Fill Your Horn With This Viking-era Mead
Want to make mead like a Viking? Well, there are varying levels as to how far you can go to truly “go Viking” when making mead. Really, it’s simple when it comes down to it. Mead is by definition fermented honey water. Add water to honey and it will literally ferment on its own (provided you’re using clean, non-chlorinated water and raw, unpasteurized honey) due to the yeasts and fermentation-enhancing microbes that occur naturally in honey.
However, it takes a bit more than just adding honey to water to make a flavorful, well-aged mead, but the fact that honey can naturally ferment into mead on its own is evidence in itself that mead would have been readily available to Viking-age peoples.
Some Viking Backstory
More on the making of mead soon, but what exactly do we mean when we refer to Vikings or “Viking-age peoples?” Stereotypes and modern misconceptions aside, the word Viking covers a pretty broad swath of peoples, cultures and time periods. Were the Vikings marauders from northern Scandinavia who struck fear in the hearts of people in the British isles and continental Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries? Yes, but only if we’re referring to a fairly small subset of early Scandinavians-those adventurous enough to travel the seas and go “a-Viking.”
They were as much traders and settlers as they were raiders. In the original use of the word, both the noun and verb form were used— a víkingr was a person (usually a young man in the prime of his life) who traveled for adventure, and perhaps because his prospects for prosperity at home were slim; a víking was the person who took part in these adventures. Since the word Viking has become so ubiquitous, scholars have broadened its use from referring to this relatively small group of raiders and traders to include a large set of early Scandinavian and northern European peoples.
The Viking Age is generally thought of as being from 780-1070 AD, as this was the period when Vikings left Scandinavia in hordes to explore (and yes, plunder) neighboring lands. As their presence (begrudgingly) began to be accepted, they settled, returned home to bring family members back with them, and set up bases to explore even further, establishing trade routes throughout Europe, the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. Hence, people we now refer to as Vikings spanned a fairly large region and were active far beyond 1070 AD.
Viking Trade & Traditional Ingredients
Because of their extensive trading routes, they would have had access to a wide range of ingredients beyond what they could grow in their homelands. Many of these ingredients showed up in their meads, ales and other alcoholic drinks (according to archeological evidence).
Common fruits they would have eaten and brewed with, according to the Viking Answer Lady, include raspberries, elderberries, hawthorn berries, cherries, sour cherries, bullaces, cloudberries, strawberries, crabapple, rose hips and rowan berries. They would have used a variety of herbs for flavoring, bittering and preservative effects as well. Hops wasn’t commonly used in ale or mead until around the 16th century. More likely they would have used herbs such as meadowsweet, yarrow and henbane (now considered poisonous but only in very large amounts).
Due to trading, they would also have had access to exotic spices such as cumin, pepper, grains of paradise and cardamom. Honey would have been fairly common due to foraging from wild hives, rudimentary beekeeping practices, and trading. Springs would have been coveted and safeguarded due to the minimal availability of clean water in ancient Europe. Otherwise, water would have been boiled either before or during the brewing process to remove contaminants.
Yeast & Fermentation
But what about the one ingredient that is absolutely essential to making mead? We’re talking about yeast of course, the catalyst of the fermentation process. Although brewers in the Viking age and earlier found ways to use the active yeast from ongoing ferments to start future brews, it wasn’t truly understood as a separate substance until much later in history when Louis Pasteur performed his innovative experiments on the fermentation process in the 1800s.
The Vikings, and many other early peoples, thought of yeast and fermentation as mystical and treated the process of initiating fermentation with reverence. Most mead fermentations would have either been initiated by drawing in wild yeast from the raw honey, fruits and herbs, and floating in the air itself.
Over time, they would use the same stir stick (often called a totem stick or magic stick) or fermentation vessel, which would become caked with dried yeast over time, causing each subsequent fermentation to happen quicker. The unique yeast strains developed this way would be passed along as family heirlooms. Some yeast strains passed down from Viking times may even still be used in Norway today.
As a modern brewer, you can purchase a wide range of packaged yeast strains for brewing mead, wine and beer. However, it’s just as simple today as it was in ancient times to procure your own wild yeast, so why not give it a try and invoke the brewing spirits for your own unique brews? I’ll walk you through the process for initiating a wild fermentation that can then be made into any type of mead you desire, and then provide you with some recipes for making your own Viking meads.
How to Make Wild Mead Like a Viking
Wild yeast gets a bad rap in modern homebrewing. Because commercial yeast strains have been developed in laboratories for specific flavor profiles and other parameters, brewers are encouraged to sanitize excessively and bring mead to high heat levels (and then cooling) before adding yeast to kill off any wild yeast or other microbes.
Traditionally, the entire goal would have been to keep these yeasts and microbes alive, as they wanted to harness these “brew spirits” for a strong fermentation. There’s nothing wrong with using wild yeast in a modern fermentation – as a matter of fact, it can make for a more interesting and intimate experience.
Equipment & Ingredients
To initiate a wild fermentation you’ll need the following equipment and ingredients:
- A 3-5 gallon open-mouthed vessel (glass, ceramic or food-grade plastic)
- A wooden stir stick
- A clean cheesecloth, towel or t-shirt large enough to cover the opening of the vessel
- At least one quart (2.5 lbs.) of raw, unfiltered honey (pasteurized honey won’t work)
- One gallon of spring water (or other clean, un-chlorinated drinking water)
- 4-5 organic raisins
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, or a whole lemon or orange
- A small handful of any wild botanical such as wildflower (violets and dandelions are good) petals (no greens!) as an optional additional source of wild yeast and nutrients
- Any organic fruit such as berries, grapes or plums with a nice white powdering of natural yeast (just a few to start – also optional)
Mix the honey and water together in a stockpot beforehand on medium-low heat to ensure the honey fully dissolves. Or, warm the honey container in the sun or but setting it in a pot of warm water beforehand. Next, mix the honey and water together thoroughly in your open-mouthed container, stirring with your stir stick to fully dissolve the honey. Drop in raisins and other botanicals / fruits. Add one teaspoon of lemon juice, or squeeze a bit from a whole lemon or orange.
