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.

Nordland-1969-Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway-133-2

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.