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Making grog from berries and grains as brewed 3,000 years ago in Scandinavia

What kind of 'grog' or fermented fruity and vegetable brew were Scandinavians drinking 3,000 years ago? Research led by University of Pennsylvania scholars has found that, from northwest Denmark, circa 1500-1300 BC, to the Swedish island of Gotland as late as the first century AD, Nordic peoples were imbibing an alcoholic "grog" or extreme hybrid beverage rich in local ingredients, including honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, and cereals including wheat, barley and/or rye -- and sometimes, grape wine imported from southern or central Europe, says a January 16, 2014 news release, "New Biomolecular Archaeological Evidence for Nordic "Grog," Expansion of Wine Trade, Discovered in Ancient Scandinavia." (Penn Museum team finds evidence for 3,000+-year-old 'Nordic grog' tradition.)

Making grog from berries and grains as brewed 3,000 years ago in Scandinavia.
Anne Hart, photography.

The fermented mixture of berries, cereals, and birch tree resin highlights innovative and complex fermented beverages from the northernmost parts of Europe during the Bronze and Iron Ages, according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania. Scandinavian wine usually was made with berries and other plants but not with grapes until traders from the Mediterranean brought grape wine up north, since grapes were not growing at the time in Scandinavia, but plenty of berries were abundant to ferment.

Scandinavian wine 3,000 years ago had been made from barley, honey, juniper, and various local herbs

Winters in Scandinavia were long and cold in the Bronze and Iron Ages, then as now—but a blazing fire was not the only thing to keep people warm. From northwest Denmark, circa 1500–1300 BC, to the Swedish island of Gotland as late as the first century AD, Nordic peoples were imbibing an alcoholic "grog" or extreme hybrid beverage rich in local ingredients, including honey, bog cranberry, lingonberry, bog myrtle, yarrow, juniper, birch tree resin, and cereals including wheat, barley and/or rye—and sometimes, grape wine imported from southern or central Europe.

Such is the conclusion based on new archaeochemical evidence derived from samples inside pottery and bronze drinking vessels and strainers from four sites in Demark and Sweden, combined with previous archaeobotanical data. The research ("A biomolecular archaeological approach to 'Nordic grog'") was recently published online in the Danish Journal of Archaeology last month on December 23, 2013.

Patrick E. McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and author of the book, Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages (University of California Press, 2009) is the lead author on the paper, which was researched and written in collaboration with colleagues Gretchen R. Hall (University of Pennsylvania Museum) and Armen Mirzoian (Scientific Services Division, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau [TTB], US Treasury), with key samples and archaeological evidence provided by Scandinavian colleagues.

Wine may have been used 3,000 years ago for medicinal purposes

The new biomolecular archaeological evidence provides concrete evidence for an early, widespread, and long-lived Nordic grog tradition, one with distinctive flavors and probable medicinal purposes—and the first chemically attested evidence for the importation of grape wine from southern or central Europe as early as 1,100 BC, demonstrating both the social and cultural prestige attached to wine, and the presence of an active trading network across Europe—more than 3,000 years ago.

"Far from being the barbarians so vividly described by ancient Greeks and Romans, the early Scandinavians, northern inhabitants of so-called Proxima Thule, emerge with this new evidence as a people with an innovative flair for using available natural products in the making of distinctive fermented beverages," noted Dr. McGovern according to the press release. "They were not averse to adopting the accoutrements of southern or central Europeans, drinking their preferred beverages out of imported and often ostentatiously grand vessels. They were also not averse to importing and drinking the southern beverage of preference, grape wine, though sometimes mixed with local ingredients."

Archaeological and chemical evidence

To reach their conclusions, the researchers obtained ancient residue samples from four sites in a 150-mile radius of southern Sweden and encompassing Denmark. The oldest, dated 1500–1300 BC, was from Nandrup in northwestern Denmark, where a warrior prince had been buried in an oak coffin with a massively hafted bronze sword, battle-ax, and pottery jar whose interior was covered with a dark residue that was sampled.

A second Danish sample, dated to a later phase of the Nordic Bronze Age from about 1100–500 BC, came from a pit hoard at Kostræde, southwest of Copenhagen. A brownish residue filling a perforation of a bronze strainer, the earliest strainer yet recovered in the region, was sampled. A third Danish sample was a dark residue on the interior base of a large bronze bucket from inside a wooden coffin of a 30-year-old woman, dating to the Early Roman Iron Age, about 200 BC, at Juellinge on the island of Lolland, southwest of Kostræde.

Did Mediterranean wine reach Norway, Sweden, and Denmark during the Bronze Age?

The bucket was part of a standard, imported Roman wine-set, and the woman held the strainer-cup in her right hand. A reddish-brown residue filling the holes and interior of a strainer-cup, again part of imported Roman wine-set, provided the fourth sample. Dating to the first century AD, the strainer-cup was excavated from a hoard, which also included a large gold torque or neck ring and a pair of bronze bells, at Havor on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.

Ancient organic compounds were identified by a combination of chemical techniques: Fourier-transform infrared spectrometry (FT-IR), gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), ultra-high performance liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry (LC/MS/MS), and headspace solid phase microextraction (SPME) coupled to GC-MS.

A Tradition and a Revival

According to Dr. McGovern, the importation of southern wine, now proven to have begun, if only as a trickle in the late second millennium BC, grew apace—and eventually eclipsed the grog tradition—but never completely. Many of the ingredients in Nordic grog went on to be consumed in birch beer and as the principal bittering agents (so-called gruit) of medieval beers, before hops gained popularity, and the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) which limited ingredients of beer to barley, hops and water was enacted in Bavaria in 1516 and eventually became the norm in northern Europe.

