Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Making of Beer

I was re-watching an old German screen roll on the making of beer from the 1930's and each time I watch it, I can't get over how much useful information is in it.

Now, although it is a silent movie, and the sound track can get on the nerves there are some interesting points in the dialogue.

1. is the man sized hole in the Malt Store above the mill - OHS today would probably not allow anyone near such a space lest they fall through and into the malt mill to become the key ingredient in the next "Red" beer.

2. The mash is Decoction mashed with 50% of the mash, and it is heated to the next target temperature for a period of time and then boiled for double that time before being pumped back into the mash to raise the mash to the next targeted temperature level. Of course, the correct temperature increases would need to be carefully calculated and the volmes required,  for all this to work as planned...  This one point leads to all sorts of questions about enzyme activity conversion rates, efficiencies, etc.

3. After Mashing and Boiling the wort is put through a Hop separator and cooled via a coolship from 100°C to 60°C. Note this! The coolship is used only to knock some of the heat out of the boiled wort. Today, we whirlpool and rest for 20-40 min before engaging the wort chiller, if we're using non-immersion chilling methods. The Ideas, are pretty bloody similar.

4. Next - I love this bit of kit - the wort is passed over a laminar flow corrugated chiller plate which knocks the heat down from 60°C to 6°C in 1 minute!?! Get that? In one minute! The laminar flow avoids hot side aeration of the cooling wort! Amazing stuff.

5. The yeast, in buckets is literally pitched, tossed in, to the chilled wort and then sacrificial candles, used like canaries in mines are lowered to detect if there is sufficient CO2 sitting above the open fermenters. This is a point, I think a lot of hobby brewers need to dwell upon, especially our sanitation-addicted American brethren... Unrealized, pottential fear certainly has a way of controlling our lives...

All in all, this screen play, movietone, cinema news presentation shows us a way of making beer on a commercial scale, in such a way that hobby brewers could truly learn a thing or two about their own brewing practices, and how they view the process of brewing beer. I'm not saying this is the right way, but, they way we make and cool wort has historic roots that are worth exploring and understanding, so that we better understand why we do things in particular ways today.


Until next time,

It's Your Shout, Mate!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Craft Brewing in Hamburg goes Public

Last Saturday, I had the chance to attend the First Craft Beer Day in Hamburg, Germany.

For those of you who are aware, Germany has a strong tradition of making beer. So strong in fact, they bost the first food production laws in recorded history and it was related to beer. This of course is known as the Reinheitsgobot of 1516. Whilst this has since become famous all around the world and to a great extent shaped our concept of beer, there was an earlier related law, the Statua Taberna of 1434 which preceded it. Today, the current Reinheitsgebot has loosened up to allow greater flexibility in what can actually be called beer in Germany, many modern diehards still cling to the 1516 definition.

Be that as it may, because of this loosening in the definition, Germans are starting to more openly sample and explore what the rest of the world has been toying with for some time, the wild, wonderful, and weird world of Craft Beer. As a result of this, Craft Breweries are slowly starting to make their presence known and felt in various population center around Germany.

Here in Hamburg, there are around 4 or 5 craft or micro breweries (brewpubs) that operate with regular frequency. The First Craft Beer Day was sponsored and hosted by Ratsherrn Brauerei, a new kid on the block that seems to be making a bit of a name for themselves. The day itself turned out to be quite fun with live music from the Reeperbahn Festival, a sausage & soup station, seven different craft beer suppliers, and a reasonably interested crowd.

Samual Adams (Boston Beer Co) put in an international appearance and had a noteworthy Sahti inspired beer. perhaps not a Sahti in its true sense but nice all the same. I believe there is a move to preserve real Sahti, in a similar way to that in which Anchor Steam Beer is protected. Aarhus Bryghus a Danish group had some tasty beers available, far to many on the menu to drink them all  ;-)

From the locals (Hamburgers), Ratsherrn Braueri, and old brewery being relocated and re-branded,  had several of their beers available. Of their beers on offer, the Reeperbahn Festival Beer was a clear crowd pleaser. Klindworths also made a showing and their Pale Ale was possibly the best PA/IPA styled beer on offer. Then there was, the newest kid on the block, Blockbräu. They've had a few consistency issues but seem to be getting a handle on things. The last Pilsner I had of theirs was tasty and very drinkable.

