things, very useful and profitable for keeping the human body healthy [as instructed by 13th century] Bartholomaeus Anglicus.” This recipe could, or could not, confirm bochet used caramelized honey – the description is not detailed enough, and the translation ambiguous. The word in question is cuyte (cuit) which derives from cuisine (cooking) and most likely translates as the verb cooking. But it could also translate to burnt (brûlé, incendié, cuit, carbonisé) which could indicate the caramelization process explained in the Le Ménagier recipe. This recipe does not indicate any fermentation, and also includes the use of herbs “to keep it longer & to give it a scent.”

Bochet is in Latin called Medo & is water and honey to drink, when the Bochet is undercooked & the honey is not well cooked [burnt?], it bites the belly hard & generates the diarrhea & makes great suffering: but when it is well cooked & scented it is delectable to the taste. And smoothens the voice & clears the throat & the pipes of the lungs & comforts the heart & gives it jubilation. And nourish the body: but it is not good for those who have badly burning spleen and who have the [kidney] stone and the gravel, because it restrains their conduits and to the humors. We put aromatic herbs in the Bochet to keep it longer & to give it a scent, & in Bretagne we put in absinthe which is a very bitter herb for that to trust. (Longis 1556, p. ccvij)

Another recipe detailing the herbs and spices needed as well as some cursory instruction on how to make bochet comes from Le Thresor de santé (1607) by Jean Huguetan. This recipe is interesting, as the process described again connects bochet with heating, but then connects this heating process with the making of hippocras, a type of mulled wine which is spiced and can be sweetened with honey or sugar.

We take, freshly boiled water, … a pot.
Crushed cinnamon,… half ounce.
Sugar,… half pound.
The whole thing happens by heat, in the fashion of hippocras. You can change the amounts, taking:
Fine sugar in powder,… four ounces.
Cinnamon, as much as above. – – – –
Boiling water,… four pounds.
The whole mixed together cools down into a well-covered bowl of pewter or earthenware. In fact, we pour it through a white sheet to use it. It is good for gouty people. (Huguetan 1607, 110)

The sources in context
The historic sources show a slightly different characteristics for the beverage bochet then found in popular writing. In that regards the instructions from Le Ménagier are in stark contrast to the other sources. Not only is Le Ménagier the only source instructing to caramelize the honey, it is also the only direct source instructing fermentation. Some sort of alcoholic content is indirectly inferred from its association with other alcoholic beverages, like beer, cider and perry, but it is not explicitly stated elsewhere. There are several sources equating bochet with barley water, infusions and broth – none particularly known for their alcoholic contents. Perhaps the connection of bochet with hippocras can shed light on this question: “The whole thing happens by heat, in the fashion of hippocras” (1607). Perhaps the word bochet is not an indication of a general product (like wine, or mead) but instead of a specific process? To answer this question, we need to take a closer look at the defining features of bochet to pin down its characteristics (see table 1).

1385 1393 1393 1556 1607 1611 1684 1695 1725
HEAT, boiling &c. X X X X X X X ?
Honey X X X ?
caramelized honey X ?
Sugar X X
Fermentation X X
Infusion X X ? X X X
Hypocras X X
Kitchen spices X X X X X X
Medicinal herbs X X
Ginger X
Long pepper X
Grains of paradise X X
Cloves X X
Absinthe X
Cinnamon X X X
Coriander X X
Aniseeds X

Table 1: the characteristics of historic bochet.

The results
Honey & Sugar: Modern bochet is defined as a mead, a honey wine, flavored by caramelizing (part of) the honey. Historic bochet seems to be more diverse, and indicate bochet could be made from either honey or sugar.

Fermentation: There are indications middle Age bochet was fermented but that later bochet is not. It is unclear from the later recipes if fermentation or the addition of yeast is not mentioned because fermentation was not part of the process, or because fermentation was an obvious fact which did not need repeating. Usually this omission of process is more likely in earlier recipes than in those more recent, putting this interpretation into question. It is also a possibility the product bochet changed over time, from an alcoholic infusion akin to hippocras, to a non-alcoholic infusion, akin to modern sodas, teas and tisanes.

Process: The use of heat – boiling the (sweetened) water – is consistently mentioned, as is the technique of infusing the added spices into this hot liquid. It is likely the resulting infusion, a type of tisane or infusion by heat, was consumed at room temperature as the recipes indicate the sweet tisane is cooled down slowly (“well-covered”) and filtered before consumption.

Spices: The addition of spices is mentioned consistently as well, indicating to be another characteristic of bochet. The changing of types of spices used over the decennia could be indicative of the change in flavor preference from medieval times to early modern times; transitioning from obscure medieval cooking spices to the more typical modern baking spices.

The modern definition of bochet as a mead flavored with caramelized honey still stands, but seems to place too much weight on a singular source. The defining factors of historic bochet seem more fluid. In a way, historic bochet was similar to hippocras: they both are sweetened with honey/sugar, spiced and steeped (mulled). But the base of hippocras is wine, not water, and while it might be heated for consumption, it is less likely to be boiled as part of the mulling process, as that would drive off the alcoholic content. Bochet can also be seen as similar to mead or hydromel (the French word for mead); both use honey as a source of (fermentable) sugar. Perhaps fermented bochet could even be the French word for metheglin, a spiced or medicated variety of mead associated with Wales. The difference between bochet and metheglin could be how the spices are added: with bochet the spices are boiled as part of the whole, and with most metheglin recipes the spices are added in a little spice pouch and dry-hopped during primary fermentation. And as mentioned previously, it is not at all unlikely the beverage itself evolved throughout the ages from an alcoholic spiced honey drink, to a non-alcoholic sweetened and spiced tisane.

This change of function is not at all unusual in the world of historic brewing and illustrates the importance of historical awareness, the authenticity of traditional beverages, to the homebrewer and craft brewer alike. With the ever-growing interest, and commercial market, in traditional brews it is easy to fall into the trap of plausible assumption, and letting this assumption shape our modern perception of historic products. For instance, neither modern braggot, a mead variety using less than 50% malt in its production, and modern gruit ale, an uphopped ale using any variety of herbs, existed in this form in history. Historic braggot is actually a honeyed ale and gruit beer used very specific herbs, and possibly hops.

This misconception can have real life consequences when registering for brewing competitions, as well as licensing for commercial production. Perhaps the modern brewer can make a little room for both modern specifics, and historic fluency, and enjoy the bounty our combined history has to offer. What we can say about bochet specifically with more certainty now is that what characterizes an historic bochet is not so much that it is made of (caramelized) honey or sugar, nor if it is fermented, or not – what characterizes a bochet is how it is made. The defining features of an historic bochet are that it is made by boiling sweetened water with spices and letting the concoction slowly cool down, infusing into a wonderful tasty beverage, and anything else just makes the resulting brew that much more special!

For the complete article including more samples and specific citations, please check:

Abbreviated bibliography

How Viking is mead, exactly?

Anyone thinking of Vikings also thinks of mead, the two seem inextricably linked. It should seem surprising to then find that there was basically no local honey production in Norway and most of Sweden before the middle of the 18th century, and even after, access to honey was extremely limited. Maybe the reason mead is mentioned so often in the Saga’s is because it was such a rarity – was it truly only a drink for kings and the Gods? The earliest recorded account of the production of mead in connection with the Northern lands is in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern People – 1555) by Olaus Magnus – Archbishop-in-exile of Uppsala, as at that time Sweden was not Catholic anymore. During his exile Olaus Magnus wrote extensively about his home lands, including a chapter with instructions on making mead. He then added two chapters on making Polish, Lithuanian and Goth mead. As this broadly overlaps with the trading areas of the Viking era one wonders if most of the mead consumed by the Vikings was imported from down south, way down south. Another early cookbook with mead recipes of the Scandinavian region is the Danish Kogebog (1616), which literally means cookbook. It includes two chapters on mead, with much practical information including which herbs work well to spice the mead, and the numerous health benefits of mead. It is clear mead was made by the Danish, but then, even though Denmark is part of Scandinavia it is geographically connected to Germany, not the Scandinavian peninsula, and much more southern and more hospitable to beekeeping.

Magnus-BookXIII OCR-9

From Chapter 23 of Olaus Magnus: “On the voluntary drowning of King Hunding in mead or hydromel.”