"About the closest thing to the grog today is produced on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea," the site of the latest residue sample, Dr. McGovern noted, according to the news release. "You can taste Gotlandsdryka in farmhouses. It's made from barley, honey, juniper, and other herbs like those in the ancient version."

How honey, plants and grains were used 3,000 years ago to brew wine or meade

"This new evidence of an old tradition resonates with modern inhabitants of Scandinavia, where alcoholic beverages are very much enjoyed and seen as an intrinsic part of Nordic and Viking lore. The story goes that a particularly wise creature named Kvasir was created by two races of gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, by spitting into a large jar. Kvasir was later murdered by two dwarfs, who ran his blood into three huge vessels containing honey. The result was a mixed beverage that conferred the gift of wisdom and poetry to the drinker. Odin himself, the Norse high god, was able to steal the grog back by consuming the beverage, transforming himself into an eagle, and flying back to Valhalla, the Nordic warrior paradise."

New this winter, the Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, in collaboration with Dr. McGovern, re-created their version of the ancient Nordic grog. It is the latest in the celebrated Ancient Ale Series, begun in 2000 with Midas Touch. Appropriately called Kvasir, it is a hybrid barley and winter wheat beer, lingonberry and bog cranberry wine, and honey mead--all rolled into one and seasoned with bog myrtle, yarrow, clover, and birch syrup. A second version of this extreme hybrid beverage was also collaboratively brewed in Spring 2013 at the Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri on the east coast of Sweden, right across from the island of Gotland. Called Arketyp, it is now available in the state stores (Systembolaget) there.

There also was trade in wine from southern areas of Europe where grapes grew 3,000 years ago

The Dogfish Head version of the Nordic grog has a somewhat sour, toasty wheat taste profile, comparable to a Belgian lambic and in keeping with the relative scarcity of sugar-rich resources in the far north. Dogfish Head offers details. "Both versions of the grog will marry nicely with the new Nordic cuisine, with its emphasis on natural ingredients," said Dr. McGovern in the news release.

Interestingly, there was enough farming rather than hunting, fishing, and gathering 3,000 years ago because grains such as wheat and barley were abundant in Scandinavia. Then again so many of the other ingredients grew wild locally since sugar-rich fruits were rarer up North. Seems that the grain belt that began further south in the "Fertile Crescent" area eventually moved across Europe from Southeast to the far Northwest.

How to make Honey Wine (Home-made Mead)

Pour the mead over honey cinnamon cloves ice cream. It's not just for sale at Renaissance fairs any more. People are making mead, that is the wild mead (honey wine) made from honey and yeast, sometimes in the fashion it had been made for the past nine thousand years.

If you're looking for a simple recipe on how to make your own mead from honey, yeast, and water, there are many recipes online, with some of the best recipe sites listed below. The main sweeteners are honey, raisins, and an orange.

Ingredients, according to the website, The Joy of Mead and How to Make It.

1 Gallon of Spring Water (room temperature, do not get refrigerated)
3 pounds of honey – pure unprocessed
1 bag of balloons big enough to stretch over the mouth of the spring water jug
1 package of Fleishmann’s Yeast or Narbonne Yeast, (Lalvin 71B-1122), Lalvin D-47, or Montpelier Lalvin (K1V-1116)
1 box of raisins
1 Orange

Here are some suggestions for variations in this recipe

If you want spices, add a pinch of cloves or one clove. To make the mead, pour about half of the water into a clean container then slice up your orange into eighth’s and put the slices, honey, twenty-five raisins, and the yeast into the jug. Pour some water back into the jug so the level is a couple of inches from the top then put the cap on it and shake it up well. If you can, you should shake it for a good five minutes. This will aerate the mixture. The yeast really needs lots of oxygen to grow vigorously.

To find out what to do next, simply go to the site with the recipe, The Joy of Mead and How to Make It, and follow the instructions. Interestingly, you'll have, if it turns out right, a drink similar to what people drank 9,000 years ago. You can check out all the other mead recipe sites as well and decide whether you want to make honey wine or a vegan version with various fruits.

Mead is growing in popularity across the USA as a beverage that's essentially honey wine. See the (December 28, 2010) newspaper article on making mead and mead sales, "Mead, drink of vikings, comes out of the Dark Ages - Sacramento Bee." You can make vegan meads or use honey, which is not vegan because honey is made by bees. According to the Sacramento Bee article, to make mead you use honey, water and yeast as your base. Then you add your own spices or fruits. There are fruit-flavored meads, called melomels.

Remember to sterilize your equipment as you want only the yeast you put in to ferment, not the yeast that's floating in the air with other bacteria that you don't want contaminating your honey wine. Check out the recipies on the following sites and choose the simplest recipe you want or any other recipe. First see the sites, The Joy of Mead and How to Make It, and see the video on understanding sanitation here: Sanitization of Mead.

Making mead at home?

Check out the Mead Forums and the Mead Recipes sites. Also before you begin, watch the video tutorial of all these steps on learning how to make mead. See the Mead Making Video. Other helpful sites on how to make your own mead are at the websites, How to Make Mead at Home, and watch the video at the website, How to make simple mead (honey wine).

There are businesses in San Francisco, for example, that sell mead and mead supplies. See the site, Got for local addresses. Some examples include San Francisco Brewcraft, 1555 Clement St.,San Francisco, CA 94118, and Oak Barrel Winecraft, 1443 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702. If you want to buy mead in California, check out the site where you can buy it online at, Mead Honey Wine.

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