Others from around Germany included Ricklinger Landbrauerei, from the north of Hamburg and Maisel & Friends from the south-east of Germany. I didn't get around to sampling either of these, but I do look forward to the opportunity in the future.

All in all, this was a great day. To round out the event, it also brought out some of the 'hidden' Hobby Brewers that are secretly toiling away at making their own beers. There is no formal group as yet but the people I met with have all the bases covered : meads, American beer styles, Australian brewing styles with german refinements, cider brewers, extract and all grain proponents. I look forward to interacting with this diverse group of people and seeing if they actually group together as a force before the Second Craft Beer Festival, next year - it'd be great to see expat and local Hobby Brewers also contributing to a Craft Beer Festival and displaying their Club colours.

Until next time,

It's Your Shout, mate!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bia Hoi Redux - It's Alive!

Well, it's been a while since I started the Bia Hoi Experiment. Let's recap that. The idea was to make an authentic style Bia Hoi based on a recipe wheedled out of various sources and then put to the test in the brewhouse.

For all intents and purposes it should have been mild and unobtrusive in every manner. I failed. I neglected to stick to the time limit: 7-10 in the fermenter and then force carbonate and package. I didn't do what I planned to do. To some extent, circumstances conspired against me but, to be fair, I was too lazy and let circumstances get in the way,

So, what happened?

The green beer sat on the trub in the primary for an entire month - one week plus the three weeks I spent in Australia after putting it into the fermenter. However, the fermenter was kept at 10 degrees in a temperature controlled chest freezer.

On return to my home I decided to crash chill the thing for transfer to a keg. 1-3 deg°C no problem. BUT,  I had no CO2 and I left it like that for another three weeks. Then I discovered that the temperature controller had failed - the chest freezer came up to room temperature around 30°C. Two days before I discovered that! Diacetyl rest? I reset everything and chilled it back down to around 2°C for another week.

No gas, all the furniture being moved, and the chest freezer needed to be emptied, cleaned and filled up with the stuff that wasn't being shipped to Germany. No choice Pitch in the toilet or prime and bottle. I cautiously tasted the 'evil' brew and thought, "not bad?" "Might work out after all." So, 3 teaspoons of sucrose per litre and on with the fliptops. BUT, I can't lager this stuff. OK, 24hrs at room temp and then into a bucket of water in a dark room.

The water maintained a temp of around 18-20°C Surprising really! Well, I popped the top on one yesterday,

there was a decent sounding pop, its certainly primed, 

ah, that tell tale mist in the neck of the bottle, looking good...

bubbles rise to the top before the pour, even better...

in true Bia Hoi fashion, I served it at ambient temp (well straight out of the water bucket) , over ice. 

What a surprise! A little malty in aroma, and a hint of sulphur...

No sulphur in the taste though,  It tasted good! 

A very light body, mildly malty, a little bitter for the style, but not too bitter for the taste.

All in all, a very deceptively easy beer to drink. Which, is dangerous because according to the production figures this delightful drink weighs in at 5.1% v/v or there abouts. As a fellow brewer said on tasting, we could call this an "Export" Bia Hoi. I like the term.

In post evaluation, thinking about the errors and what transpired in the making there are a few take homes from this experiment. First this recipe CAN produce GOOD beer, that is tasty and does not have a harsh rice bite to it. Despite the rice in this beer, it is not noticeable like it is in regular Bia Hoi - a taste that I really don't care for much, to be honest. 

Next, the alcohol content is much higher than predicted and this can only be attributed to the length of time spent in the fermenter, either that or I have a enviously good efficiency value for my brewhouse - I doubt it!

