Beer of the Bronze Age

My version of the Nordic grog

One of the aspects of Dartmoor that I have always found utterly fascinating, from my earliest visits, is the wealth of ancient history that can be found all over the moor. On almost every hillside there is something to remind us of people who lived thousands of years ago: hut circles, stone rows, burial mounds, field systems, cistvaens. We know enough to be able to reconstruct elements of their lifestyles but their faces and names are lost to us. It can be fun to lose yourself for a while and let your imagination fill in the blanks.

Occasionally, though, we find something that gives us a real window into the past, that connects us to an individual or group with startling clarity. In 2011, an excavation of a kistvaen on Whitehorse Hill revealed grave goods from a young woman cremated and buried over 3500 years ago. The finds told us not only about the woman and her appearance, but also about how people in the Early Bronze Age might have lived and traded. Who knows what else might be out there awaiting discovery on the moor?

I’m not much of an archaeologist, but I like to think I’m a fairly decent brewer. So I was thrilled a couple of years ago when my wife gave me a copy of Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created for Christmas. Dr McGovern is a specialist in undertaking analyses of ancient alcoholic drinks (which he memorably calls ‘liquid time capsules’) and has worked extensively with Dogfish Head brewery to create modern versions of many of the drinks. I won’t touch on his methodology here, but if you’re interested, the book is a cracking read.

Of course, you can’t read a book like that without wanting a go yourself, and one of the drinks seemed particularly interesting. Kvasir was a beer* put together from chemical analyses of of burials in Germany, Sweden and Denmark, as well as archaeological finds from the Orkneys and mainland Scotland. Key evidence for the composition of this ‘Nordic Grog’ came from the burial of the Egtved Girl in Denmark, dated to around 1380BC. I had just come back from a study trip to Sweden, we were about to go on our first camping trip to Scotland, and the date of the Egtved Girl’s burial was close to the date of the Whitehorse Hill burial. A lot of my interests seemed to be coming together.

It took a long time to assemble the required ingredients. In the intervening years, people had inexplicably stopped collecting some of the key ingredients. I found just a couple of sources for the birch sap syrup that was a key component of the fermentation, although Baltic wildflower honey was surprisingly easy to come by. In ancient times, bog myrtle (sweet gale if you would rather attach a more edible-sounding name to it) was used as a bittering agent, with yarrow and meadowsweet for aromatics. Cranberry juice, lingonberry syrup and barberries made up a strong fruit wine component, and fermented cereal grains (wheat, barley and special B malt) added the ‘beer’. In terms of sugar input, the drink was about a third mead, a third wine and a third beer, and it was about 10% ABV. Hefty stuff. I pitched in a Scottish ale yeast and waited. It took a long time to ferment fully, but after three months it was clear and ready to drink.

I called my beer Fenrir, after the legendary wolf that supposedly is chained up in the underworld beneath Scandinavia, waiting for his opportunity to escape and devour the world. There is a lovely geological explanation of this myth. Scandinavia has been slowly lifting upwards since the weight of the ice sheets were lifted from it 10,000 years ago, and it has been suggested that early Scandinavians attributed the resulting earthquakes to the wolf’s escape attempts.

So what does Fenrir taste like? Incredible. Held to the light, it’s a wonderful deep russet colour and is beautifully clear. The aroma is honey-sweet and floral with just a hint of dill and spice, and it tastes full of life. It is dominated by rich berry flavours, as you might expect, but the grain base comes through as well. You get a real hit of damsons, liquorice and aniseed along with a dryish bitterness from the bog myrtle. It’s a remarkable drink. It’s not something you’d think of being swigged from drinking horns as a ‘Nordic grog’, but you can certainly imagine it being placed reverentially at the feet of a young Danish priestess. It’s one of the most remarkable drinks I’ve ever tasted.

Would our ancestors on Dartmoor have drunk something similar? It’s certainly true that wherever there is civilisation, there are brewers. Perhaps they would have brewed with honey, heather and bilberries, supplemented by grains from the reaves. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but it could be a lot of fun to try to put an authentic ancient Dartmoor grog together.

* McGovern uses the term ‘fermented alcoholic beverage’ as most of the drinks only use a small proportion of fermented grain; I will use the term ‘beer’ for brevity here.

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