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The Ale that Made Vikings Roar

Irish Daily Mail, Monday 18 October 2010
A huge cast iron cauldron smoulders over a glowing logfire on a grassy bank outside the village of Headford, Co. Galway. A burly young man with an impressive red beard stands hunched over the giant pot, swirling a thick oakwood paddle around and around with intensely focused eyes. The gruel within looks like seafood chowder but the air is thick with the telling aroma of sweet barley mash, otherwise known as wort.

Through the steamy haze, two more men appear, carrying buckets filled with purple ling heather gathered from the hills around Maam and myrtle plucked from the nearby bog of Clonboo.

Nigel, the man with the red beard, sticks a finger into the wort, tastes it and nods. As the newcomers add the heather and myrtle to the cauldron, Nigel rotates his frame towards a second fire burning behind him. Armed with a shovel, he scoops up a large rock of granite from within the flames, swivels back to the cauldron and flings the rock in. Hssssssssss! The sizzling sound is at once exhilarating and disconcertingly ancient. In a matter of seconds, the bitingly nutty odour of caramelisation hits our nostrils. But Nigel is already flinging in a second hot rock. Hsssssssssss!

One hour and fifteen hot rocks later, the bubbling contents of the cauldron are siphoned into a series of waiting fermentation vessels. In a week, this intoxicating liquid will be ready to bottle and serve up as bona fide Viking heather ale.

As it happens, the archaeologists – for that is the profession of this audacious trio – have a batch of heather ale for me to taste which they prepared earlier.

I am slightly dreading this moment. The chowder image is still strong in my mind and I am expecting something that tastes like bad seaweed. My first glug of Viking ale is presented in a pewter goblet. I press my lips to the goblet’s side, incline my head back and let the amber liquid fill my mouth, roll around my teeth and gush down my throat.

My eyes do not wince, my nose doesn’t sneeze. On the contrary, I am rather impressed. It’s kind of flat like an English bitter. And there’s a hint of antiseptic but I’m assured that is the bog myrtle, deliberately employed to tone down the barley sugar sweetness. The sediment left at the base of the goblet when I am finished also inclines me to think that this is a drink best consumed speedily. But, on the whole, I think it’s pretty good.

Billy Quinn, Declan Moore and Nigel Malcolm of Moore Environmental and Archaeological Consultants in Galway have certainly created a stir with their hops-free Viking ale. Quinn discovered the recipe while reading an article in an 1859 edition of the ‘Ulster Journal of Archaeology’ which told of a brew known as Beoir Lochlannach, or the ale of the Scandinavians.

John Locke, the author of the piece, explained how an ale had once been commonly made in Ireland using barley, heather and bog myrtle. This recipe was ‘narrated to [him] by a peasant’ while travelling through Kerry in the famine year of 1847. His informant, who claimed to be nearly 100 years old, told how the recipe had been handed down to him by his grandfather.

The oral history is corroborated by a folk tradition from Burrishoole, near Newport, Co. Mayo, that Ireland’s Bronze Age fulachta fiadh, or cooking troughs, were used by the Danes for making heather ale.

In Irish, ling heather is often known as fraoch Lochlannach, the heather of the Scandinavians. The name is a nod to the Vikings marauders who dominated much of Ireland from the 8th to the 11th century and would seem to be closely linked to the Viking’s use of heather in beer making.

In his article, Locke recounts the legend of an elderly Danish master brewer captured with his two sons after the battle of Clontarf. When the Irish learn that he knows the secret of Beoir Lochlannach, they try to cajole him into divulging the recipe. However, the wily Viking tricks them into slaying his sons and then kills himself.

Fortunately, with the aid of his 1847 informant, Locke managed to rescue the recipe from extinction. And now Moore, Quinn and Malcolm have brought the ancient Viking broth to life.

This is not the first time these archaeologists have caused ripples in the world of beer history.

When Dublin hosted the World Archaeological Congress in 2008, the trio were invited to serve up a beer which was based on their ground-shaking theory that the Bronze Age fulacht fiadh troughs found all over Britain and Ireland were not for cooking, as previously supposed, but were rather the legacy of a people who enjoyed making home-brew beer with hot rocks.

Quinn has discovered five fulacht fiadhs during his archaeological work. Typically, they comprise of a horse-shoe shaped hole dug into the ground and lined with planks, probably oak. Several thousand years ago, these troughs were filled with water, their leaks most likely plugged with moss.

The traditional belief that they were used for cooking is largely based on an experiment carried out in 1952 by Professor Michael O’Kelly, then Ireland’s most highly qualified archaeologist, at a site in Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. He showed how a fulacht fiadh filled with water could be brought to the boil in thirty minutes by continually throwing piping hot rocks into it. Once the boil was on, the addition of further hot rocks kept the water simmering. Working with a modern recipe of twenty minutes to the pound and twenty minutes over, Professor O’Kelly cooked a straw-wrapped ten-pound leg of mutton to perfection.

While he does not doubt that fulacht fiadhs could have been used for cooking, Quinn believes their purpose was rather more versatile.

‘The academic community agrees that beer was a big part of the Bronze Age culture’, he says. ‘It was purer than water and even children drank it. But nobody knows how they actually made the beer. It occurred to me over breakfast one morning that maybe they used fulacht fiadhs for brewing. I went to Google and typed in ‘Hot Rock Beer’ and up came a brewery in Bavaria where they made an ale, without hops, based on an ancient Teutonic recipe, by immersing hot stones in a wooden mash.’

When Quinn and Moore found similar evidence of hot rock brewing in Georgia (Ossetia) and Scandinavia, they strongly felt they were onto something. ‘We began to experiment and we worked out that you could brew a palatable beer in a fulacht fiadh. It might not taste fantastic but it’s nonetheless beer’.

Quinn and Moore believe it is no coincidence that the Bronze Age was also the age of the Beaker culture in which much importance was placed on the quality and beauty of drinking vessels.

Their hot rock theory continues to provoke controversy, not least because of the lack of evidence. ‘It is just a working theory’, concedes Quinn. ‘But it is a good one. A lot of academics weren’t happy because we didn’t have evidence but I’ve had a good deal of correspondence with the non-believers and I like to think I’ve slam-dunked them.’

‘It would of course help if we could find evidence of malted barely beside a fulacht fiadh but, given our wet climate, it is virtually impossible that even a chromosome of crushed Bronze Age grain would have survived into the 21st century. But the theory stands on its own merits and it’s very plausible.’

Now that they have mastered both hot rock beer and heather ale, Moore, Quinn and Malcolm look set to experiment with other brews based on likely Bronze Age recipes, combing malted barley (which comes from the local Oslo and Galway Hooker microbreweries) with ingredients such as yarrow, sweet gale and marsh rosemary.

Whilst the alcohol level of heather ale touches 5.5%, it is nonetheless a potent drink. Indeed, the archaeologists are of the opinion that heather ale was effectively banned as a substance by the European governments in the 17th century. It was also at this time that hops supplanted other herbs as the vital ingredient.

‘There’s certainly a link between the emergence of Protestantism in northern Europe and the introduction of hops to beer’, says Moore. ‘Advocates of temperance would have considered beer made from bog myrtle and other herbs as somehow dangerous because it was so intoxicating. But beer brewed with hops tends to make you drowsy.’

My goblet of Viking ale is now empty. It has a good kick to it but I’m not sure if I feel like heading out for a plunder just yet. But is this really what Vikings drank when they raised toasts to Valhalla and embarked upon their monastery-pillaging jaunts up the rivers of Ireland a thousand years ago? I certainly don’t feel drowsy. Hmmm, okay. Pour me another one.