From forum discussions about long fermentations on the primary, I can say that there appears to be validation and justification for just leaving the beer alone for 30 odd days  and for performing a diacetyl rest at the end of lagering, before bottling. this is all counter to the standard process of making "True Bia Hoi." A pity really, because this could be a decent beer if it was given the time and care to make it so.

Until next time,

It's Your Shout, Mate!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Refractometer Calculation for Monitoring Fermentation

Refractometer Calculation for Monitoring Fermentation:
Initial °Brix (refractometer)
Current °Brix (refractometer)
Initial Gravity
Current Gravity (SG)
Current Gravity (°Brix hydrometer)
True °Brix
Residual Sugar (g/L)
Current alcohol (%v/v)
Details:  Monitor the progress of your fermentation using an ATC Refractometer.
Enter the initial °Brix reading (O.G) then enter the current reading, in °Brix.
The form will update, live.

This calculator involves many approximations and is fine for monitoring the progress of fermentation.
Refractometers are designed for reading the level of sugar in water.
Readings ought to be corrected for Wort.

Wort S.G = 1+(0.00385x°Brix) - for readings taken in °Brix
Wort S.G = 0.0375+0.9625xS.G(Refractometer) - for readings taken in Specific Gravity points
Wort °Brix = (Wort S.G-1)/0.0385

*** This calculator was originally sourced from Johnathan Musther's excellent page full of useful wine and beer calculators.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Batching some Bia Hoi

Well, here we go with a couple of Bia Hoi Trials. This recipe was given to me by a good Brewer friend of mine who runs a chain of craft/micro breweries of the Czech-style in Hanoi. The recipe I'm using here is a generic recipe which was the outcome of a discussion over the phone. [output from QBrew]

Bia Hơi Việt Nam

RecipeBia Hơi Việt NamStyleVietnamese Bia Hoi
BrewerTsc TempestBatch10.00 L
All Grain

Recipe Characteristics
Recipe Gravity1.035 OGEstimated FG1.009 FG
Recipe Bitterness21 IBUAlcohol by Volume3.4%
Recipe Color3° SRMAlcohol by Weight2.7%

0.60 kgMilled RiceAdjunctMashed
1.20 kgLocaly malted Aust. Pale MaltGrainMashed
7.50 gSaazPellet120 minutes
15.00 gSaazPellet60 minutes
7.50 gSaazPellet15 minutes
1.00 Unit
1.00 Unit
Saflager S-23 Lager Yeast
Saflager W-34/70 Lager Yeast

Recipe Notes
Force Carbonante to 2.2 volumes and serve.
BIAB Style Equipment
a) Mill rice and malt together
b) Dough in grain bill at ambient temp
c) Protein Rest at 55°C for 30 min.
d) Saccharification Rest at 68-72°C until Iodine Negative
e) Mash Out at 78-80°C
f) Two Hour Boil

Batch Notes
Brewhouse Efficiency estimated at 70% (Recipe Default)

Wort Split into two equal batches and pitched with different types of yeast

Refractometer Corrections:
1. Wort S.G = 1+(0.00385 x Brix)
2. Wort S.G = 0.0375 + 0.9625 x S.G
Where: Brix, S.G = the metered reading on ATC Refractometer


Now this was an interesting brewup. At Dough In
I took a refractometer reading (all measurements given as corrected) and got 1.004 S.G.  [In this pic you can see grains of rice floating on the water.]

At Mash Out
the reading was 1.043 S.G (Pre-Boil Wort Gravity) [its hard to get the camera focused properly whilst looking through the refractometer. Sorry about the quality of the image] and Post-Boil the Gravity was 1.063. After cooling, I added approx. 3L of water to bring the reading back down to 1.034 which, for this recipe is pretty well spot on. This addition reduced the bitterness of the wort which post-boil was very noticeable - I hope it mellows in fermentation as style wise this may be too bitter. (... may have to review the Style Specs., again...)