And that is the crux of the matter: looking closer at the geographical setting of the Northern lands as compared to the geographical distribution of bees shows something interesting. Scandinavia lies just on the cusp on the natural range of honey bees. The south of Sweden and Denmark are within the native distribution of honey bees, but their natural range ends just south of Norway. This excludes central and northern Sweden and near all of Norway from local honey production, although theoretically, honey bees might survive in the south-eastern corner, right around Oslo and down along a little way on the western side of the Oslo fjord. The reason for this is not the cold, as one might assume, but the short duration of the flowering season. Honey bees collect pollen and nectar from flowering plants, which is their food. They concentrate nectar into honey as an emergency food supply for the hive, among other uses. As the flowering season that far up north is too short, the bees run out of honey and starve to death before the next season begins.

Chased by Suttungr, Odin spits the mead of poetry into several vessels. Some of it accidentally goes out the other end. Illustration by Jakob Sigurðsson, an 18th-century Icelandic artist. (Public Domain)

If that is the case, then why is mead so often mentioned in the Norse mythologies? Maybe it truly was a matter of wishful thinking. There is less mention of mead in the sagas, which claim to be stories about actual people. One of these mentions from Egil’s saga recounts of someone sailing to Denmark to buy honey, as well as other things, which makes sense if there was no local beekeeping. There are other mentions, but on average it seems real people mostly drank milk products and beer. Surviving records show wine was considered the best by the Norse, with records of wine traded from the Mediterranean up to Scandinavia back to the year zero, then mead, likely imported either as honey or fermented, and then locally-produced beer (coincidentally, or maybe not, this is the same order in which Olaus Magnus has listed his wine, mead and beer descriptions and recipes). True to human nature, it was not the easily available product which was considered finest – after all, it is always that which is hard to get which is valued above all others.

But: there does seem to be one caveat in dealing with Viking age beekeeping from a modern point of view. Much of the Viking era coincided with the Medieval Warm Period, which happened from about 950 to 1250 CE. It is conceivable beekeeping was possible then, even if only in an opportunistic wild beehive robbing sort of way. Eva Crane’s World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting recounts of a find of “tens of thousands” of dead bees from 1175-1225 CE in the Old Town of Oslo, which could mean purposeful beekeeping. Or it could be a singular large hive which died spectacularly all over the town, as one hive can contain from 10,000 to 60,000 individuals. But it is feasible people did keep bees in at least part of Norway during that time, and later lost the knowledge when the climate changed again, and the northern lands became too hostile for bees. More likely is that local beekeeping never was very widespread, but as the famous traders and raiders the Vikings were known for, they bought and plundered honey from abroad.

The popularity of mead waned in the rest of medieval Europe as the production of honey slowed and prices rose and the consumption of beer spread. When The Medieval Warm Period was followed by The Little Ice Age, lasting from about 1350 to about 1850, this also contributed to the decline of medieval honey production, especially in short season climates like northern Europe and southern Scandinavia. And with the increase of population and thus agriculture, old growth forests which provided nectar were cut down and wild flower meadows were planted with grains, which yield no nectar at all. By the 14th century a gallon of French wine was cheaper than the honey needed to make a gallon of mead, and by the 17th century imports of cheap sugar from the West Indies mostly replaced the use of honey in cooking and brewing. Mead survived well into the 18th century in central Europe, where raw materials were easy to get from the large forests they still had, and in the rest of Europe in different versions as a drink for the sick. It could well be that mead did not only decline because of cost, or the improving quality of other drinks, it could also be because mead was said to be so good for the drinker’s health, it became associated with the sick and the weak.

Example of sheltered beekeeping from the European Alps (left –, in which individual hive boxes are communally housed within a larger structure to help the hives make it through the winter cold. Another concept for Viking Age appropriate hives, similar to log hives as found in illuminated Medieval manuscripts (right –

Whether or not the Vikings were active beekeepers, from the numerous mentions of mead-drinking in the Saga’s we know they sure enjoyed the results, or at least wished they could. Surprisingly, it took until the middle of the 18th century for someone to figure out how to keep bees successfully in the Oslo area. He did this by closing down his hive with a perforated screen in early spring to prevent the bees from flying and feeding the bees watered down honey. That far up north, the bees run out of honey and wake up too early in spring to go in search of flowers while there still is snow on the ground. They go in search of food because they are starving, and instead freeze to death. Keeping them cooped up and fed they can be kept alive until the rest of nature wakes up and there is food for them to find – the similar as our modern practice of feeding sugar water. From that point on, beekeeping spread, and resulted in a strong tradition of beekeeping, especially in the south-eastern corner of Norway and southern Sweden, that grew into a local mead-making tradition.

Much of this information comes from an ethnographic survey on farmhouse brewing issued by the Norwegian Ethnographical Research Institute (NEG) in 1952 and 1957. This questionnaire ran 103 questions, and questions 99 to 103 dealt with mead, and the results were surprisingly consistent: most of Norway at that time had no mead-making and barely any mead drinking tradition at all – except for a small cluster south of Oslo, and down into southern Sweden. Of the small handful of Norwegian responses, one replied people collected wild honey, and four replied independently that people who kept bees sold the honey, but then made mead from the honey that remained stuck to the wax combs. The beekeepers would dissolve the honey in hot water, boil it, add some spices, and then ferment it. A process very similar to the washed comb mead making techniques found in medieval cook books.


Modern beekeeping in Sweden, from Biodlingsföretagarna, the Swedish Professional Beekeepers website (


  • Crane, Eva. The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. Taylor & Francis, 1999.
  • Garshol, Lars Marius. Norwegian Ethnological Research. Posted in Beer on 2014-09-15 15:38
  • Garshol, Lars Marius. Mead: a Norwegian tradition? Posted in Beer on 2018-04-15 12:16
  • Gayre, Robert. Wassail! In Mazers of Mead. Colorado, US: Brewers Publications, 1986.
  • Husberg, Erik. Honung, vax och mjöd : biodlingen i Sverige under medeltid och 1500-tal.
  • Unger, Richard W. Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Iron Age Stone Brewing – part two

The things we learned this second trial: what worked, and what are we going to work on some more. And no, the brew did not sour this time, and yes, the recipe made a fine drinkable juniper ale. With only a wood tub, a fire and some hot rocks. Who knew historic brewing could be this much fun!

Our second brewing workshop happened at the Great Pennsic War, a large two week re-enactment get together in rural Pennsylvania. The workshop was allocated space in one of the Royal encampments on middle Saturday in the center of things, right next to the University, which meant many brewers and prospective brewers could stop by, see what was going on, and actively participate. There was no shortage of tub scrubbers, malt grinders and water haulers here!

Cy Phorg’s tutelage had set us on the right path and we did not feel the need to alter his recipe much. We again used 18 pounds of 2 row barley, combined with 4 pounds of rye and 2 pounds of smoked cherry wood malt. We used the smoked cherry wood malt instead of the peat malt as I had picked up a number of samples at the 2019 Homebrew Con. Thank you, sponsors.

For our botanicals I chose not to use the mugwort again as I think it contributed greatly to the vegetative bitter taste in our first trial. We again used a handful of yarrow, this time dried, a handful of bog myrtle and some yellowed hops. I also made a separate boil with 2 oz pre-packaged hop pellets “Cluster Fugget”, another free sample from the 2019 Homebrew con. Because we were fermenting on-site in questionable sanitary conditions I added the pelleted hop infusion to the wort hoping it would aid in preserving for the short week the brew would need to ferment. The wort did not sour this time – we also pitched yeast as soon as the temperatures were good – and the small amount of hops used did not add significantly to the flavor of the ale.

Things we did the same (from the first trial):

The wooden half-barrel mash tun works surprisingly well. It does need conditioning and a good clean after, and before use, which makes using wood a bit more involved from using stainless steel. As the tub had been sitting for a few months it had dried out and the staves had loosened. Two days before brewing I filled the tun with hot water and had it sit in the sun. It stopped leaking within 24 hours. I then dumped the water and let it dry facing the sun, which has antimicrobial properties as well, so we could haul it to the brewing site empty. Having ears, and a long handle, makes moving this 30+ gallon half barrel a breeze, without stressing any loose staves and have the barrel fall apart due to manhandling.


Things we did differently:

We used the same type of granite rocks of around grapefruit size, heated in a large wood fire. But we started the fire on a layer of charcoal briquets (one bag of barbecue coals) which knocked a couple hours off of getting a functional bed of coals to heat the brewing rocks. We used metal tongs to move the hot rocks, but instead of using fireplace tongs I had found a pair of metal blacksmithing tongs for round stock which worked extremely well and look quite similar to tongs from traditional Nordic brewing illustrations. While the tongs worked great, the firepit surround did not work as well, and caused for some shriveled knuckle hairs as it really concentrated the heat upwards which made it hard to remove kettles and hot rocks. Next time, no surround, and I heard rumours of one of our brewers finding 4 foot handled tongs.

