If you want to drink like a Viking, first, you need to know what it was that they drank! We'd like to imagine the Norsemen as noble savages, drinking the blood of their enemies from the skulls of their defeated foes. Though this would fit in with the glamorized image of the Vikings that we've crafted in the past few hundred years, this is simply not a reality. The reality is that fresh water was the most common drink of the time, just like today. Besides water, though, the Vikings drank beer (ale) and mead on a regular basis, and very occasionally drank wine.
History of Beer & Mead in Viking Age Scandinavia
Beer is any beverage brewed from the fermentation of grain, while mead is brewed from fermenting honey and fruits. Both of these alcoholic beverages were drank by the Norsemen, sometimes even in hybrid forms. We know from written records that beer and mead were commonly drunk throughout Europe during the Early Medieval Period and into the Viking Age (775-1050 A.D.). However, some scholars maintain that the first domesticated grains didn't begin to arrive in Scandinavia until the 7th century. There is documented evidence, though, of mead being drank by early age Scandinavians. Hence, mead likely preceded beer in Viking culture.
Still, this didn't mean that the Vikings didn't love their ale! By the 8th century, Vikings were likely drinking an abundance of brewskis. In the Hávamál and other Norse works of literature and poetry, beer and mead are often mentioned as being an integral part of Norse society.
There is evidence that the majority of the brewing was done by women in Viking society. Women were highly respected in Norse society, so it no surprise that they were entrusted with this important task! Essentially, they were in charge of everything inside the home, including cooking and brewing ale.
Beer was also a perfect beverage to bring on long seaborne journeys, as the raiding warriors (Vikings) were prone to do. Beer, mead and ale are fermented, allowing a longer shelf life, which in turn allowed raiders to embark on longer expeditions without having to stop for fresh water. Additionally, beer, mead and ale contained much needed calories, making it more beneficial for energy (arguably). Fetch me my dinner of ALE!!!
What Kinds of Beer Did the Vikings Drink?
There were likely hundreds or even thousands of different beers and mead produced across the region, as each village may have had their own fermentation and brewing process. One might start to think that there were brewing competitions and rivalries! We're not sure about that, but what we know from archaeological evidence that sahti was brewed in parts Finland during the Viking Age. Barrels have been found inside of sunken Viking ships that contained residues of its contents. We know that this brew contained hops, malted barley, malted rye and juniper.
Additionally, there were different brews for different occasions, for example, feasts called for a more potent beer than brews drank on an everyday basis. There is also evidence that women and men sometimes drank ales of different strengths. Sorry feminists; we didn't write history, we are just recounting it...
What This All Means
It would be inaccurate, to picture the Norsemen as drunken brutes, as most beers of the age were much lower in alcohol content than they are in modern times. It is almost certain that the Norse people had an understanding of the dangers of drunkenness and intoxication. The Viking Hávamál often voices these warnings, for example:
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.
The brewing of alcoholic beverages should not be looked at as a sign of a carnal society, but rather a testament to the sophistication of the Norse peoples. Anyone who has ever brewed their own beer knows this! The Norsemen traveled and traded throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and even North America. On their travels, they discovered grains and brewing techniques never before seen in their homeland. The domestication of cereals that enabled them to brew beer was a feat of ingenuity, technology and societal structure.
So let us continue celebrating our ingenious forefathers by raising our horns and drinking deeply of our home brewed mead! We are all drinking home brewed mead, right? No? Well, then drink whatever beverage you have on hand. Skål!