I split the cool wort into two equal sized batches and into one, pitched 6g of Saflager S-23 yeast that I'd emptied into half a glass of water the night before. I did the same thing with the other half batch but used Saflager W-34/70 yeast instead.
The fermenters were placed into a chest freezer, teperature managed via a Conrad UT200 Universal Thermostat set to 10.5°-12.5°C. You can see the sensor to the left. The fermenters are made of glass.

Style-wise, on discussions with some Vietnamese brewers, Bia Hoi is fermented with a neutral tasting lager yeast, most likely of Belgian (original industry development carried out by the French), German (technology transfer), Czech (technology transfer), Danish (Carlsberg) or  Dutch (Heineken) origin. As such, Most of my yeast is ALE yeast however I do have five European Lager Yeast strains in my store. They are  Saflager S-23, Saflager S-189, Saflager W-34/70, Wyeast 2042 Danish Lager, and Wyeast 2124 Bohemian Lager Yeast.

I originally got these to explore making an Australian-style Bitter or Lager such as VB, Melbourne Bitter, and Carlton Draft, because I couldn't find a source for the elusive, mythical, Pride of Ringwood Yeast. I did get the POR Hops though.

Back to Bia Hoi... S-23 is described as a yeast with fruity, estery notes, whilst w-34/70 is apparently the most popular industrial lager yeast worldwide, so it was logical to first try these. It should be noted that S-23's characteristics don't match the style, but it was too good an opportunity to do something side by side and then compare the flavour differences - Exactly how does, "fruity, estery notes" manifest themselves in a light lager? I want to KNOW that flavour.

Be that as it may, some observations from the brewday:
Iodine Test -
I got this lovely Phoenix trail when I conducted my iodine test (10% Providon Iodine dropped into strained wort and left for 60 sec. before swirling.) The black spot in the center was a piece of black grit. I don't know where it came from.

Visual Inspection of the Wort -
The pre-boil wort is really quite pale showing that not much colour comes from the grains. Contrast this with the post-boil wort,
and it's much more golden colour. From this it's clear that a lot of the colour for this pale lager comes directly from the hops - Interesting!

Tasting Notes:
The pre-boiled wort was sweet in flavour, a nice malty tipple. The post-boiled wort however, Whoa! Bitter. Really Bitter. It had evaporated away enough liquid to end up at a gravity of 1.065 but the concentration of bitterness was like a bomb. With dilution, I'm really hoping this comes back closer to the style I'm aiming for. If not, I may have to completely revisit the hop schedule for this recipe and hop ratio for the style.

Ultimately, it is damn difficult to find a recipe and production instructions for Bia Hoi. There's a lot of misinformation abut, and those who do make Bia Hoi, generally tend not to share information or use the internet. As such piecing together such a recipe is like trying to read history, remember snippits of conversations with different persons with vested interests in Bia Hoi, and and filling the blanks with conjecture based on the current patterns visible in the puzzle.

This batch is really all about testing three things: the effect on available sugars by not cereal mashing the rice (requires comparison with a second brew where the same amount of rice is cereal mashed) ; testing the impact of the hop schedule on bitterness (requires tasting and side by side comparison with a local bia hoi variant); and assessing the impact of the strain of yeast used (fruity, estery, bready, yeasty, are flavour elements that are yeast attributes. So, which yeast is best to use?)

[Addendum - to be updated in 6 days.]

Well, it's a bit more than 6 days later. Actually, it's a bit over two months... After seven days, the S-23 batch showed almost no activity, S.G dropped slightly to 1.030. Compared with the W-34/70 batch which had dropped to 1.017. Both started out at 1.034 S.G. So I left them for a bit longer. Actually, more than a month longer, as I had to go to Australia for three weeks. 

Many brewers have reported leaving their primaries on the trub for a month with no problems, actually reporting good clean up of off flavours, etc. On return and a week's dallying about, I discovered I'd lost the S-23. It had spoiled badly, so I ditched it. The W-34/70 still looked ok though, so I left it "for a few days" before thinking about getting it bottled. Wouldn't you know it, my temperature controller on my freezer decided to go on the fritz!