I made a stand for the mash / lauter tun based on historic pegged-leg exemplars to keep it at a good working level with enough space underneath for a bucket to drain the wort. At first we used three logs, but those don’t pack up neatly and are hard to haul around (and technically illegal outside of 50 miles). The design was inspired by the traditional Nordic brewing illustrations of tub stanchions.

What we learned for next time:

Like last time, we used a shared mash and lauter tun. While this is not unheard of, there are traditional brewers out there who did this, I do not think it is as helpful as it sounds to be. The filter bed interferes with stirring, which in turn interferes with a good temperature throughout the mash. To help this, we pulled (cold) wort from the bottom and added it back to the (hot) top. The only reason we did this set up again was that I did not have room to transport two wooden tuns. Trial three will feature a separate mash tun and lauter tun.

We need larger capacity for boiling water and making juniper infusions. We need a proper kettle. I have one I can, and have, boiled a whole goat in – which might be a wee bit too large – but if needed, that’s what I’ll bring for future use. It’s good to own a truck.

A few observations:

The brew tasted overwhelmingly of juniper, especially for us who are not used to the taste. I am glad we had our brewers do a taste test of straight juniper infusion, so we knew exactly where the taste came from. Nordland mentions traditional brewers using minor amounts of juniper, only as a filter in the lautering tun, but also mentions traditional brewers making strong juniper infusions to sparge the mash with. Likely our brew was somewhere in between, not as mild as it could be, and more of an acquired taste than us modern brewers are used to. Two things we can do to limit this flavor is to avoid adding any juniper branches with bark, and to not heat the mash on top of the juniper filter bed. And as we’re planning to separate mashing and lautering anyway, this will be an easy change.

Brewing in Pennsylvania during the summer month of August also brings another challenge – ambient temperatures. Daytime temperatures are in the nineties, if not higher, with overnight temperatures between the sixties and the eighties. Standard ale yeast does not like this very much. It also takes a long time for the wort to cool down without intervention to be able to pitch the yeast. A yeast which does like high fermentation temperatures, which can be pitched hot, and attenuates quickly, would be the Nordic yeast kveik. This might not be coincidental. We did two yeast trials, one part with WB-06 and one with Nottingham and found that the one with Nottingham displayed definitely floral overtones, just like kveik is known to do, and that our taste testers preferred this flavor profile. We will be doing kveik trials this winter to learn more about its likes and dislikes.



Brewing in wood, on-site, to drink within a few days, is completely feasible. People in general are mesmerized by the process, and brewers can not be shooed away. With a little bit of effort, and an oak wine barrel, this way of brewing would be attainable to anyone who is interested in low-key historic brewing processes, and drinking something enjoyable which will not be duplicated time and again. We had people scrubbing, grinding, hauling water, splitting wood, stirring the mash – and ooh-ing and aah-ing anytime a hot rock violently boiled the mash.


We fermented part in a plastic bottling bucket (sanitary, and with built-in dispensing tap) and, after the initial fermentation, added part to an oak barrel. The couple of days it was in the closed barrel it did built up pressure, and made for a nice tingle-on-the-tongue mouth feel. Both bucket and barrel were well sampled at our Closing Party, with numerous return customers.

And at home I now have some left over party booze slowly oaking in my cleaned out barrel. My barrel will be sterile for the next demo, and we’ll have some drinkable booze to boot. Proost!

For more on our Iron Age brewing experiments, please see my previous post at:

To read more about Nordic Farmhouse brewing, check

  • Vom Halm Zum Fass: Die volkstümlichen Alkoholarmen: Getreidegetränke in Finnland (1975)
  • Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway by Odd Nordland (1969)
  • and Mika Laitinen’s new book Viking Age Brewing: the Craft of Brewing Sahti Farmhouse Ale (2019)

Medieval Gruit Beer at Homebrew Con 2019

I presented my first seminar at the 2019 Homebrew Con in Providence, RI, this weekend:

Medieval Gruit Beer Reconstructed: New Theories on Old Beverages.

Gruit as a product changed throughout its history. From a beer additive revered for its fermenting powers, it evolved into a beer with a reputation for powerful headache-causing herbals. The exact nature of gruit was once thought to be lost, but available sources paint an interesting picture of gruit, not just as a handful of brewing herbs, but as a powerful and necessary wort fortifier. Although not all puzzle pieces have been uncovered and gruit’s exact nature can’t yet be described, several theories adequately corroborate known facts.

Poster presentation for the 2019 Homebrew Con:

Presentation Poster Gruit

Yeast ring magic!

IMG_0862 - Copy

As part of our Iron Age brewing experiment I had prepared a yeast ring in advance. Guided by historic instructions which mention a few hours would be needed to rejuvinate, early in the afternoon I added some of the first wort with the ring in a stainless steel starter bucket. For the next couple of hours I kept a clean kitchen towel over the bucket, but found nothing happening… and by the time we should have inoculated the wort, the yeast ring-wort was quiet as the grave.


Sir Arthur Mitchell toured some of the western islands of Scotland in 1768 and recounts how the natives of the Isle of Skye revived the yeast preserved on their wreath:

“The natives preserve their yeast in the following manner: They cut a rod of oak four or five inches in circumference, twist it round like a w[r]ythe, and steep it in fresh yeast for some hours, then hang it up and dry it. And whenever they need yeast they take down the twisted rod, and put it into a covered vessel amongst two or three pints of luke-warm wort, so in two hours thereafter they have fresh barm fit for immediate use.”

The next day, during clean up, I decanted the ring with the still-inactive wort into a brand-new gallon ziploc bag, zipped it, and brought it home to deal with later. To my surprise, guess what I found when the truck was unpacked? One ziploc balloon, with lots of foamy, bubbly activity!


Instead of taking a coupe hours, it took a couple days, but it work, and quite well too. After another day or two of vigorous fermentation the yeast was slowing down and I carefully removed the ring by its cord. I dried it outdoors, on a breezy and sunny day. It was visually dry within a few hours, which was quicker than I had expected. I gave it some more, as the weather was nice, and then stored it in another Ziploc bag in the fridge. In another month, I’ll revive it again, and see if we can get a quicker start. And if not, I’ll just start my ring the day before a traditional brew day, that’s OK too.


This yeast ring is made for me by Robert Hedstrom, from paint stirring sticks (likely pine) and is about six inches in diameter. I like the smaller size as it is easy to store and fits in my smallish stainless steel milking buckets. The yeast ring is inoculated with the standard Safale WB06 dry ale yeast, and is therefore now dedicated to this strain. This ring is a trial to test technique for using the more finicky kveik yeasts, the traditional Norwegian homegrown yeasts, and until then it will serve us well during traditional brewing demonstrations.



  • Mitchell, Arthur. James Robertson’s tour through some of the western islands, etc., of Scotland in 1768. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 32. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1898.

Iron Age stone brewing demonstration

My interest in anything Viking age, and anything early-period brewing merged last weekend when I organized a brewing demo at a local medieval festival. Jeff Boerger traveled from afar to help Ken Stuart and I work our way through the different steps of successfully brewing an all-grain beer with nothing modern but a thermometer – and honestly, we did not even truly need that! Inspired by a Facebook post by a Texan brewer who shared his interpretation of an Iron Age brew in northern continental Europe around 2,000 years ago that he brews for an Iron Age immersion week each spring, I figured we could give it a try too.

While 2,000 years ago is a wee bit past the Viking age, it is unlikely the way of brewing changed all that much from the Iron age until Middle age monastic breweries started pushing the boundaries of brewing volume and shelf-life. And while there might not be a whole lot of recorded history, with only a single example from the Icelandic Ljósvetninga saga telling of milk warmed by stones, there is plenty of archaeological evidence for the brewing of beer in Viking age context. Residues of a fruit & honey beer from northwest Denmark of circa 1500-1300 BCE, found in 2014, included honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, as well as wheat, barley and/or rye. And there is nothing archaeologist like better than rubbish heaps and trash middens, of which the old farmsteads have plenty!

It seems in central Norway the rubbish heaps suggests Vikings and their descendants brewed beer by tossing hot rocks into wooden tuns. Many a fire-cracked stone is found at most of the farmyards of old, historically named farms. Unfortunately for the archaeologists, since most archaeological digs are initiated by construction sites, as developers are required to check for cultural artifacts before beginning construction, most construction sites avoid developing through a farmstead. This means most of the archaeological information we have about the Viking age comes from graves, and most of the archaeological information about the Middle ages comes from excavations in cities – which misses a large chunk of data as most people back then lived in the countryside. Recent small-scale excavations in farmyards found that the oldest farmsteads carbon-14 date to 600 CE, the late Iron age.


