Found predominantly on central Norway, fire-cracked stones are shedding a new light on the story of how Norwegian farms were developed over the millennia and, more importantly, how Vikings brew their beer.
The stones were first found on a farm in Hedmark, back in 1851 by a sociologist named Eilert Sundt. As Sundt later wrote, he was walking and saw a farmer near a pile of strange-looking, smallish stones.
“What’s with these stones?” he asked the farmer, pointing to the pile. “They’re brewing stones,” the farmer told him. “Stones they used for cooking to brew beer — from the old days when they didn’t have iron pots.”
Sundt noted that most of the farms he visited had piles of burned or fire-cracked stones. Every time he asked about them, the answer was the same: they were from brewing. The stones were so omnipresent that sometimes houses were built right on top of them.
The process was simple: the stones were heated until they were glowing hot and then plopped into wooden vessels to heat things up.
Brewing with heated stones has also been reported from England, Finland and the Baltics. It’s a tradition that continues in Germany, where it’s possible even today to buy “stone-brewed beer”.
Alcohol always played an integral part in Norse culture. It was also safer, as the brew had to be boiled as part of the process. Alcohol was so important to the Norse that it was a necessary aspect of formalizing treaties, land deals, marriages, swearing oaths, and finalizing the will of the deceased at funerals.
Beer was a specially important part of social and religious institutions. To celebrate Yule, the winter solstice (which was later was appropriated as Christmas), Vikings brewed and consumed a strong, barley-based beer while in the throes of winter’s coldest and dreariest months. The brew was traditionally consecrated to Odin, Thor and Freyr and was also commonly used in offerings to entice the Gods to bring back the summer sun and to provide a better wyrd (fate) for the faithful.
Brewing beer for the winter celebration of Yule was an integral part of the Norse society, so much so that failing to produce a holiday brew eventually became illegal, specially after christianity. The brewing of beer was heavily regulated by the Gulating, a Norwegian parliamentary assembly that met from 900 to 1300 AD. Even the smallest details of beer brewing and drinking at that time were regulated. However, after christianity, its laws took a very different undertone.
After christianity, the Gulating’s laws required three farmers to work together to brew beer, which then had to be blessed by a christian priest, forcing the farmers away from the old religion and the tradition of consecrating the brew to Odin and Thor.
An individual who failed to brew beer for three consecutive years had to give half his farm to the bishop and the other half to the King and then leave the country. Only very small farms were exempt from this strict regulation.
Facsimile of hand-written manuscript of the Gulating law, held in the Royal Library, Copenhagen
Mead, ale, and wine were all made in a very similar way. The first step for all of them would be to fill a vat with water; adding honey for mead, or malted barley for beer. The mixture was brought to a boil using stones or, later, with the development of better and cheaper iron tools and pots, over a fire. The open vat was then placed beneath some fruit-bearing tree to catch the wild yeast, the blessings of Yggdrasil. The vat was not air-tight and the brew would be left to sit for an unspecified amount of time, then strained into ceramic jugs and stored for later use.
Reconstructed Longhouse or Mead Hall
There is no one alive today knows how Viking beer actually tasted, but evidence of its making suggests that they were as varied in taste and strength as the people who made them, and almost every village had their own, slightly different recipe for home brewing.