It was out for perhaps 24 hrs or so... Diacetyl rest? Perhaps. So, I reset the temp controller and left the bastard where it was. Then, we've got to relocate our furniture to Germany, the shippers were coming in, and I had one day, in which to clear out all the fridges and freezers - Sieben Swerge! What am I gonna do with this beer?  

I quickly taste the green beer, it smells and tastes ok, a bit on the bitter side for bia hoi, but... prime some bottles with table sugar, get the beer into the bottles, 

cap them and then into a bucket of room temperature water. If they exploded I wanted the bucket to keep everything in the one place. S.G. at bottling was 1.013 so i didn't move much in the intervening months. Ok, around 4.1% v/v not bad, a bit higher than target but... I'll take it as it is.

So, here we are, a week after bottling. I pop the cap on one bottle to see if it's gassed at all? 

Yea! Nice little sizzle, rising bubbles and a misty vapour above the liquid. Good stuff, Now, I think I'll clean up the bottles, rest them another day or two and then get them into a fridge to chill down for a sampling.

So, Watch this Space!

Until next time,

It's Your shout, Mate!

Vietnamese Bia Hoi Style Guide

A while back I wrote about how to make Bia Hoi. At the time it was the best information I could lay my hands on. Since then I've expanded my research and looked high and low for a style guide only to be frustrated by the amount of Urban Myth that surrounds the making of this style of beer.

Finally, after much deliberation, research and sampling I've pulled together all the disparate, threads of thought, on this beer style and I offer my summary of it here, for your perusal.

Style Guide: Vietnamese Bia Hoi

Preamble: Bia Hoi is the name for a Vietnamese style lager beer. It is often referred to as: Steam Beer, Fresh Beer, Draft Beer, or Cask Beer. It is predominantly packaged in stainless steel barrels and dispensed by roadside vendors, thus lending to it the appellation, Street Beer or Common Beer. It is described as an unpasteurised beer that may or may not be filtered prior to packaging and distribution. Bia Hoi is manufactured by large breweries, small breweries, small scale brewpub type operations, and village or 'backyard' entrepreneurs. Bia Hoi is best stored below 6°C and the optimal serving temperature is 2° - 4°C. Bia Hoi will rapidly sour if left open to the air at temperatures above 6°C.

Aroma: Little to no malt aroma. Little to no hop aroma. 
Appearance: Very pale straw to light golden colour. A fine bubbled white head that rapidly collapses leaving noticable lacing. Clarity is usually good to excellent. 
Flavour: Low levels of sweetness. Low to medium levels of bitterness. Hop - Malt balance is predominantly mild favoring hoppiness. If served warmish, there may be noticeable bready notes on first tasting. 
Mouthfeel: Thin, watery body. Low to medium carbonation. Mildly astringent, bitter finnish.
Overall Impressions: Light, refreshing and thirst quenching beer and is easily and comfortably consumed.

Ingredients: Typically includes imported pale malt barley with 20-50% grain bill comprising of polished domestic rice. Hop varieties are usually imported, low alpha acid variants. Fermentation utilises domestic sources of live brewery yeast, or imported European strains with a neutral flavour profile such as: WPL-815, W-34/70, W-195 (S-189).

Comments: Rice may be crushed and added directly to the crushed malt at dough in OR cereal mashed and added to the malt after the protein rest. Protein Rest at 50°-55°C for 30 min. Saccharification Rest at 68°-72°C until conversion completed. 2 hr boil. 1/4 hops at boil, 1/2 hops at 1 hr, and remaining 1/4 hops at 15 min. prior to flame out. Lager fermentation at 10°-12°C for 5-6 days. Beer may then be filtered and force carbonated to around 2.2V OR primed with sugar and tank conditioned for an additional 10-15 days (25 days max.) prior to packaging and distribution. 

Vital Statistics:
OG: 1.025-1.045
FG: 1.005-1.015
IBUs: 15-30
SRM: 2-4
ABV: 2.5-4.5%

Until next time,

It's Your Shout, Mate!

