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Viking mead in Iceland 1000 years ago? Milk mead?

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kseller

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Jul 16, 2007
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Greetings! I'm new here and doing some research for an historical novel about the Norse/Vikings in Iceland around the year 1000. There's some brewing to be done in the book, and I was hoping I could find some help and expertise here.

There weren't a whole lot of terribly yummy things available in Iceland at that time with which to flavor mead. Few fruits or spices--even few flowers and little bark, since there were only dwarf trees there!--would have been available for flavor and/or yeast food. It wasn't a good climate for growing barley, even, let alone the other things we usually think of as part of brewing. The honey itself would have been imported and expensive.

Question #1: Any suggestions about mead additives that might/would have been available in Iceland 1000 years ago?

Moving on, what they DID have a lot of in Iceland at the time was milk, so...

Question #2: Does anyone have any recipes or suggestions for how to brew a tasty mead with milk? (Produced in conjunction with the imported honey, I mean; I don't mean just with milk alone!)

Aside from the fact that some local homebrewers' association somewhere that I stumbled across thought milk mead was good (no details about who, where, or why it was good), the only thing I know about this particular odd combination is from another post on this forum--a question about egg nog mead from a year ago. One respondant said to use skim milk, since the fat would be problematic, and this suggestion makes sense to me. Any other help from anyone? Please?

Thanks in advance for any help you can offer me. I'm trying to write as accurately as possible about things that happened a literal millennium ago, so I'm happy for all the aid I can get! I'm not (yet) a brewer myself, though the simplicity of the basic mead recipe is pretty enticing. I think I might just have to give it a try...in the name of research, naturally!

All the best,

Kriston
 

NewBeeOne

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Well, I am no historian, but, I actually lived in Iceland for a year. Trees are on the island, but are very small! They seemed to have an abundance of fish, as it was on drying racks everywhere you went. There were also sheep and goats all over. I could see where they would have plenty of milk then. The only thing I would wonder is this, did they have skim milk back then and if not, then how did they overcome the problems that the fat would produce? I know that Iceland has changed in 1000 years, but, some of the basic plant/animal life surely is the same. The yeast would be another thing to question. It is a very harsh enviroment during the winter months and it is dark during this time. Literally dark with little sunlight during the day which lasted for nearly 6 months. Now, the summer months are nice compared to the winter and it is mostly daylight then, yet still barely cracked the 65-70 F mark if I remember correctly. Perhaps they were able to "farm" the yeast and brew in the summer months only? If they imported the honey, then did they import the yeast as well....could they do that back then? :eek: Now you have me wondering!!! :icon_study:
 

Angus

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I am not sure of the facts, but Wikipedia has the following about Greenland:

The fjords of the southern part of the island were more lush and had a warmer climate at that time, and trees and herbaceous plants grew in the south of the island.[citation needed] These remote communities thrived and lived off farming, hunting and trading with the motherland,
Greenland was named becuase of the warmer climate that resulted in more growth than is seen today. The possibility that there were berries, herbs, flowers etc. is good. Since Iceland and the southern tip of Greenland are level with each other, you might assume the climate in Iceland was warm enough to support the same sort of vegetation. Therefore, would it be unreasonable to assume that the vikings brought with them bees, fruit bearing plants, and herbs that could have been used for Mead?

Angus
 

kseller

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Jul 16, 2007
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I've done the research, so I can answer some of your questions.

Actually, Greenland wasn't named because it was green. It is generally believed taht Greenland was named in an effort by Eirik the Red--the father of Leif Eriksson--to get people to move to Greenland with him. The name is probably the first recorded example of the old bait-and-switch! 1000 years ago, Greenland was slightly greener then than it is now, but it was ALWAYS covered in glaciers! The name was a serious con job!

There were no bees in Iceland at the time (I'm not sure about Greenland, but I'd tend to doubt it had any either), and as far as we can tell there simply weren't a lot of flowers and fruits in either Iceland or Greenland at the time...keeping in mind that this was literally 1000-1100 years ago, so we know very little for certain!

