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, https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023159380/kveikal

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.”

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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.

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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.

nilsson-1981-composition

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”.

References

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

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