Addendum 2014.02.16
Hops imported into Vietnam
Premient, Bobek, Trisselspalter, Agnes, Aurora, Saaz, Magnum, Perle, Styrian Goldings, & Sladek. (source); CO2 Hop Extract - 30% Alpha Acid. Sourced from Germany. (source)

Malt imported to Vietnam:Wheat Malt, dark Caramel Malt, Munich Malt, Chocolate Malt, Caramel Malt, Pilsen Malt (primary base malt), Karapils Malt, & Black Malt (source); along with Chinese Malt, Australian Malt, and imported barley malted in Vietnam.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Automated Brewing Systems for Home Brewers, some thoughts

Brewing beer is an expensive hobby, if you look at it:
:- one way - up front capital outlay for gorgeous equipment; or
:- another - endless tinkering with pots, and stands, and burners, and valves, and pipes, and bottles, and kegs, and, and...

But, when compared with other hobbies and past times, like:
:- motocross, speedway, go carting, sailing, gliding, flying - too ambitious?
:- mountain bike riding, trekking, mountaineering, skiing, hunting - too left field?
:- re-enactment pastimes (SCA), theatre, opera, ballet - going out each week/month to watch?
:- semi-professional sports, photography, chess, scat, paintball, skermish, etc.

its not hard to chalk up 10-20 grand on good quality, specialist equipment as you progress and find you need this bit of equipment, and then that bit, enter this competition, or go to that location, so on and so forth. Thus in comparison, brewing as a hobby is pretty much on par with many of the other past times listed above, comparatively cost wise.

However, brewing is one of those past times where, very often, our "Other Half," doesn't understand or see the rationale for the progressive, ongoing  increase in production scale and spiraling expenditure.

What's prompted this particular missive was a recent cruise through a few online brew shops and their 'automated brewery' options. The majority of these, technically are only automated or semi-automated brewhouses, some are fermentation to font kits, very very few appear to be complete, turnkey, grain to glass brewing systems.

Lets have a look at a few examples...
Single Pot Brewhouses - Prices vary from low cost to mid-range 'expensive'
Gambrinus 1

Twin Pot Brewhouses - these tend to be at the higher end of, 'expensive'
Picobier (love to test one, but I recon I've got Buckley's Chance* of getting one of these)

Multi-pot Brewhouses - Vary in cost depending on self-assembly or built in place to order
Brew Sculptures
Brutus 10
The Electric Brewery

Extract to Glass - There's only one of these as far as I know, and its at the high end of expensive
WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery (love to test one of these in series with a Picobier, but I recon I've also got Buckley's Chance of testing one of these)

**New! (Update, 6 Oct, 2013)
Automated All Grain - This brewing system called, PicoBrew Zymatic looks like shipping in 1st quarter 2014 and currently garnering Kickstarter Funding.

Then of course (Price On Application, third mortgage on your house systems), there are the pilot brewery systems designed for prototyping in large brewery research facilities, university courses etc. alongside micro malting equipment, pilot scale bottling/packaging lines  and so forth and onwards and upwards from there.

As you can see the upfront cost of such equipment, especially the automated and beautifully systematised equipment, is well outside the weekly/monthly family budget of the average hombrewer, and the cost per glass of beer produced on such systems, especially if you have a 200L/yr brewing limitation, takes it well over $10.00 per serve**. So, why target homebrewers with these beautful systems resplendent in their engineering simplicity and frugal arrangement of space? They offer us, the average home brewer a tantalising glimpse of what is possiblle, a hint of what, Brewery Equipment Perfection might look like.

Brewing Equipment Perfection... ahhh! Nirvana! Such bitter-sweet seduction!

Home brewers, apart from having an undescribable deep need and desire for making great beer, are also backyard inventors, tinkerers of the nth degree that have a consuming passion to cobble together found bits and pieces, experimenting with this and that, trying to improve their beer making process by trying to improve, fine tune, and streamline their production process; and to do this with as minimal, traceable, cost as possible - after all we have to keep our CCBW*** or KPS**** happy enough to continue to indulge us in this hobby.