Viking-Age Iceland had a couple of kinds of blueberry-type ground fruits, but I've done those to death, so I was trying to avoid putting them in the mead, too. No stone fruits of any sort. No apples. No berry brambles. Just crowberries and blueberries. Bor-ing!

And I wouldn't think fruit would transport overseas in longboats very well. Even dried fruit would tend to get damp and yucky under those wet conditions, I would think. So I didn't want to import fruit as well as honey.

The native trees were pretty much exclusively dwarf willow and dwarf birch--and really they were just glorified bushes! No variety to speak of, and nothing very tasty, I don't think. (Please correct me if willow or birch bark makes great mead. If so, I'll absolutely use it!)

They imported wood or used driftwood to build things with; there were no trees of any significant height growing there. Erosion was already a big problem by the beginning of the 11th century, so there weren't even a whole lot of the little trees left. (There's a lot more variety there now, but many of the trees growing in Iceland now are not native, they're imports brought in to stop the erosion problems.)

Most of the flowers you see in Iceland today are non-native, too. Lots and lots of non-native lupines, but not much else. At least according to my Icelandic expert, there aren't a whole lot of flowers on native Icelandic plants. I could probably come up with some flower that I could use. That's what I was planning to do, but then I read about lactomel and I stopped looking. Since they had milk coming out of their ears (figuratively, not literally!), a milk mead seemed to be a perfect fit!

But upon further investigation...meh, not so much, at least not for the specific situation in my tale. SOOOO...I think I'm going to stick with plain, straightforward honey/water/yeast mead. Nuthin' fancy. (I am planning to use the milk mead at a later point though. It's too cool not to include somewhere!)

I didn't think it was all that hard to skim milk. Is it difficult to do? I haven't looked into this at all yet, but perhaps I should...

As for the yeast question: They did brew mead in Iceland. That's not generally disputed. So my best guess is that they kept some sort of starter, rather like sourdough starter, and they nourished it all year. But that is a guess. Is it a reasonable guess, do you think? I figure you feed it a little barley, maybe some milk, once every 10 days or so? Keeping it cool would not be a problem, so I would think you could keep a culture alive and healthy. Yes?

Thanks for the help! I really appreciate it!

Kriston
 

Angus

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Very interesting history. Thanks. It seems to be a myth that still survives since we are even now being told that Greenland was once free of ice during the summer months.

Good luck with the Mead and the book.

Angus
 

kseller

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Jul 16, 2007
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Well, I don't mean to mislead you or to overstate my case. The southern tip of Greenland is ice-free and green in the summer. But that doesn't mean it's balmy or covered in flowers. The vast majority of Greenland--somewhere between 80-90%, if memory serves, though the exact percentage escapes me right now--is covered in glaciers all year long, with just a thin rim of green around the southern shores for a few months.

It was a hard life for the Norse in Greenland. In fact, of the two Norse settlements in Greenland, one died out by the 1300s and the other was totally dead by the early 1400s. Covered in ice and on the edge of the known world, it was not a terribly easy place for Europeans to survive.

The old saw "Iceland is green and Greenland is icy" is more right than wrong. But I didn't want to leave you thinking there's no green anywhere in Greenland. That's not right either.

Thanks!

Kriston
 

akueck

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Skimming milk is not that hard. The fat is floating around in a sugar-protein-water mix (I forget if it's a suspension or an emulsion). All you have to do is cause the fat to lump together, and it will float to the top, then you skim it off. (aha! skim milk!) Changing the temperature and/or the pH of milk will separate the fat. Cheesemaking uses a pH change to make the curds, I think, but I'm guessing regular milk can be skimmed just by heating or cooling outside the range where the suspension/emulsion is stable. Ice is available, so I'd guess a Viking would cool the milk (also helps with storage).

Interesting fact: today milk is kept from separating at refrigerator temps by homogenization, where the fat blobs get broken down into teeny tiny blobs--I think they shoot milk through tiny holes under high pressure. Smaller fat bits take longer to agglomerate so the milk stays homogeneous longer (about as long as the milk stays drinkable).
 

kseller

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Jul 16, 2007
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Thanks for the assist on the skim milk! I'm glad to hear it's not hard. I really am kind of excited to try milk-and-honey mead, even if only a literary version!

;)
 

Holly

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I am currently reading a book called Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The author, Richard Unger, sites a slew of references related to the comment "While Icelanders IMPORTED mead from the British Isles, it appears that most farmhouses on the island could produce their own malt-based beverage and even the stronger version." p. 26...The stronger version being Mungat..The book indicates that malt was imported. The references include a book called Icelandic Enterprise: Commerce and Economy in the Middle Ages by Bruce Gelsinger...That was certainly an interesting comment to come across...
Food Drink for thought...
 

AndyPandy

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Jul 30, 2007
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Hi all,
Interesting discussion I think.
I do not know if I can contribute to your queston regarding possible additives to the mead in Iceland in those ages, but maybe.
I live in Sweden and I suppose that we have a somewhat similar climate as on Iceland (at least in northern Sweden). One thing that we have plenty of and that probably could have been common in Iceland is Lingonberries. There are actually archeological findings in Denmark from the viking era where they found evidence for that lingonberries were moixed with honey to make mead. Perhaps they did the same on Iceland?

LIngonberries are very high in acidity and red fruit flavour. Here we use them together with meatballs or just fresh with milk and sugar. In mead I suppose they have the same caracteristics as the American cranberries, if you search for recipies on cranberries I would suggest just replacing these two berries if you would like to have a recipe to start from.
The other thing that I heard that was used here in Sweden in mead is the spice called bog myrtle or sweet gale (two names). This is widely spread here along the coastlines (you could check if it is native to Iceland as well), and nowadays it is commonly used for schnapps. It brings a bitterness and a lot of tannins to the drink where it is placed and this may have been something that gave "structure" to the mead if used togehter with other berries or something..perhaps..

I have actually considered to make a more "traditionally Swedish" mead someday and they try sweet gale together with bleuberries or something, but I am not yet there.. :D
Hope this was of some help for you...

/AndyP
 

wayneb

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AndyPandy said:
Hi all,
Interesting discussion I think.
I do not know if I can contribute to your queston regarding possible additives to the mead in Iceland in those ages, but maybe.
I live in Sweden and I suppose that we have a somewhat similar climate as on Iceland (at least in northern Sweden). One thing that we have plenty of and that probably could have been common in Iceland is Lingonberries. There are actually archeological findings in Denmark from the viking era where they found evidence for that lingonberries were moixed with honey to make mead. Perhaps they did the same on Iceland?
Andy,
One of my fondest memories of an Autumn that I spent in Sweden (about 25 km inland of Örnsköldsvik) was wandering the countryside picking lingonberries. Yummy!! They have some characteristics of crranberries, but I remember them as being both juicier and sweeter. I've always wished that I'd had access to fresh lingonberries for a mead -- I cannot think of any fruit, anywhere in the world, that I ever thought would be a better adjunct to the honey!

Do one for me some day... :cheers:
 

AndyPandy

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Jul 30, 2007
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Hmmm.. :sign13:

You said something there; A rather sweet melomel with lingonberries that should add the tartness to balance the sweetness could be something to try. The season is actually coming now soon for fresh lingonberries.
How about the following recipe:

5 gallon batch (19 Liters):
6 kg of wildflower honey with a lot of raspberry as the nectar source (this is what I have at home from my "local" beekeeper)
OG should be around 1.100
Ferment completely (should give an alkocol of around 12.5 %)
Rack to secondary and add 2 kg (100 g/liter) of fresh lingonberries in secondary
BAcksweet to around 1.020 in FG.


