Let’s get back into the Iron Age culture! This time, I’ll write about the thing that maybe most people think about when they think about Viking culture; drinking. The Vikings have a reputation about them to be heavy drinkers and that they drank mead. But were they? We’ll see if we can find some answers in the excellent research done by food and drink historians!
As I mentioned in the previous post, sources of sweetness in northern Europe were dried or frost-bitten berries/fruit, malt and honey. Fruits and berries were probably not as sweet as they are today and might have been used more for cooking and brewing. Cider-like fruit wines were made and berries were added to the beers. Fruit juices that wasn’t fermented was also an option, but not very common because of the amount of fruits or berries needed.
Due to the cold temperatures in Scandinavia, bee-keeping was not common, so honey was expensive. It was mostly used for mead. Malt was cheaper to make and the sweetener was likely used to make beer.
But if we go back to the even more basic drinks, where you don’t have to do a lot of work first, there’s water and milk. But the cleanliness of the wells could be questionable and the Iron Age people seemed to have been aware of this, since they kept digging new wells every now and then, as well as latrines. So it was difficult to be sure that you didn’t dig a well close to an old latrine. So water being used for drinking and cooking was collected from rain and springs. There’s a quote saying “Ale if I have it, water if I have no ale”, so water seems to have been the last restort. And fresh milk was considered too sweet and too rich to be an everyday thing. Heated milk was provided to the old, sick or children. A soured byproduct after cheese- and butter-making was more likely to be consumed.
The more essential drink was of course beer. But in comparison to the modern variety, the Iron Age beer was both weaker in percentage and sourer! Maybe we think about ales when we imagine what the Vikings drank, but it was more like a Belgian Lambic, which makes me super happy since I’m a big fan of sour beer!
Spices used to make the beer more interesting were rose hips, gale, juniper, meadowsweet and yarrow. There are some sources mentioning hops, but it’s not sure it was used for beer in the Swedish area in the Iron Age. Hops weren’t common until the 13th-14th century. In the Denmark region, they certainly used hops for brewing in the Viking Age era.
Mead on the other hand was a very exclusive drink, popular for its sweetness, rather than the high alcohol percentage. Sweet things were special and reserves for festive occasions. The drink had the status of being the drink for kings and gods. A food historian once said during a lecture that mead was probably consumed in the Iron Age as often as we have dessert wine. A lot of people never drink it, some people when it’s a special occasion, and a smaller group of people drink it on a more regular basis.
Wine seems to have been the most desirable, so the least accessible. It was difficult to obtain and the most expensive. It was also associated with glass vessels, another pricy commodity. Anglo-Saxon England imported wine from France and the Rhineland. The latter also exported to Hedeby/Haithabu. But Hagen mentions nothing about wine in the more northern regions, such as Birka. Tunberg&Serra mentions wine in the appendix and says it was a prestigious import during the period. Mentions about wine in the Edda and high end drinking goods points to this being the case.
It does seem so rare though, so when people in the northern region did have some wealth, they rather imported honey for mead than imported readymade wine. If you had less money, you could make mead with the crushed honey comb refuse, after the honey had been removed and let them steep in water.
So to summon up, if you reenact super fancy people from Haithabu or Anglo-Saxons you can enjoy a glass of wine, if you’re more northern or less fancy, have a glass of mead. If you aim more for lower classes, drink a more sour beer with some kind of fruit! Or maybe a weak beer, low on hops, like an ale. But unless you go for a really weak beer, I’d suggest you to keep drinking water, even though it’s not very “correct”! We don’t want people to pass out on our events. So drink responsibly.
/Herrin Gele Pechplumin
-Hagen, Ann, Anglo-Saxon food and drink, 2010
-Serra, Daniel & Tunberg, Hanna, An early meal: a viking age cookbook & culinary odyssey, 2013