It is in this context then that such systems have their true value. They offer most home brewers who can't afford them a bright, shiny goal to aim for. For those of us blessed with an open, all expenses paid, pocket book... prestige. And for those of us who have realized the futility of the Tinkerer's Pursuit as a never diminishing financial black hole, this equipment offers us a chance at Hobby Brewer's Redemption - Buy once and then spend little more or nothing again for the next 25 years to Life, on maintenance and upkeep, and swear before God and Country, with our better halves as witness, to stay the course and never to indulge in another 'expensive' hobby ever again.

Until next time,

Its Your Shout, Mate!

* Buckley's & None - when one wishes for something virtually unattainable, we usually have two very good chances of success. These are: Buckley's Chance, and None, i.e. no chance, no way, no how.

**Unless you amortise the cost over a 25 year period, which brings the cost back to something close to $2.00/L, based on a $10,000.00 system - not including cost of ingredients, oncosts, maintenance and operating costs.

*** CCBW - Chief Cook & Bottle Wash(er)

**** KPS - Keeper of the Purse Strings

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A True, Viking-Sytle Mead (Mjöð)

Mead. The Sacred Drink of Warriors, Vikings and the Gods. This honey wine that has been with us for millenia and is yet, out of favour, an anchronism, misrepresented, and fast becoming more and more misunderstood.

It's Honey! Its made from Honey! - 13th Warrior

Mead is sweet to semi-sweet. It is made from honey water that is fermented and aged. It can contain, fruits, blossoms, herbs and/or spices wich change the balance of sweet against bitter and/or acidic.

We know how the Romans made it. We know it's been made in China, Mesopotamia, and even Australia!?! From ancient times. Yet our ongoing knowledge of it seems to come from the sagas, those great stories of heroism and battle, of monsters and Vikings.

So, How did the Vikings make mead?

Short answer? We don't know.

There is little in the archealogical record that indicated how food or drink was made, recipes etc. by the Vikings. We can only infer from eyewitness reports,  from findings from similar cultures from around the times of the vikings, and, by drawing a long (a very long) bow from surving nordic traditions.

What we do know is that honey was scarce and valuable. We also know that mead was considered a sacred/ceremonial drink, and not used as a regular quaffer.  We know that honey was managed by specialist bee keepers and that  the must used for making mead was most likely a byproduct of honey extraction, rather than a deliberate mix in fixed ratio of honey and water, e.g. Roman mead was made with an approx. 80% honey water solution. There is some suggestion that with stronger, spiced meads, the must may have been additionally fortified with raw honey to increase the overal strength, but this is not known for sure. However, it doesn't make logical sense that efforts would be wholly put into to making approx. 1 litre of mead per harvested colony, even if beekeepers were managing  20 or more active, harvestable colonies at a time.

Viking beekeepers would build hives: known as skeps; populate them with bees and then terminate the hive population, the brood, in order to extract the honey by plunging the hive into water. The Housewife would then take the extinct hive, or extract the combs and place them into cloth to be hung to drip the honey free. The remaining comb and dross would be squeezed to extract second grade honey, and the remains then soaked in warm water to extract any last remaining honey into a watery syrup (must). The wax would then be separated from the dross and stored. The concentration of the must would vary depending on temperature of the water, time of year, and efficiency of draining and squeezing the comb. The total yield from a typical skep colony was somewhere in the vacinity of 4-6 kg with the honey must accounting for, possibly, 10-15% of the total yield.

We also guess at that the equipment typically used in Viking times for cooking by exploring burial findings, and comparing and contrasting with contemporary and later, written accounts, such as  the equipment recomended for the 'English' household: which hadn't changed in style or nature for the better part of 500 years leading up to the last century. Basically, wooden utensils for measuring, stiring, ladeling; wooden, ceramic or soapstone pots for cooking, boiling and or storage; iron cauldrons and lifting forks for bulk processing of meat; wooden, ceramic, glass or metal beakers for drinking, and ceremonial decorated horns for special occasions. Heating was accomplished by direct heating pots on a fire trench, and/or by plunging hot hearth stones/rocks into liquids.