Nineteenth century Sociologist Eilert Sundt recorded an encounter on a farm in 1851 in Hedmark, Norway after seeing a pile of strange looking smallish stones. “What’s with these stones?” he asked and the farmer replied “They’re brewing stones. Stones they used for cooking to brew beer, from the old days when they did not have iron pots.” Sundt noted that most of the farms he visited had piles of burned or fire-cracked stones, and every time he asked about them, he was told the stones were from brewing, when they would be heated until they were glowing hot and plopped into the wood vessel to heat things up. The stones were everywhere, Sundt wrote, and so thick and compact in places, houses were built right on top of them! A modern excavation at Ranheim, near Trondheim, Norway, found 700 cubic meters of stones from just one portion of the farmstead. A test sample of 24 farms found that 71 percent had fire-cracked stones. Hot rock brewing would not be as obvious in the archaeological record elsewhere as with Norwegian brewing stones because of the types of stones used, as most regions use stones which tolerate heat without fracturing, like the igneous rock granite and basalt. Brewing beer with hot rocks is nothing unusual, and traces of brewing with stones have been found in England, Germany, Finland and the Baltics.

And thus, in the great tradition of Gulating’s law – the Gulating being the Norwegian governmental assembly which met from 900 to 1300 CE – requiring three farmers to work together to brew beer, Jeff, Ken and I set up our brewing along gorgeous Cayuga Lake to make some Viking beer!

Our grainbill:

  • 18 lbs of 2 row barley malt
  • 4 lbs of malted oats
  • 1 lb of acidified barley malt
  • ½ lb of peat smoked barley malt (very smoky, use sparingly)
  • ½ lb of malted rye (left over)

The grain was milled on-site, and by hand.

With an infusion of:

  • Yarrow (big handful)
  • Baby spruce tips (handful)
  • Mugwort (less than a dozen sprigs)
  • Henbit (small handful)
  • Aged, yellowed hops (handful)

The herbs were fresh and picked the day before. The hops are homegrown and have been sitting in the dark in my basement for about a year. This way the brew gets minimal flavor, while still benefiting of some of the preserving qualities.

Step by step how we made our stone beer:

First thing we did was start a fire to make the coal bed.

Then we used that fire to make a juniper infusion and clean out the wood tub (the mash tun) with the scalding infusion to clean and sterilize.


Then we put a layer of juniper twigs covering the bottom, concentrating around the plug (there is hole in the bottom of the mash tun, kept closed with the plugging stick).

We milled the grains by hand: we used 2 row barley, malted oats and some random leftovers, including rye, as well as some peat smoked malt.


Then we added water. We added it cold from the tap – it could also be pre-heated in the sun, especially in summer.

Next, we put stones on the coal bed and built another fire right over top of them, with a hardwood / pine mix I had brought from home to make sure we had dry wood.

IMG_0810 - Copy

In the traditional Scandinavian style, we made a separate tea, or infusion, with the herbal bittering agents. We used yarrow, some mugwort, aged and yellowed hops, some henbit, and baby spruce tips.

When the fire was mostly burned down again, we started pulling stones, and added them to mash (the soaked grains) 3 or 4 at a time. Jeff really enjoyed this bit, as did my son when we did a water-only trial in the back yard. We tried three metal grabbers and found the funky accordion style firewood grabber worked best.

We kept checking the temperature, especially the top and bottom as the mash & juniper was quite insulating and there often was quite a heat difference between the top and the bottom. It was difficult to stir with the juniper branches covering the bottom. At around 130F we observed protein break which made the surface of the mash all foam up.

We kept adding hot rocks until overall temps were at or over 160° F, and then we kept it at this level for an hour and a half – adding more stones as needed.


By now, whenever a new hot rock is added, the wort (the liquid surrounding the grains) surrounding the rock immediately went to a boil, creating lots of steam, a wonderful smell of sweet malt, lots of sizzling & sputtering, and quite the surface boil. This part, which takes about an hour and a half, is spectacular to watch!

At around the end of the protein rest (the hour and a half) we noticed the protein foam had dissipated, and the wort started to settle. So, we put the draining bucket under hole, carefully wiggled the plug stick, and slowly drained the wort into a sterile bucket. I would plug the drain back up each time the bucket was ready to dump the filtered wort into a sterilized fermenter bucket. This traditional way of having a combined mash tun (where the grains are soaked) and a lauter tun (where the infusion is drained off the grains) worked surprisingly well.

We sparged with boiling water. We intended to use juniper water but ran out of cooking vessels as we started to cook dinner while waiting for the protein rest. We drained about 4 gallons from the initial wort, and another 2 gallons were sparged, by trickling boiling water over the mash to wash out any remainder sweetness. The last sparge we handed around for anyone to taste.

We made about 8 gallons of wort from about 25 pounds of grain, including 4 pounds of oats I sprouted and roasted (called malting) over the winter, and bittering adjuncts grown and harvested from the backyard. All in all, it took about 6 hours from start to finish, but we also took all the time we wanted and ended up cooking dinner over the hot stone fire as well – rabbit with spring onions, over barley, nettle and plantain. It was a good day, and I can’t wait to taste the results!

The things we learned:

  • Making the first coal bed took a while. In case of restricted time start with a bag or two of charcoal, add rocks, and built a wood fire over that.
  • We needed more pots to boil water, and/or vessels to store juniper tea for sparging.
  • Stones crack, but slowly, crumbly, and pose no danger (apart from sharp edges when fishing them back out of the wort). It is no wonder the farmyards had layer upon layer of discarded stones, as from two trials I already have half a bucket of small gravel! Brewing stone beer means keeping an eye out for replacement granite.
  • When the wort reached about 130° F, we saw foam (protein break). When it reached about 160 °F the surface was really steaming (and too hot to touch easily). When it had sat for about the right amount of time, the foam had also started to dissipate and the wort was starting to clear.

Back home, I added some Nottingham dry ale yeast, and Ken added Munton’s “Active Brewing Yeast” which the package says “…is a high viability robust yeast carefully selected for its consistency and clean finish.” As we had brewed on an alcohol-free Boy Scout campground I had not brought any yeast to pitch on site. When we tried the wort at about the 5-day point, we found it to be more acerbic and herbal tasting than expected. It had soured, quite likely because of the delay in pitching our yeast. The little bit of wort I had added to my yeast ring did not sour, but was fairly bitter, like an overly hoppy IPA. I checked back in with the Iron age brewer and he suggested not to boil the herbs, but only to steep, and to add the infused tea as a sparge, not during heating. We will do further testing before our next demonstration and look forward to sharing our results with you then! Skål!

For anyone who would like to try Cy Phorg’s Iron Age interpretation:

  • 4 lbs of 2 row barley malt OR a mix of light and dark Munich malt
  • 1 lb of rye malt
  • ½ lb of peat smoked malt
  • ¼ lb acid barley malt

Mash for 160° F or more for 1.5 hours

Steep in ½ a gallon of water a combination of:

  • Juniper branch tips (handful)
  • Meadowsweet (several handfuls)
  • Sweet gale
  • Heather (handful)
  • Henbit / deadnettle (handful)
  • Yarrow

All preferably harvested in spring, use with flowers and buds when possible. Sparge with the herbal tea first.

Cy uses kveik yeasts, farmhouse/saisson style yeasts, and Belgian/Trappist style yeasts to good effect, often in a mixture and often with a health addition of bread yeast. It will be ready to drink in as little as 48 hours, though in his experience he finds 72 hours is a good spot to start pouring. It is not intended to be carbonated, and should be consumed in a day or two.

More on brewing with stones:

Blaand – Seeing Whey in a New Old Way

Historic Scandinavian cuisine has a few unusual techniques and flavors otherwise seldom found in European cooking, such as the infamous lye preserved lutefisk, the caramelized whey cheese gjetost and whey preserved vegetables and meats. After tasting some fabulous whey preserved salmon chunks, I wanted to learn more about the process – how was it done, and especially, why did it work? And I found that in the age before refrigeration, foodstuffs were preserved in many different ways, mostly using dehumidifying (drying, salting, smoking), altering the pH (acidic or alkaline pickling / fermentation) and introducing antimicrobial alcohol (alcoholic fermentation) – or any combination of the above – all creating an environment unpleasant for spoilage bacteria.