Next, place the vessel in a warm, dark corner (about 70 degrees F / 21 C with no direct sunlight is ideal) and cover with a cloth, keeping the stir stick in or laying it carefully across the top of the vessel. You will want to return to the vessel at least three times daily to give the must (unfermented mead) a vigorous stir for 2-3 minutes at a time. This will incorporate any yeast that has dropped in from the air or is on the ingredients into the overall liquid. It also provides aeration, which is important for a strong fermentation.
Ancient cultures such as the Vikings would have saw this as a mystical process. Some would meditate quietly, sing, chant, or invoke their preferred god(s); while others would yell, dance, and bang on things loudly. The goal was to wake up the bryggjemann or “brewing spirits.” Give it a try – come up with your own ritual. In about five days (sometimes longer in the winter), you’ll give it a stir and will be greeted by a fizzy, foamy head on what is now officially mead.
You can have a quicker fermentation (1-2 days) by adding a packet (5 g) of commercial yeast once you’ve added all of the other ingredients. However, the aeration is still important, so you should still keep it in an open vessel and stir a couple of times a day. At this point you have a mead starter, which you can then use in place of packaged yeast to start a new mead.
Juniper Hibiscus (or Hawthorn Berry & Flower) Semi-Sweet Mead
For one gallon:
- 4 oz. dried juniper or hawthorn berries or one cup fresh
- 1 oz. dried hibiscus or hawthorn flowers or 2 oz. fresh
- 1 oz. meadowsweet
- 1 oz. yarrow
- 1 quart (about 2.3 pounds) wildflower honey
- 1 gallon good, clean water
- 4-5 raisins
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, or light squeeze from a whole lemon or orange
- If you’ve created a wild mead starter, skip the last four ingredients, as you’ve already added them; if not, use 1 packet (5 g) of a commercial yeast designed for semi-sweet or fruit wines such as Lalvin EC-118 or Lalvin D-47
For five gallons:
- 40 oz. dried juniper or hawthorn berries or 2-3 lb. fresh
- 5 oz. dried hibiscus or hawthorn flowers or 10 oz. (around 2 cups) fresh
- 3 oz. meadowsweet
- 3 oz. yarrow
- 5 pounds (a little over one gallon) wildflower honey
- 5-5 gallons good, clean water
- 15-20 raisins
- 1/2 cup of lemon juice, or light squeeze from a whole lemon or orange
- If you’ve created a wild mead starter, skip the last four ingredients, as you’ve already added them; if not, use 2 packets (10 g) of a commercial yeast designed for semi-sweet or fruit wines such as Lalvin EC-118 or Lalvin D-47
Whether you’ve gone with a wild mead starter or are taking the commercial yeast route, the process is about the same. Simply mix all ingredients but yeast together, ensuring the honey and water are warm enough to fully dissolve. Stir thoroughly, add yeast, cover and let sit overnight.
Next, siphon or pour through a funnel into either a one-gallon jug or five-gallon carboy. Place an airlock half full of water inserted into a cork in the vessel opening (a balloon will also work). Set the vessel in a warm, dark area and allow to sit for at least a month.
At this point, it will have reached an alcohol level of around 5-7%. It will be cloudy and yeasty and still somewhat sweet. It will be tempting to drink it now. Many people do. It’s your prerogative. However, if you want to fully age it into a clarified, high-alcohol (about 12%) mead, you’ll need to rack it into another container.
What this means is that you’ll be transferring it into another airlocked jug, leaving behind the lees, or yeast sediment, that will have gathered on the bottom. The best way to do this is with a vinyl siphoning hose. Simply place a clean hose into the jug of mead until the end is a bit less than an inch above the lees, place the other end in your mouth to start a siphon, then place that end into a clean jug set a foot or two below the bottom of the other jug so that gravity can do its work, and watch it siphon away. You’ll want to rack at least another two times (ever 3-4 months) until you have a nice clear mead with minimal sediment on the bottom of the jug.
It can be tough to know when to bottle if you want a flat, un-carbonated mead, as the sugars in the mead can take time to fully ferment out. Generally, a one-gallon batch will be ready to bottle in about six months. For a five gallon batch it can be a little over a year. Drop a bit of table sugar into the mead to test, or give it a careful stir (you don’t want to oxygenate it too much at this point). If you notice fizzing, then the mead is still carbonated. Another option is to place a lid on the container, wait a day or two and carefully open the lid. If you hear fizzing it’s still fermenting. Bottle in wine bottles (you’ll need a bottle corker), beer bottles (with new caps and a bottle capper) or flip-top / swing-top bottles.
There’s nothing quite like filling your horn with a homemade mead done the Viking way!
Jereme “the Viking Yeti” Zimmerman
Jereme Zimmerman is the author of the book, Make Mead Like a Viking, and writes regularly on homesteading, brewing, and simple living for New Pioneer, American Frontiersman, Backwoods Home, and other print and online outlets. You can follow him through his website, on Twitter, and Facebook. He nerds it up along with his co-nerd and fellow Viking David Brown by creating games such as the tabletop / board game Don’t Fall in the Mead Hall through their company Viking Nerds. Follow their nerdly adventures on Twitter and Facebook.