From surviving Nordic brewing traditions we know that fermentation could be effectively carried out in covered wooden buckets, and that filtration, at least for brewing beer, was carried out using a wooden trough lined with branches and straw. Often these branches were of junper, and the straw could have been from grain, marsh reeds, or other tall, stiff grasses. Dedicated wooden fermentation buckets would naturally accumulate their own yeast colonies, to some extent somewhat like a totem stick, but perhaps less reliably so.

Finnish Bakers Yeast, also used for brewing Finish Sahti as well as for baking bread, is a special yeast that seems as though it may be directly tracable back to Viking times. It's differentiated from normal brewers yeasts in that it seems to be multi-colony rather than a monoculture. While yeast is not specifically necessary for causing honey to ferment, it self ferments, the addition of yeast to the must is not implausible.

To assist with determining when the mead was ready, raisins would be added to the ferment, which possibly may have introduced an additional source for wild yeasts. The raisins would float to the top when the mead was ready. Various additives may have also been used to modify balance the sweetness of the resulting mead and to promote fermentation. A lot has been made of the use of herbs such as juniper, hops, bog myrtle and the like. Some of these may have been used because it was expedient to filtration, others may have been used more deliberately, like the use of flowers and juices.

We know know that mead fermentation is greatly enhanced by the use of additives such as urea or potassium yet these would not have been available, as we know them, to Viking mead makers. However, boiled animal urine, a source of urea, and perhaps used as a medicinal might have found it's way into the fermentation bucket, if but a splash or two. Similarly, the leachings of ash with water, pottash, was a source of potassium and it is not unfeasable to consider that a splash or two of ash water also might have made it into the fermenter. An additional source of ash could possibly come from fire deposits on hearth stones that may have been used to directly heat water by plunging the stones into the water. Today, we might use the pure forms of such additives in a tightly controlled and regulated manner.

From all this, we can might surmise that the following process could be one that the Vikings may have used, or would very likely recognize, to make their Mead: allowing for modern minor variations.

A True, Viking-Style Mead

(For extra authenticity, these steps should be supervised and/or conducted by, 'The Lady of the House.')

1. Start with 40kg of good full, dripping, honey comb
2. Wrap in muslin cloth and set aside to drain for 12-24 hr
3. Tranfer the raw honey into a jar and set aside
4. Crush the honey comb in the cloth and squeeze well, place a heavy stone on top to press the cloth
5. In a wooden, soapstone or clay pot, heat an equal amount of fresh spring water, by weight/volume as compared with the squeezed honeycomb and cloth (approx. 5L of water,) to the temperature of a hot drink, by placing fire heated hot rocks into the water to heat the water above the wax melting point (60-65 deg. C)
6. Remove the rock(s) and suspend the cloth with squeezed honeycomb into the water. Wrap the stone or clay pot to keep warm
7. Remove the muslin cloth and spent honeycomb from the must and squeeze dry, set aside to cool then strain through cloth and straw/juniper branches to remove the hard wax
8. Innoculate the strained must must with Finnish Bakers (Sahti yeast) and cover (or just leave undisturbed until it starts to self-ferment), add a pinch of powdered urea and/or dash of hearth ash
9. When the yeast cake has collapsed - 10-40 days, carefully tranfer the must to a clean, wooden,  soapstone or clay pot, add a handful of raisins, and cover
10. Taste the mead to check the flavour balance. This can be adjusted to taste using a strong infusion of juniper, hops, and/or common guit herbs. Flowers and/or juices may also be added at this time.
11. Store in a moderately warm, dark place until the raisins float to the surface.
12. Line a clean pot with cloth and carefully pour, without splashing the mead into the cloth. Raise the cloth out of the pot to strain the mead and remove any last floaty bits.

The mead is now ready to bottle and age.


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Until next time,

It's Your Shout, Mate!