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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To initiate a wild fermentation you’ll need the following equipment and ingredients: