Where to find Britain’s Viking brewhouses

Merryn and Graham Dineley, she an archaeologist specialising in exploring ancient ale-making, he a craft brewer specialising in actually making ancient ales, have produced a fabulous downloadable poster on the visible remains of Viking brewhouses in Britain, which you can find here.

The poster points out that structures which have been interpreted as Viking “bath houses” or “saunas” are much better interpreted as brewhouses, not least because they were right next to the site of the drinking hall, as at Jarlshof on the Mainland of Shetland and Brough of Birsay, a now uninhabited island off the Mainland of Orkney. And really, what do you think a Viking would rather have – a bath or a beer?

To quote from the poster:

We know that the Vikings drank ale. There are numerous references to it in the Sagas. We also know that the ale was made from malt. In the 10th Century AD, Haakon Haroldson, the first Christian king of Norway, decreed that Yule be celebrated on Christmas Day and that every farmstead “should brew two meals of malt into ale”. One brew was for family, the other for guests. There were fines for non-compliance. If they failed to brew for three years in a row their farm was forfeit.
Ale was an important part of the Yule celebrations. Every farmstead had the facilities to make it. The ale was stored in huge vats, close to the drinking hall. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us that Svein Breastrope was ambushed and killed by Svein Asleiferson, who had hidden behind a stone slab by the ale vats in the entrance of the drinking hall at Orphir, Orkney. Since huge ale vats are not easily moved, then the ale must have been mashed and fermented close to the ale store.
The products and by-products of brewing ale are ephemeral, leaving no trace in the archaeological record. Ale is drunk, spent grain is fed to animals and residues are washed down the drains. Only the installations and perhaps some equipment may survive.

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The Graveney Boat, a hop history mystery

In the history of brewing in Britain, the Graveney Boat is an archaeological anomaly almost as great as finding the skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon warrior with a hole in his skull that could only have been made by a 17th-century musket ball.

The boat – actually a clinker-built cross-channel cargo vessel, reconstructed as some 44 feet (13.6 metres) long, 11 feet (3.4 metres) wide and just three feet  (one metre) in draught – was abandoned more than a thousand years ago. It was discovered in 1970 under six feet of soil, during the widening of the Hammond Drain, a silted-up ancient natural water course linking Graveney village, a small settlement near the coast between Faversham and Whitstable in Kent, with the Thames estuary.

Dendrochronology suggests the Graveney Boat was about 55 years old when it was abandoned, since it was built from oak timbers cut in the mid-890s, and it had apparently been left to settle into the mud some time close to 950AD. When archaeologists analysed the boat and its immediate area, searching in particular for plant remains, they found evidence that pointed strongly towards it having carried a cargo of hops.

The Graveney Boat being excavated in 1970

Yet at the time the boat was stuck up a Kentish creek, (at a period when there was still a separate Viking King of Northumbria, contending with the King of England), English brewers were not using hops to flavour their ale – or at least, there is no good evidence at all that they were doing so. Hops stay unmentioned in the history of English brewing (apart from one brief and almost equally mysterious pop-up in the 12th century, to which we will return) until the 1500s, almost 400 years later, when immigrant brewers from the Low Countries started making the upstart Continental hopped drink bere, a rival to unhopped traditional English ale. So why were there hops on board the Graveney cargo boat?

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