Learning more about whey preserved vegetables and meats (acidic pickling) lead to an intriguing website claiming alcoholic fermented whey had come to Scotland by way of the Vikings, which piqued my interest. According to this website, blaand (var. bland, blaund) was made by fermenting whey with a sugar source, and it was touted as a traditional Viking / Scandinavian drink. Looking deeper into caramelized whey-cheese gjetost I had found that it was a fairly recent invention, from around the introduction of refrigeration, and that before whey was such a commodity to help preserve the harvest it generally was not used for much else. Which made me wonder, if caramelized whey gjetost is a more recent invention, then what about fermented whey blaand?


In the Orkhon valley, mare’s milk is fermented to make airag, a potent alcoholic drink, and turned into a variety of snacks. (Photo: Scott Presly / Flickr, 2012: CC BY 2.0)

With the domestication of animals to provide a regular supply of milk, meat and other by-products like leather, bone and horn, certain cultures also developed a type of fermented beverage different from the traditional fermentation of grains, fruits and honey. The consumption of animal milk is thought to date to the mid-6th millennium BCE, or maybe even earlier.  Because of the in-between step of domestication, fermented-milk beverages were generally developed at a later date than traditional grain, fruit and honey ferments, the latter not even needing human intervention to occur. Archaeological evidence suggests fermented milk beverages have been known for millennia, and likely originated in the Middle East and the Balkans. Kefir and kumis are the best-known examples of fermented alcoholic milk drinks, and are made with certain strains of lactic acid bacteria and yeast. Numerous species of lactic acid bacteria, yeasts and molds can be involved, making the microflora of milk fermentation fairly complex and not always predictable. Alcoholic drinks produced with yeast & lactic fermentation are often of white or yellowish color, have a slightly yeast-like aroma, a somewhat tart and refreshing taste, and are often of a thick consistency. (Rasmussen 2014, 71-76)


Vendor of Koumis, Fermented Mare’s Milk poured from a leather bag, in front of the shrine Aulie-Ata in Syr Darya Oblast. Taken between 1865 and 1872 (Public domain).

Kumis is an ancient beverage traditionally made from mare’s milk. On average, mare’s milk contains 6.4% lactose by weight, which is about 30% higher than that of cow’s milk. Because of the higher sugar content, kumis generally ferments out with a higher alcohol content than kefir, varying from 0.6 to 2.5%, or similar to the small beer tradition of Western Europe. Both kefir and kumis carbonate, but where kefir is started from kefir grains (granular cultures), kumis is started from liquid starter culture including various thermophilic lactobacilli. A number of fermented beverages modified from kumis have been produced by various cultures and are often made with other animal milks. (Rasmussen 2014, 71-76). Sometimes kumis is distilled to make the much-stronger Mongolian arkhi, which has a 12% alcohol content.


Cheese curds & whey. (Photo: Cecilia / Flickr, 2010; CC-BY-2.0)

While kumis is produced from whole milk, blaand is made from whey, a by-product from the curdling process of milk which makes for instance cheese and yoghurt. Described as the national beverage of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, this whey-like liquor is a modification from traditional kumis, also indicated with whey-kumis as opposed to proper kumis (from milk). As proper kumis contains all the casein of the milk, it is much more nutritious than the whey based blaand. (Jagielski 1872, 124-125)

Occasionally, whey drinks are mentioned in literary sources, but the sources are sparse, and the mentions short. For instance, blaand is found in two Scottish newspapers, once as part of a larger article written as a travelogue (1928), and once as an interesting fact (1884), as well as in a travel account from 1774.  Penelope’s Notebook, a column of interesting facts printed as part of the Aberdeen Press and Journal in Aberdeenshire, Scotland published Wednesday June 27, 1928 had the following to say on blaand:

 “A common drink with the people of Shetland is called blaand. Sour buttermilk is stood over a gentle heat until the whey separates from the curds. This whey is the blaand. It is either drunk in a fresh state or stored away till it has fermented. Fermented blaand sparkles, but after a time it becomes flat and is not so good. This, however, can be remedied by adding new blaand as required. It is a refreshing drink in warm weather.”

The Dundee People’s Journal from Angus, Scotland published on Saturday January 19, 1884 an installment of a longer story following the exploits of Arthur and Osla, incidentally giving us a good description on how Scottish blaand was made in the late 19th century:

”I thought blaan was a sort of drink,” said Arthur. “I’m sure I’ve heard old William Raemusson talking about it.” “That’s blaand,” said Osla, “which is quite a different thing. Blaand is – father, please tell Mr Carew how blaand is made.” “Blaand is hot water poured upon the remains of the butter milk left in the churn. This precipitates the cheesy part of the milk, which is then lifted out; and then the whey and the water that remain are allowed to rest till they ferment, when the liquor becomes as clear as spring water and acquires an agreeable acid taste. This is blaand. They say the Icelanders have a drink like it. But I never was there, and I cannot tell.”

Joseph Anderson recounted in his “A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland” from 1774 the following:

“Bland, or the serum of Buttermilk separated by heat, is much used as a drink, kept till it is old and sharp, but I should think it dangerous, causing colics, and all kinds of gripes.”

Interestingly, while all accounts agree on the source of blaand being whey, it seems not to matter how the whey is produced. It can be alcohol-fermented (which would make it sparkle), or not, and while a connection with Iceland is established it seems that whey-kumis blaand is traditional to parts of the British Isles, not Scandinavia, nor the Vikings. If that is the case, then where does the Viking connection come from?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest occurrence of the word ‘bland’ in this context is in 1703 regarding the drinking of bland in Shetland.  And the entry for 1821 quotes: “She filled a small wooden quaigh from an earthen pitcher which contained bland, a subacid liquor made out of the serous part of the milk.” Another dictionary which could be helpful because of the connection with Scotland is the Dictionary of the Scots Language (Dictionar o the Scots Leid).

  • BLAND, Blaand, Blaund, n. and v. [bl?(:)nd]
  • (1) Whey mixed with water, a drink used in the Shetland Islands. Given for Sh. by Edm. Gl. (1866), Jak. (1908), Angus Gl. (1914) s.v. blaand. Sh. 1774 G. Low Tour thro’ Ork. and Sh. (1879) 104:
  • Bland, or the serum of Buttermilk separated by heat, is much used as a drink. Sh. 1914 J. M. E. Saxby in Old-Lore Misc., Ork., Sh., etc. VII. ii. 70:
  • Blaund, whey of buttermilk. The whey is allowed to reach the fermenting, sparkling stage. Beyond that it becomes flat and vinegary. “Soor blaund” is a delicious and quenching drink, and used to be in every cottage for common use. It is what fashionable doctors recommend for consumptives under the name of the “sour whey cure.” Ork. 1929 Marw.:

The Dictionary of the Scots Language also lists the earliest occurrence of the word ‘blanda’ in its second definition of meaning a mixture of two fluids, especially sour whey mixed with water, dated to 1604 from a quote of the Sh. Sheriff court. And it notes the etymology, the heritage, of the word blaand as derived from the Old Norse blanda (feminine), a mixture of fluids, spec. ‘a beverage of hot whey mixed with water.’ This word matches the description of the Nordic Cleasy-Vigbusson entry of the Germanic Lexicon Project: blanda, any mixture of two fluids; but esp. a beverage of hot whey mixed up with water. It looks like a whey drink, called blanda, was known in the Nordic lands, but the etymological information does not confirm whether it was alcohol-fermented, like whey-kumis, or only acid-fermented. Norwegian farmhouse brewer Lars Marius Garshol knows only of blanda (var. blande) as sour whey mixed with water, without any alcoholic fermentation – the whey was left to sour in huge wooden vats and as it became too sour to drink it was then mixed with water before consumption. According to Garshol, it was the everyday drink in Norway, but much less so in Sweden. The acidic fermentation of the lactobacilli in the whey would, when mixed back in with surface water, sterilize possibly contaminated water and create a safe, inexpensive drink for everyday use.

Take note of the entry under ‘blanda’ in the Cleasy-Vigbusson: it also lists ‘mjöð bland’ which one could interpret as whey mead, but unfortunately means generic mead-mixing (derived from mjaðar bland). The earliest dated Scandinavian mention of blande as a beverage seems to be in the Natural History of Norway, written by Bishop Erik Pontoppidan in 1752-53. He writes that Norwegian peasants used to drink blande, made by mixing milk and water, or in winter, water and sour whey. The peasants’ wives boiled sour whey to preserve it through the summer as a beverage. (Fosså 2000, 147)


James, from Happy Homestead, Orkney, UK brewing Blaand wine with whey and sugar, and living the allure of anything Viking.

