A Thousand Years Later, Viking-Style Beer Brewing Persists

wild yeast, no hops separate viking beer from others

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Vikings brewed mead and beer without hops—and so can you. Archaic techniques of brewing from the 11th century are still possible today. Drink like a Scandinavian sea king during your next dinner.

Dr. Ken Albala
Photo by Wondrium

One of the oldest cookbooks in medieval Europe is Libellus De Arte Coquinaria, which dates back to the 14th century. However, its translations and recipes suggest that they greatly predate the publication of the book. Versions of the Libellus exist in Danish, German, and Icelandic—the latter of which had just been settled by the Vikings.

Unless pasties with oyster shells in them make a big resurgence, it’s likely that the culinary world has moved on from many of the original recipes. However, their accompanying beverage, beer, certainly hasn’t gone anywhere. So, how did Vikings make their beer? In his video series Cooking across the Ages, Dr. Ken Albala, Professor of History at the University of the Pacific, details the unique Viking method of brewing beer.

An Archaic Frosted Barley Pop

Anyone cooking from the Libellus would have had Viking-style beer to drink with their meals. The first notable difference between Viking beer and most modern home brewing is that Vikings used wild yeast, which any home chef can capture.

“They didn’t use hops at this point, either,” Dr. Albala said. “More common was a mixture of herbs called ‘gruit,’ and it’s actually the same word as ‘kraut’ which means just vegetables. It would usually contain mugwort—that’s Artemisia vulgaris, which is a bitter and acts as a preservative.”

Unlike the average can of store-bought beer, Vikings would often add a hallucinogen called henbane to their beer mix. In larger doses, henbane is poisonous, and even fatal, making it inadvisable for the modern home brew.

“Another thing to keep in mind is this was not the light lager we’re familiar with, which is bottom-fermented in a cold cellar; this is actually top-fermented, meaning the yeast will be floating on top; so, we would call this ale,” Dr. Albala said.

Hop to It

One of the first things to do, Dr. Albala said, is to malt the barley, which must be whole grain. He said to soak the barley in water overnight, drain, and repeat for two to three days, causing rootlets and a sprout to emerge.

“When the root end is about the same size as the grain itself, then that’s ready to make into malt,” he said. “What I suggest you should do [next] is put it in the oven at about 200 degrees and leave it overnight and it will completely dry out. But you don’t want to cook the grains through or else you prevent the next stage from working properly.”

Once the barley has toasted, the next step is to use a hand crank grain mill or mortar and pestle to grind the barley before placing it into 140-degree water for an hour. When the hour is up, the barley should be strained through a cloth, while ladling more water on top of it to extract more sugars from the mix.

“At this stage, what you have is called wort; bring this up to a boil with a little bit of the mugwort […] and whatever other herbs you’d like to use, let them boil together for an hour, and then strain that,” Dr. Albala said. “The final liquid you’ll cool to room temperature and pour in a vessel big enough to hold it.”

Finally, add yeast and let it rest until fermentation has occurred, which usually takes up to five days.

Cooking across the Ages is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily