Updated Feb 2021If you want to drink like a Viking, you should probably start by knowing what they actually drank. We like to imagine Scandinavian raiders as the Victorian “Noble Savage,” full of honor, pride, and lust; drinking blood from the skulls of their fallen foe, but that’s not quite right… to put it mildly. Though it might fit the war-like image, they weren’t cannibals after all! Just like any society of the era, when fresh water was available, that was most likely the common drink for choice. However, while the Vikings did occasionally indulge in wine, they were known for their beer, ale, and mead, and for good reason!Wine, Beer, Ale, & MeadBefore we dive into what the Vikings actually drank, let’s start off by getting our terms in order.Wine: the fermentation of fruits (pretty much any fruits, not just grapes)Beer: the fermentation of grains (pretty much any grains, to include rice and corn)Ale: a beer brewed at warmer temperatures, giving more fruity and yeasty flavorsLager: a beer brewed at lower temperatures, giving cleaner more rich grain flavorsMead: the fermentation of honey (and other spices, fruits, or grains)The means that for all intents and purposes, the Norse could and would drink a variety of alcoholic beverages, merely by swapping out honey for grains, or grains for fruits, depending on what was in season. That being said, while mead and wine could keep and age well over time, it was easier to store grain as a dry good. If you’ve ever heard the term “Table Beer” before, it has nothing to do with whether it is drank at a table or at a bar. It more refers to the nature of when the beer what supposed to be consumed; pretty much as soon as it was ready to be sat on the table!An Alcoholic History LessonWe know from written records that beer and mead were common beverages throughout Europe during the Early Medieval Period and into the Viking Age (775-1050 A.D.). However, some historians maintain that the first domesticated grains didn't begin to arrive in Scandinavia until the 7th century.This is also reflected Norse mythology. If you are a reader, check out “Norse Mythology” by Michael Crichton. Even if you aren’t a fan of his writing style, this particular volume is reputed by many to be one of the most complete and one of the only chronologically sequenced renditions of Viking lore out there.Back to the topic of drinking though, in the earliest legends, beer is rarely mentioned, if at all, and when it is, beer is a drink made and drank by trolls and giants. It is not really cast as a drink of the Norse. However, the later we move through history, the more we see beer appearing in the text, and to such an extent that one of Thor’s greatest adventures was based around finding a magic beer cauldron!At that point, in the later Viking legends, it is impossible to deny that beer had become a local drink, which coincides with the arrival of domesticated grain in Scandinavia somewhat later in the Viking age. As a matter of fact, by the 8th century, Vikings were likely drinking beer abundance! Hávamál and other Scandinavian works of literature, often cite beer as being an integral part of Norse society.Who do the Brew-do that You do?An interesting tidbit of Norse culture that most people seem to forget is that women in Viking culture had quite a bit of freedom and power. That is, for the day and age that the world was in by and large. I mean for a women to be able to divorce her own husband was quite literally unheard of in the rest of the world! Women just didn’t have that kind of power back in the day. Well, they didn’t have that kind of power in any “modern” society of the era anyway.Another power that the Women of the North had was that of the brew-magic. Brewing was magic to the Vikings, especially because no one had discovered micro-organisms yet, and the little sugar eating yeast were just as much a mystery as the gods themselves! As such, not just anyone could brew beer or mead, only the gifted and only with the right tools, and those most gifted seemed to be the Viking women. On the factual side of history, there is actually evidence that the majority of the brewing was done by women in Viking society. This may also be related to how any why women were so highly respected in Scandinavian society and how they could command so much power.For a culture whose life and afterlife revolved so much around the quaffing of alcohol, those who make it must have been seen a quite heavenly indeed. The Viking women didn’t only make time at home better with their beer and mead, but time abroad as well. It takes time to ferment honey and grain, so the Vikings couldn’t brew while they were raiding, but they could take barrels of beer, wine, and mead with them on their trips! Fermented beverages keep well over time, stave off bacteria, contain vital calories for hard a hardworking crew, and provide a much-needed moral boost for when times got tough. As you can imagine, everywhere they went, the Men from the North always had a few barrels in tow. That’s probably why mead itself is such a widespread drink, even today!What Kinds of Beer Did the Vikings Drink?Today, there are hundreds of varieties of beer out there, especially with the Micro-Brew craze that we have seen over the last few years. Each one is well respected and may have anything from an incredible floral bouquet with a white-chocolate finish, to rich oaky toes and notes of coriander. Beer has become an artform! But as much craft as can be put into “craft beer” there really are only 2 types which were brewed back in the day: Ales & Lagers.If you remember where we defined a few terms in the earlier sections of the blog, the only real difference is the temperature at which they are brewed. Ales are brewed in warmer temperatures, maybe kept by the hearth in a Viking home, leaving the yeast to cake on top and bring out more fruity and yeasty flavors. This is in contrast to a lager which could be brewed a colder temperature, letting the yeast sink into bottom of the barrel to eat up all the sugars and leave only the rich flavors of the grains.Looking back into the archaeological evidences left behind in Viking burials, we can actually figure out which specific kind(s) of beer that at least some of the Vikings drank. As a matter of fact, in one Viking ship burial, we found multiple barrels containing residues from what appeared to be something like the traditional Sahti brewed in parts Finland as early as the 1300’s. Of course this particular ship burial was from the 9th century, so it was likely not exactly the same beer as would be served so far after the Viking Age, but it still had traces of the same hops, malted barley, malted rye and juniper as we would expect.This of course was not the only type of beer that Vikings drank. It is just one of the only ones we have any evidence of. Mead on the other hand came in many forms, and due to its acid content, we actually do have a bit of evidence to show us what meads they drank as well. One popular one, know as a Braggot was a mead mixed with grain (for flavor and body), which probably tasted something like a tart but sweet lager, but at about 8-12% ABV.ABV in the Viking AgeTo envision the Vikings as drunken brutes it pretty inaccurate. Yes they drank, but so did every couture in the past (yes, even early Christians drank beer), because it was a caloric staple that was much less polluted than most other freshwater sources. We also have to consider that other than the rare case where a yeast strain would continue to breed in a specific cauldron or barrel, most yeasts used for fermenting were naturally occurring. This means that most beers, wines, and meads of the age were much lower in alcohol content what we typically see today.A table beer in the 7th century may have been 4-5% ABV, with meads and wines sitting more in the range of 8-12% alcohol, unlike their more modern counterparts. As warriors and sailors, the Norse were most certainly aware of the dangers of drunkenness in such a harsh climate, and while they did celebrate liberally at festivals and feasts, the Icelandic epics tell us that unkempt hair and beards, as well as riotous behavior were detestable traits in Viking society.Hávamál tells us as much in the following poem.Less good than they say for the sons of men is the drinking oft of ale: for the more they drink, the less they can think and keep a watch over their wits.Closing ThoughtsGiven the historical context and the balance of social power that was given to the rite of producing alcohol, the frequent consumption of alcoholic beverages in Scandinavian culture should not be looked upon as a sign of an unrefined society. In fact, it should be seen as just the opposite! The fact that Vikings were able to create a dietary staple and a potable source of hydration and calories was a massive innovation! And, considering how widespread mead is in countries all around the world, it is obvious that it was also seen as a rather important innovation for nearly every culture the Norse came in contact with.Throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and even North America, the Viking’s ability to brew was a marvel. On their travels, they discovered grains and brewing techniques never before seen in their homeland, brought them back, domesticated them and used new knowledge to enrich their own lives before spready their new-found skill to the world again with every subsequent voyage.So, let us no remember the crude but the courageous, not the crude but the cunning, and not the inebriation but the innovation of our Viking cousins from an age forgotten. Let us celebrate their memory by raising our horns and tankards high, and drinking deeply of the beers and meads of our own era to honor those of the past! Skål!