Then where does the prevalent idea that blaand is a Viking whey wine, made from sour whey, a sugar source and yeast come from, as perpetuated by sites like the Orkney Happy Homestead and Wikipedia? It does look like the Vikings might have had an acidic fermented water & whey drink called blanda, but it was unlikely to be alcohol fermented. The Scottish did have an acidic & alcoholic fermented whey beverage called blaand, but while likely related, the two do not seem to have mixed (no pun intended). Another ingredient connected to blaand which does not come up in any of the historic and etymological material is the addition of another source of sugar to the whey, to boost alcoholic fermentation. That might be a more recent addition, as our modern tastes enjoy the sweet & sour taste, as well as a higher alcohol level. In history, sugars were a valuable commodity and used sparingly. It was not until cane sugar became farmed large scale in the West Indies that sugar moved from being stored, together with the valuable spices, under lock and key to become, with the spices, a staple of everyday life. In regards to the Viking connection one should also note that there was basically no honey production in Norway and most of Sweden before the 1750’s, and even after that access to honey was extremely limited.

Apart from boosting the fermentable sugars to raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) levels, another reason to ferment modern blaand with an additional sugar source could be that whey contains the complex sugar lactose. Ordinary brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae does not easily convert complex sugar into alcohol and needs a hand to help break down the lactose into galactose and sucrose, which then it can convert. (IFIC) This is why dried lactose can be used as a sweetener in beer and wine, as the yeast will ignore it. Successful open-air fermentation could capture microorganisms such as Kluveromyces lactis or Kluveromyces fragilis that can convert lactose to alcohol. (Yang) There is a strain of S. cerevisiae that can ferment lactose, the infamous Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. diastaticus but this strain should be used with extreme caution as it is very virulent and once it takes hold in a brewery, it is very hard to eradicate. (Chai) Historically, this might not be as problematic for breweries dedicated to the fermentation of whey – traditional breweries often brewed at the most a handful of similar brews utilizing the house-yeast strain that colonized their structure, inadvertently creating place-specific yeast strains with unique flavor and character (and the basis of our modern day yeast libraries). But contamination is most definitely a problem for modern-day brewers, and luckily, we can circumvent the problematic yeast and add digestive enzyme lactase directly (conveniently available at the drug store) to convert the lactose after which it can be fermented with a traditional brewer’s yeast.


The Longboat’s Landing Party Whey Wine by Sean Bailey at the Fat Friars meadery, from cow’s milk whey and fermented with honey and lactase (

Another more recent invention to ferment with whey is the production of whey beer. Whey is a bulk by-product of strained yogurt production – 10 pounds of milk makes one pound of cheese and 9 pounds of whey (Yang) – and thus creates quite a disposal challenge for the dairy industry. As sour beers are gaining popularity, sour whey beer, which already is sour to start with, could be the next big thing. The idea behind sour whey beer is that barley contains enzymes capable of breaking down lactose into galactose and glucose, which can then be fermented by brewer’s yeast S. cerevisiae. Acid whey typically has a pH <4.5, a lactose content of 3.0 to 3.5%, and calcium content greater than 1.2 mg/g. Experiments by Professor Samuel Alcaine of the Food Science Department at Cornell University showed that lactose hydrolysis using a raw barley mash did indeed raise the levels of fermentable glucose of the mash. In the production of sour beers, acid whey can thus potentially act as a natural acid as well as a fermentable sugar source. (Lawton 2019)

What is often thought of as a problematic waste product requiring a high energy intake to commercially process into whey protein powder, turns out to also have wonderfully useful incarnations, especially in history as well as in our modern times. Perhaps, next time you make cheese and yogurt, put some of the left-over whey back into the container and stick it in the fridge until it clears and make a Viking blanda. Add some lactase, and let it wild-ferment for a bit and see if you can make a Scottish blaand. My favorite is fresh whey generously topped off with concentrated syrup, or honey, which will spontaneously ferment if left alone. Throughout history, whey has always been seen as a nutritious resource worth exploring. Even now, with our myriad choices of beverages – fermented, and not – it is exciting to experiment with something different: why not brew some refreshing whey wine, or sour whey beer!



Last Call! Ale & Mead Tasting at the 54th International Medieval Congress

Sponsored by the Medieval Brewers Guild and AVISTA: The Association Villard de Honnecourt for the Interdisciplinary Study of Medieval Technology, Science, and Art; hosted by the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.

All good things come to an end! At the final tasting at the Medieval Congress, soon-to-be-retired coordinator Stephen Law bid adieu and farewell to the brewers and tasters after organizing, and brewing, for 13 tastings over the past 20-odd years.


Organizer Stephen Law addressing the crowd of eager tasters.

In the words of Stephen Law:

“A variety of medieval-style meads and ales are presented today, including the return of some novel brewing experiments that we have done in the past. The term ‘metheglin’ is used to designate meads that have been flavored with herbs or spices; we have several on the tables today. Traditional meads are the purest form of meads, with nothing used to modify the flavor of the natural honey itself. Pyment is a blend of mead and wine; both a white and a red are again offered this year. Melomels have always been popular (especially here at Kalamazoo); our fruity blends are delightfully refreshing. ‘Sack’ – in current terminology – means strong or very strong mead. Be careful with the sacks, as they sneak up on you. Particularly welcome is a ‘washed comb mead’ made in the traditional manner that bypasses all filtration whatsoever.

Some of the ales in this year’s tasting are ‘vintage ales.’ Notably, the Once-Brewed and the Twice-Brewed ales, have returned for the ‘last call’ (they were made with the hypothetical Saxon method of brewing a super-strong ales). The three unique ‘Hildegard Ales’ were made for this year’s academic presentation (session 101) on Gruit Ales vs Hopped Ales; they are a derivative of her information in the Physica. We also have several experimental ales with mixtures of gruits.

Wacht heil! Drinc heil!


Patiently waiting for the clock to strike 5PM!

While Stephen Law provided the bulk of the beverages, several other brewers contributed as well, including husband and wife team Benjamin and Mary Sullivan (session 101 – Microbial Susceptibility of Hopped and non-Hopped Ales) and I (also in session 101 – Medieval Gruit Ales Revisited).


Mary Sullivan ready to share samples of the fruits of her brewing experiments.

About a dozen members of the Medieval Brewers Guild helped behind the tables, keeping all the pitchers filled, ready for pouring. The Medieval Institute provided the servers, who poured and thus took full legal responsibility. Between all of us, we still had trouble keeping up for a bit! We had an estimated 500 people partake in sampling our medieval offerings.


Medieval Style Ales (a short run-down):

Hildegard’s Mirtelbaum Ale (barley ale with organic myrtle leaves and berries); Hildegard’s Costmary and Fennel Ale (barley ale with costmary & fennel); Hildegard’s Aesh and Oat Ale (60% oats and 40% barley with EU ash tree leaves); Low Country Gruit Ale (oat/wheat/barley ale with bog myrtle, laurel berries, laserwort seeds and resin); Vintage Once-Brewed Saxon (single infusion mash, 11% ABV); Vintage Twice-Brewed Saxon (sparged with wort, 15% ABV); Viking Farmhouse Ale (barley, with yarrow, birch leaves, bilberry & angelica); Dry-hopped Wheat Wine (min. 50% malted wheat, dry hopped for 2 years, 14% ABV) Wormwood and Orange Peel Strong Ale (barley, wormwood, orange blossom sack, and curacao peel – not for pregnant women); Spiced Welsh Braggot (a blend of mead and ale, with galangal, ginger, cloves, pepper and cinnamon, 11% ABV); Hopped vs non-Hopped Experiment (a split batch barley & rye ale; one batch Northern Brewer Hops, other batch bog myrtle, mugwort, elder flower, juniper berries and licorice root).


The stash of mead, ready to be poured.

Meads and Cider:

Traditional Wildflower Sack Mead (24 lbs of honey, 15% ABV); Honey Comb Mead (honey straight from comb, including wax, propolus, pollen and all!); Rose Hips and Heather Metheglyn (24 lbs of honey, 15% ABV); Raspberry Melomel (13% ABV); Mixed Berry Melomel (organic raspberries, blackberries and blueberries; 13% ABV); White Pyment (wildflower sack mead blended 50/50 with Pinot Grigio); Red Pyment (wildflower sack mead blended 50/50 with Merlot); Lime and Ginger Mead (24 lbs of honey, 15% ABV); Hopped Metheglin Sack Mead (hops were used for both ales and meads in the late middle ages, 15% ABV); Spiced Sack Metheglin (Curacao orange peel, ginger); Strong Cyser (50/50 blend of mead and organic apple cider, 12% ABV); Cider / Perry Blend (heritage apple cier 2016, blended with pear concentrate, ca. 6.8% ABV).