Can I ask what on earth you did around Ö-vik (locally short version :laughing7:) that autumn? (Very curious).
For those of you out there Ö-vik is a town with around 50.000 inhab in northern Sweden, very beatiful nature I think but as far as I know nothing much is happening there....
Of course I will "mail" you a bottle or two when/if this is made Wayne, :icon_thumright:

/A
 

wayneb

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AndyPandy said:
Hmmm.. :sign13:

Of course I will "mail" you a bottle or two when/if this is made Wayne, :icon_thumright:

/A
OOH! How can I refuse such a generous offer?? :toothy10:

My recommendation -- bump up the starting gravity of your base to 1.120, to make a fairly alcoholic mead. Then rack over the berries (that have been treated to a freeze/thaw cycle recommended to help them release juice); let the result age in secondary for at least a month or two; then rack again, and press berries if you have the ability to do so (for more juice extraction) - add that juice to the batch and allow to clear fully in a third carboy. Taste, and backsweeten as needed. With that many berries, you will need to backsweeten somewhat. ;D

You will find that with any significant volume of fruit added in secondary, the alcohol will become too dilute unless you start off with something in the neighborhood of 14-15%.

But I'm a great believer in having at least some of the fruit in the fermenter during primary fermentation. The vitamins and minerals in the fruit will actually do a better job of nourishing your must than the addition of nutrients alone, and you'll get a much more complex and interesting result if you have fruit present in both primary and secondary.

Oh, man! I wish that you could send me about 8L of fresh berries!! I'd love to try to do this one myself, with 6 in primary and 2 in secondary, made into a Polish style Dwojniak!!!!!

A question about your fresh berry weight - they're about a kilo a liter, aren't they? (not 100g)?? ???
 

wayneb

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Oh, and as to what I did around Ö-vik?? Well, it was back in the early 1980's , and there were even fewer people there than are now! :D We were working on a joint experiment with the European Space Agency to monitor the response of the ionosphere to external stimuli. We set up a large VHF doppler radar array out in the middle of nowhere (i.e. near Ö-vik :laughing7: ) and we aimed it toward the magnetic north pole as a sounding rocket was launched from Esrange up in Kiruna that had a plasma generator attached to it. We watched with our radar as the ionosphere was excited by the charged particles added by the plasma generator, and we observed how that excited zone propagated up and down magnetic field lines.

Sorry for the off-topic, folks, but I don't get people asking me why I wanted to be in central Sweden for 6 weeks in Sept-Oct very much any more!!

Anyone who wants to know more (yeah, right...) can PM me!
 

AndyPandy

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Jul 30, 2007
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Hi,
Thanks for the recipe input! :laughing7:

Do you still think that I need to go as high in OG as 1.120 even if I let the berries ferment in the secondary?
I realise that if I would add the berries post-fermantation (after addition of sorbate etc) this would dilute the must substantially and require a higher starting alkohol conc.
But you mean that even if the berries themselves will ferment and produce alcohol, I will loose so much in dilution that I should aim higher than OG 1.100? :icon_scratch:

The amount of berries: Yes, you are probably correct, 1 kg of the berries would possibly measure around 1 Liter.
My last posting was perhaps a bit unclear, I was trying to think about the amount (conc) of berries to enter the sec fermentation, Ken Schramm recommends 150 g berries/liter of must for flavourfull berries such as raspberries (to produce a medium strong fruit character). What do you think about this conc of berries? For a 5 gallon batch that means around 3 kg of berries. :icon_scratch:

Maybe 1/3 of the berries in primary and the rest in secondary?

