Monday, 9 June 2014

Ale or mead - a numerical and functional analysis

Mead is frequently mentioned in the early Germanic literature, more so than ale. This, together with the Saxon mead halls of the poetry, gives the impression that mead was widely available. Everyone drank mead because honey was widely available. However, a functional and numerical analysis does not support this.

Sugars ferment into alcohol. Mead is made from honey and ale is made from malt sugars. These malt sugars are made in the mash tun by heating crushed malt with hot water, 65C, for about an hour for the malt enzymes to convert the malt starches into sugars. In both cases the relative amounts are about the same:

2 to 3lbs of honey to make 1 gallon (Imperial) of Mead
2 to 3lbs of malt to make 1 gallon of Ale or Beer, or approximately 1kg to 3 litres.

Prior to 18th Century, bee keeping was unscientific and honey gathering was a destructive process. Thomas Wildman in 1768 describes these improvements. Traditionally bees were kept in voids of many sorts, skeps, hollow logs, and clay jars.

a traditional skep details here

The bees created their own combs inside, often cross attached. The only way to get the honey was to destroy the colony.

In 1860, L.L. Langstroth developed a design for hives with exchangeable combs and it was now possible to harvest honey without damage. Before then honey was a scarce and valuable commodity, and highly prized.

Langstroth hives - a Victorian invention details here
However malt is readily available. All that is needed is a crop of grain, preferably barley, and a malt barn to process it in.

Today honey is about 10 times the cost of malt, weight for weight. In mediaeval times it may well have been even dearer.

Bere barley is an early, primitive but very vigorous strain that was certainly grown by the early Viking farmers in Orkney and is still grown to this day. It is the only arable crop that will grow in the far North in places like Iceland. Gordon Childe noted that the impression of a grain of Bere was found on an Unstan Ware pot in Orkney, dating from the 4th Millennium BC.

Bere is a "skinny" grain. It does not contain as much starch as modern barley varieties. So to make ale from Bere malt the ratios will be more like 3-4 lb of crushed malt to make one gallon of ale

Svein Asleiferson was a renowned Viking warrior. He is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. He was also known to be a fastidious farmer. He would spend the spring personally supervising the sowing of his crops, then spend the summer on raiding trips. When he returned in autumn he would again supervise the harvesting of his crops, and again go raiding until the start of winter, when he would return and spend the winter on Gairsay together with his 80 fighting men. They would probably not stay loyal and remain with him, unless he could provide some sort of hospitality for them.

I suggest that he was growing his grain to make malt and ale and not for bread, gruel or porridge.  I estimate that the warriors and retinue would drink the ale from about 4 tons of malt in this time, about 2,200 gallons or 30 barrels. This could easily be grown on 2 or 3 acres of good land, according to yield figures from Orkney Agronomy Institute. Finding 2 or 3 tons of honey on Orkney would not be easy.

It is interesting that the Viking poetry refers predominantly to mead, with very little mention of ale, whereas the Viking Sagas refer to ale far more than mead. I suggest that mead was quite scarce and highly prized, fit for the Kings and Gods. Ale was for the warriors and mortals.

this post was written by Graham


further reading

Eva Crane, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting
Eva Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping

The Bee Hive: a history of beekeeping