Many happy conference attendees, trying one, or two, or several!

How to make a yeast ring

The Scandinavian Saga’s show the Vikings understood how to work with yeast to brew beer long before the first published Nordic books on brewing. Halv’s saga speaks explicitly of yeast, called dregg. Other words found in sagas are jǫstr, related to the Swedish ‘jäst’ and gerð, related to the the Danish-Norwegian ‘gær.’ As well as kvikur or kveykur, both linked to the adjective ‘kvick’ and meaning that which sets something in motion, related to the Norwegian ‘kveik.’

Many different methods of preserving yeast have been used over time, including the baking of yeast cakes with the addition of flour and the drying of yeast sludge on rough wood logs, straw wreaths of whittled yeast rings. For more on the history of Scandinavian yeast devices, check out my previous post at:

The most curious piece of brewing equipment, the yeast ring is mostly found in traditional Scandinavian farmhouse brewing. It would be used by drying yeast sludge on wreaths of straw or braided bark, as well as rings of small pieces of whittled wood. For this type of storage, the sludge could be dried quickly with the help of sterile hot ashes which would absorb excess water, the heat would help expedite drying, and the alkaline environment it creates would be antimicrobial. When Sir Arthur Mitchell toured some of the western islands of Scotland in 1768 he took note of how the natives of the Isle of Skye revived their yeast preserved on a wreath:

“The natives preserve their yeast in the following manner: They cut a rod of oak four or five inches in circumference, twist it round like a w[r]ythe, and steep it in fresh yeast for some hours, then hang it up and dry it. And whenever they need yeast they take down the twisted rod, and put it into a covered vessel amongst two or three pints of luke-warm wort, so in two hours thereafter they have fresh barm fit for immediate use.”

Practical instructions


Design of a Danish yeast ring, from the book Landbokvinden (Back to the land, 1964).

There are many different ways to make a yeast ring. Some are made simply from tightly twisted straw, others from strips of bark expertly braided together. Most are made from wood, often birch or beech, and most are made from narrow mortise & tenon pieces which are interlinked together. Some have a raised wedge head which keeps the pieces locked in, others have an indentation to the side. Some are square edged, some have rounded edges, and some have a decorative serration at the top, sometimes even at the bottom. Most have a square wedge head when seen from the top, and the measurements are often 2 wedge lengths makes up one body length (ratio 2:1), but sometimes shorter, at one and a half to 1, and sometimes much longer. On average, a good ball-park design to match many of the extant artifacts is about 75 pieces, or 25 sets of 3.

A modern reconstruction (left) made out of plastic with a 3D printer by George Hart (

Remekel a Bicska OCR-26-3b    Remekel a Bicska OCR-26-2b

A traditional reconstruction from the Hungarian book on whittling called Remeckel a bicksa (The knife is great, 1958).

This version seems to be the most common design and is probably indicative of the process: the many, many pieces would be carved or whittled by hand, with a knife, and the wedged end and slot (mortise) would not be problematic to create. This technique might also explain why it perhaps originated in Scandinavia – an area with a strong whittling tradition and long, long dark and boring winters.

The key to the puzzle

There are several options for the key piece which closes the loop, and could theoretically open it again. It is not quite clear what the benefit of taking it apart would be, except perhaps for a deep clean before it goes into storage (or to the museum). There are several museum artifacts which are disconnected (often also incomplete); the majority of the artifacts are connected and in one piece. None of the four key versions mentioned below are easy to re-open, and are all prone to damage when done so repetitively.

key pieces - composite

  • Key 1 (left): a piece with a minimally raised wedge, low enough so it can be pushed through the mortise. Optional: widen receiving mortise slightly as well. For cheaters: chisel the wedge off completely, insert piece, and glue back on. This key piece has to be the very first of the chain.
  • Key 2 (mid.): the tenon is split lengthwise from the middle of the back to the mortise. Then the two arms are sprung open and pushed over the body of the connecting link, similar to an old-fashioned clothes pin.
  • Key 3 (right): If the mortise is cut a bit wider than the link width, then it could be possible to remove just enough of the side wall to push through the other link. The part removed could be carefully glued back to remove all traces of construction.
  • Key 4: steam or boil the key piece ten to twenty minutes to soften the wood. Compress the wedge in a vice to flatten the wedge and insert through slot. As it cools and dries, it will re-expand somewhat and steaming can be used to expand it further. This is a known technique for making improbable wooden objects.


  • Loránt, Ferkai. Remekel a bicska, 1958.
  • Ole Højrup. Landbokvinden. Denmark, 1964.
  • Mitchell, Arthur. James Robertson’s tour through some of the western islands, etc., of Scotland in 1768. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 32. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1898.
  • Thunæus, Harald. Ölets historia i Sverige I Från äldsta tidre till 1600-talets slut, 1968.



Scandinavian ‘magic sticks’ – yeast logs & yeast rings

Likely one of the first organisms domesticated by man, yeast was kept at the ready using many different storage techniques throughout history. One of the oldest such known practices are the Ancient Egyptian yeast breads: delicately baked little loaves of yeasty goodness which, when crumbled into sweet liquid, would create a new yeast starter – for beer, or to leaven bread. For most of man & yeast’s history, bread yeast and beer yeast were the same. The user often had a clear preference, either for keeping the top yeast (barm) or the bottom yeast (lees). But this preference seems more random than geographic, as one farmer would prefer the top, his neighbor the bottom and some would save both – and the yeast would be used for anything that needed fermentation.

two unusual yeast wreaths

A yeast ring made out of sheep vertebrae, Gjærkrans HF-00244 (left photo: Hadeland Folkemuseum) and a teethy straw yeast wreath, Jästkrans UM28850 (right photo: Uplandsmuseet).

There are many different, and some quite unusual, methods for keeping yeast found in Scandinavian context. Like the Ancient Egyptians, one method mixed yeast with flour and would knead it into a flat cracker, with or without a ‘donut’ hole. The crackers would be dried, and could be stored, nice and dry and out of the way, strung along the length of a hanging stick. In our more recent past, liquid yeast could be stored in bottles; often submerged in cold water such as in a well, which would act like a natural refrigerator.

Lars Garshol (2013): “Brewers usually preferred their yeast fresh, and if they didn’t have any, would borrow from their neighbours. This was common, and taking payment for yeast was unheard of. Some say well dried yeast could last for more than a year, and, if necessary, it could be revived with sugar and water, then dried again. Given how hard it is to keep yeast alive and working well, and how it seems to depend on a community of neighbours all helping one another it’s not very surprising that kveik has disappeared in most places.”

yeast logs

Yeast logs come in all different shapes and sizes: a jästkubb NM.0041501 (photo: Nordiska Museet), a gjærstokk from 1704, a gjærstokk NF.2016-0174 (photo: Norsk Folkemuseum), and a kveikal from 1621, NF.1928-0442 (photo: Norsk Folkemuseum).

Scandinavian Yeast Logs and Yeast Rings

An intriguing piece of Norse brewing equipment, and unique to Scandinavia, is the yeast log. From a simple piece of rough-barked birch log with a hole at the top to attach a rope, to elaborately drilled and carved sculptural Odes to yeast, the yeast log captures our imagination. When brewing guru Michael Jackson visited Norway he was mesmerized by the “magic sticks” he encountered there, functional yeast logs kept as family heirlooms long after commercial yeast became available. The log would be used by lowering it into the fermentation vat to catch the yeast that would form a foam on top. Then it would be pulled out, rolled in flour, dried for a few minutes, dipped again and this process repeated a few times. When properly covered in yeasty paste, it would be hung to dry.

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A yeast log carved at the bottom with the date 1621 from Telemark, Norway NF.1928-0442 Photo: Norsk Folkemuseum,

Another traditional piece of brewing equipment, most often found in Sweden and Denmark, is the yeast ring. Yeast sludge would be dried on wreaths of straw or braided bark, as well as rings of small pieces of whittled wood. For this type of storage, the sludge could be dried quickly with the help of sterile hot ashes which would absorb excess water, the heat would help expedite drying, and the alkaline environment it creates would be antimicrobial. When Sir Arthur Mitchell toured some of the western islands of Scotland in 1768 he took note of how the natives of the Isle of Skye revived their yeast preserved on a wreath:

“The natives preserve their yeast in the following manner: They cut a rod of oak four or five inches in circumference, twist it round like a w[r]ythe, and steep it in fresh yeast for some hours, then hang it up and dry it. And whenever they need yeast they take down the twisted rod, and put it into a covered vessel amongst two or three pints of luke-warm wort, so in two hours thereafter they have fresh barm fit for immediate use.”

The secret identity of the Yeast Ring

When the Scandinavian museum records were checked for yeast rings, many examples can be found but also something else: Ulrika Torell curator of the Nordiska museet (Nordic Museum) explained the “pannring” as follows:

“A so-called yeast ring, or yeast wreath, originally used for brewing beer and malt drinks. The wreath is placed in the fermenter where yeast residues adhered and were allowed to dry into the hollows of the wreath. In this way, a good yeast was preserved for the next brewing. The wreaths were made of wooden sticks or straw. When the homestead brewing needs eventually declined [yeast could now be purchased, as well as beer] the wreaths instead began to be used as trivets for pots and pans and got a new name.”


Yeast ring made by the author from swamp birch (Betula allegheniensis).

From the 19th century onwards, it is fairly easy to find examples of wood wreath trivets both in Scandinavian, and in Hungarian, culture. The digital collections of the Swedish and Danish museums especially list dozens of “pannring” objects collected in the late 19th to the middle of the 20th century. The same is found for Hungarian wood wreath trivets, there called cauldron wreaths – the oldest object is dated to 1860. But did they not get used before then, or did they not get collected and catalogued? It looks like unfortunately it is the latter. The concept of ethnography, the systematic study of people and culture, had only recently developed. Universities and private collectors would collect data and objects, most often from strange and foreign lands and peoples. But not until the industrial revolution was it realized by governments and universities alike that rural life as had been known since living memory was quickly fading away, replaced by modern conveniences like refrigeration and dry-goods stores. Ethnographers were sent into the field in their own countries to preserve what was left, and this push for the past is still visible in the influx of collection acquisitions in the late nineteenth century.


The Hungarian Kutyagerinc – used to keep round-bottom cooking pots from tipping. Photo: Arcanum online.

Hungarian Trivets

A neat example of a wood wreath trivet is the Hungarian kutyagerinc, or dog’s spine, as seen on the table in the photograph of the shepherds’ couple dining. In the words of Barna Gábor in his book A pásztorok muvészete (The art of shepherds, 1989):

“Most shepherd’s apartments have chimneys, smoky kitchens and open stoves and multiple families cook on the stove. There is also a kitchen in the Keszthely Empire where six families cook on a stove. The footed cauldrons, pots and pans are designed for this, and the fire is gathered around it. It is natural that the feet and the pot are rusty, which is not a problem; the people consider, the goal with open fire is a more delicious meal and a crunchy roast.

If the soiled dish is put on the beautiful white tablecloth, it will make a mess. For this reason, the shepherd carries a tablecloth surface-saver, which is called a kutyagerinc (dog’s spine) because it really resembles the backbone of the dog, but is assembled as a wreath. The kutyagerinc consists of two or three hundred parts intersecting each other, held together by the parts, so that one part is tightly connected to the other.

The good kutyagerinc is that which is cramped as close as possible. You don’t need to use glue, an adhesive, for the kutyagerinc, because it holds itself together. If the assemblage of the kutyagerinc is connected with two opposing parts, it can be turned so that the heads of the parts stand in a different direction [it rotates] and the wreath has a different visual. The two ends of the wreath are so cleverly hooked up that the observer can’t figure out how the hundreds of pieces are put together so wonderfully! The shepherd does something for pleasure. There is no benefit, it’s just nice!”

The wreath as a yeast ring

Whenever the whittled wreaths are displayed in musea or on the internet, Scandinavian visitors would immediately identify it as a yeast ring. The yeast ring identity seems to be deeply ingrained within the Scandinavian mindset, bringing up the question of how old this custom could be. While there exists that Norwegian yeast log carved on the bottom with the date of 1621, there is no such luck with yeast rings. Same with Hungarian kutyagerinc, the museum objects in the Scandinavian collections are mostly dated and/or acquired at the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. A chance encounter while leafing through the 1555 multi-volume Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A History of the Northern Peoples) by Olaus Magnus provided an intriguing illustration.

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Yeast ring, hanging outside the brewery. Olaus Magnus’ Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555, p.445) and appears here with permission of the Silver Special Collections Department of the Library of the University of Vermont.

 On display: one yeast ring, hanging of a pole outside a drinking establishment, to indicate the brew was successful and ready for consumption. Interestingly, it was apparently such a normal tool that the use of the ring is not mentioned in the body of the text of the book. The earliest practical descriptions of brewing beer are from the 16th and 17th century, but interestingly, quite often the literal use of yeast is omitted. The brewers had words for yeast and knew how to treat it – it was nothing surprising or new. For instance, the Danish cook book Koge Bog (1616) instructs “When you put the yeast in, then make careful certain that you don’t put it on too hot or too cold, but when it is slightly more than lukewarm.” While the German brewer Christoph Kobrer (1581) includes a detailed chapter on “keep[ing] the stuff for brewing” (about preserving and reviving yeast), Olaus Magnus (1555) only mentions to use “a small quantity of older beer.” Englishman Andrew Boorde (1542) instructs to use nothing but malt and water and to never add anything to beer, except “yest, barme, or godesgood,” three synonyms for yeast. And if one might find it strange to hang a yeast ring out in in the open, keep in mind brewers back then did not know yeast was a creature, only that the sun and an airy breeze would help dry out the sludge more quickly, and that that was good. On the other hand, the ring could also be just used and cleaned, hung out to dry and sterilize in the sun, as medieval dairies were known to do with their wood equipment. Putting out the yeasty tool to indicate a job well done is not something unusual; there is a long tradition in Europe of using yeast related utensils as pre-period inn signs, like besoms (twiggy sweeping brooms) and ale-poles (the medieval variant of mash paddles).

The Swedish article by Nils Nilsson called Jästkransen (Yeast wreaths) from 1981 is interesting in regards to the practical use of tori. While it is not as detailed as for instance Odd Nordland in his Brewing and beer traditions in Norway: the social anthropological background of the brewing industry (1969) or Gösta Berg in Jäststock och jästkrans (Yeast log and yeast wreath – 1949) what Is interesting are the two photographs included. One is of a confirmed pannring / trivet, while the other is of a confirmed yeast ring. And it is clearly visible: the yeast ring is slathered in dried yeast, and the trivet has scorched edges from where the hot pots touched the wood. Note that while yeast sludge can be soaked and rinsed away it is impossible to clean scorched wood. And most of the wreaths collected as trivets do not show any indication of heat scorching, which seems to undermine the assumption of them actively being used as trivets.


From Nilsson: (left) Jästkrans, one of a pair acquired from Harlösa in Skåne in 1945, information about the use is missing. The dried substance between the sticks contains, apart from various “debris” residues, starch and yeast fungi. Diameter 15 cm. KM 47,356:2. (right) Wreath braided with sticks, according to Kulturens folk art catalog 1932, a trivet from Skåne, that is to say, a stand for a frying pan. Diameter 23 cm. KM 35.767.

In the words of Nils Nilsson, in his 1981 Jästkransen:

“Another method was to allow the yeast to dry, which gave significantly increased durability. The yeast must then be collected in a suitable way. From ancient towns in central Sweden and Norway it is known that they used to lay down a so-called yeast log or yeast stick in the yeast vessel, a piece of log of rough bark with recessed depths where the yeast mass was gathered into. The stick was then hung to dry and the yeast in the holes could then be preserved for a long time.

The same method has been applied with wreaths, which were usually straw bundles, but which in southern Sweden and Denmark were often composed of small sticks stuck into each other, or yeast rings. The wreaths could either be placed in the vessel like the yeast stick, so that the yeast flowed into the cavities, or “filled” by pouring the yeast over them. Otherwise, the approach was the same.

Wreaths composed of small wooden sticks are quite common in our museum collections. Very few of these have a clear function as yeast rings. In general, they are found as a trivet for saucepans, pots and the like. In this capacity, they still exist, usually manufactured and marketed as home-made supplies. The question is then whether the use of wreaths as a pot holder was developed only after ceasing to store yeast dried in wreaths, in other words a kind of functional retreat as it is called in scientific language. More likely, they have been used for both these purposes and that the connection with the beer yeast was forgotten after the use of brewing beer at home had disappeared”.


All websites listed were accessible as of March 22, 2019.