The art and science of brewing is as old as culture itself. As societies began to transition from hunting and gathering to farming the land, they developed grain surpluses for the first time. Stored in pits or crude silos, sometimes the grain would get saturated with rainwater and spontaneously ferment thanks to wild yeast. Thus began a process of brewing and developing alcoholic beverages that has continued unbroken to this day. Read on to hear about mead and sahti, two styles of Norse libations that have survived through history to make a comeback today.
It is commonly assumed that the people of antiquity drank alcohol because of the lack of potable water. This is only half true. While there were issues with fresh water, most cities and towns could supply their people with enough water to drink. Good drink was reserved for royalty, but regardless of station, if you lived under the near-constant threat of death by sword-related hemorrhage or blunt force trauma at the hands of the kingdom next door, I’m sure you would rather have a beer than a glass of water.
Older than recorded history, one could make the case that mead has never gone out of style. Once people discovered the joys of fermented honey, they never stopped making mead, and one of the reasons for this is its sheer simplicity. Mead is water, honey and yeast. For fledgling mead-makers, consider the enormous variety of recipes online. Mead is also excellent when you crush your favorite fruit and add it to the mix. As for personal recommendations, try adding crushed frozen or fresh blueberries, or orange peels and coriander.
Ironically, mead continues to be seen as something only people who attend “Ye Olde Renaissance Faires” or go LARPING enjoy. But as one online writer suggested, mead was once considered “the ancient berserker crunk-juice of kings” because it was a favorite of the Vikings — not your typical history geeks. Besides the alcohol content, mead was an excellent choice for Norse peoples because its shelf life is almost infinite. Between the sugar and alcohol content, mead tends to only improve with age. On the long journeys in the North Atlantic, mead wasn’t only the delicious choice for the Viking people, it was the pragmatic choice.
Today, meaderies have ditched the iron axes and longboats in favor of the latest in stainless steel fermentation tanks and sophisticated tasting rooms. Maine Mead Company, from Portland, ME, for example, makes no less than nine varieties of mead, which does not include the aged vintages or special editions. With all of the ingredients sourced in Maine, the Portland based company employs the latest in mead-making technology: a continuous fermentation system developed in South Africa. Delicious when chilled for a summer picnic or warmed with spices after snowshoeing, their dry mead has been recognized as one of the best in the world. Their lavender mead is best paired with delicately flavored dishes, but also does wonders when mixed with tonic water, gin and fresh lime juice. Maine Mead Co. has only been in business for six years, but already has vintages of their seasonal meads, such as their summer strawberry mead and a bourbon aged variety.
Sahti originated some time after mead, but recent archaeological digs in Scandinavia suggest that this type of ale was brewed much earlier than originally thought. Researchers have discovered shallow stone-lined pits with traces of beer-specific yeast. They surmise that brewing and infusing was done by heating up rocks and dropping them into the wort. At the time sahti was first being brewed, hops were probably still on their way to Germany by way of Mongol invaders, so it was traditionally filtered and flavored with juniper twigs and berries.
Thanks to curious and enterprising breweries, this proto-beer is enjoying a new life. Part of a series of historical reconstructions, Dogfish Head made a beer called Sah-Tea, a blend of Chai tea spices and juniper beer. Part of the small batch series from Samuel Adams Brewing, Norse Legend is a dark ale with hints of juniper. New Belgium Brewing released a beer called Lips of Faith, which is a brewed in the sahti style. Some adventurous brewers have even tried using white pine needles, an ancient brewing addition, to replicate the flavors of the brews of antiquity. The closest thing to true sahti, however, is made in Finland and other Scandinavian countries.
So bust out a history book and have a drink, because mead and sahti don’t just represent how far we have come from our medieval past; the fact that we still make them and drink them shows how close we still are to our ancient roots. Whether you’re setting off on a raid 1,000 years ago or writing a paper on medieval literature, cheers.