Interesting as well with the space research... I realise that I do not know anything about this so I will not embarrase myself and ask more questions about it, but it sould exciting ???
Just one last thing before I get thrown out of this forum for not sticking to the original subject:
Did you ever try the combined restaurant/gas station in the small village "Trehörningssjö" about 50 km north of Ö-vik?
Brilliant food (elk and bear meat) but you have to order food a day in advance otherwise thye so called restaurant is closed ;D
 

wayneb

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Well, I prefer to work with higher alcohol contents going into secondary when I'm racking onto fruit, since the immediate effect of the alcohol is to neutralize any spoilage organisms that may be present on the fruit. With a starting gravity of 1.100 your resulting alcohol is around 13.5% by volume (assuming you finish near 1.000 in primary), and my personal preference is to rack over at least a 15% ABV concentration when it is going on to fruit. The additional sugars in the fruit will provide some more final alcohol, but it is usually pretty well offset by the additional juice provided by the fruit, unless you are using a fruit with high relative sugar content.

So the bottom line is that the 15% rule is only my personal preference. Doing what you suggest will also work, and if you would rather have your mel finish at around 13% then you should do what you suggest! :icon_thumleft:

I personally like to use more fruit in primary than in secondary, so I would reverse the proportions you suggest if I were making the batch. Again, it is a matter of personal preference. Try it your way, try it my way, and then see which you like better.

For the special case of lingonberries since they have such an intense flavor and more than the average amount of tannins, I would probably only use 2 to 2.5kg of berries in a 5 gal batch. Remember, Ken's guideline is a broad recommendation -- every fruit will present a different character in the resulting mead. Of course, knowing Oskaar, who likes a little honey "kicker" in his fruit wines... :laughing7: He would probably suggest that you use 4kg in the batch!! :toothy10:

In the end, the amount of flavor that you want to be from berries vs. honey is entirely to your taste. Experiment a little, and have fun!

And a final off-topic reply: No, although we heard of that place in Trehörningssjö, we never found the time to plan ahead enough to call them for a reservation, so we missed out. Sounds as if I have another reason to return some day! ;D
 

kseller

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Jul 16, 2007
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Wow! Thanks for the help. I've had a pinched nerve in my neck and have been off-line since the beginning of August--pure painful hell! Today is my first day back in an upright position and able to use the computer again in almost two weeks. What a pleasant surprise to find so much good stuff in my thread! Yee-haw!

I especially appreciate the suggestion of lingonberries and bog myrtle--which I'll check on--and the reference for the books. I hadn't stumbled across those particular books, but you can bet I'll be hitting Amazon as soon as I sign off here. It sounds like they're just what I need.

And I love the Viking Answer Lady! I've used her like crazy for my research. She's just not got quite the level of detail I need for this particular issue. I appreciate all of your expertise to help supplement what she's got.

Thanks, friends!

K-
 

JayH

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May 9, 2006
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There are many references to Mead in the old Norse traditions, read a poem called Runahal if you haven’t already.

You might look at heather; heather is of the family Ericaceae that is found all across northern Europe and the Americas. Many of these have been used for thousands of years in mead and beer and are known for their psychotropic and inebriating effects. There are also beneficial medicinal properties to heather. There are a verity of heathers growing in Iceland and as near as I can tell most are native. Included among them are Calluna vulgaris, or common heather this would be almost identical to what they were used to using all across northern Europe at the time. They also have Yarrow another plant often used in brewing during that period.

Picts are well known for their heather beer. I have actually brewed with Scottish Heather, if you can get it unwashed, watch out, there is a mold that grows on it called fogg. Fogg contains both narcotic properties and a form of wild yeast. It makes a most interesting ale providing both the yeast for the fermentation and an adjunct that is guaranteed to get you drunk and high faster than anything else I’ve ever made, and leave you with a hangover that won’t quit. It is no wonder that those Picts were so crazy. :drunken_smilie:

I have no idea, but as fogg grows on the heather in Scotland (and a variety of it grows on some types of heather here in North America). I would assume that it might also have been growing on the heather in Iceland. This would have provided the yeast necessary for your mead.

Hope this gives you some more ideas. However where did they get their honey from?



Cheers
Jay

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