December 21 is the winter solstice, the original reason for all this seasonal merrymaking. Before we had Christmas or Hannukah, Kwanzaa or even Festivus, we had Yule, Saturnalia, Yalda, Mother’s Night, and other festivals that celebrated—or tried to get people’s minds off of—the year’s shortest days and longest nights.
The ancient peoples of Europe did not live in isolated little bubbles, even if they were far less active on Twitter. They interacted, traded, mingled, conquered, coevolved, and stole each other’s best ideas. Maybe the idea of a solstice bash was so obviously good that it just spread around. Regardless, there may be something nearly universal in the human need—when days are coldest, nights are longest, and, yo, we have all this surplus from the harvest—to party. Right about now.
For the sake of clarity, and because its remnants survive in our present-day holiday traditions, let’s hone in on Yule. The word encompasses several pre-Christian traditions of Germanic peoples—the log, the singing, the gift-giving, the worship of evergreen trees, and so on. For those of us preoccupied by beer, it’s hard to imagine these scenes without wondering: What was in those flagons and cups, or skins, or horns?
Mead surely would have been in some of them. In the Norse tradition, Odin’s many names included “Yule-father” and “the Yule one,” and there are credible theories that he was the antecedent to Father Christmas before we later muddled him up with Saint Nicholas. Odin is the guy who lives on mead alone—no meat necessary. (The mead that supplies Valhalla flows from the udders of a giant magical goat, and it never runs dry.)
One of the great Norse myths concerns the mead of poetry, stolen from Suttungr by Odin disguised as an eagle. Anyone who drinks it becomes wise … or perhaps they start busting phat rhymes, the translations differ on this.
The mythical mead of poetry was a blend: part honey, part blood, the latter from a fellow named Kvasir—himself formed by the saliva of the gods. Thus Kvasir might personify fermentation itself … and his name might be related to that of the fermented bread drink kvass, first mentioned around the 11th century.
Ale is not as sexy as mead in Norse mythology, but it was certainly important to many of those who celebrated the Yule. King Haakon I of Norway gets credit for Christianizing his previously pagan people and for merging Yuletide with Christmas, a habit he’d picked up from King Athelstan of England. At about the same time, according to the Saga of Haakon the Good, he made it law that everyone must brew ale for the midwinter feasting, “and therewith keep the Yule holy as long as it lasted.”
But what would that ale have been like? Some surviving traditions offer clues.
“What’s really cool is that people are still doing this,” said Lars Marius Garshol, who has studied rural brewing traditions in Norway and neighboring countries. “The one time you can be sure all the farmhouse brewers have beer is for Christmas. That’s true on Gotland, too,” he said, referring to the Swedish island known for Gotlandsdricka juniper beer.
Haakon’s brewing law only mentions malt, no other ingredients. Garshol said he supposes they were reusing yeast so that they could reliably finish the beer in time for Christmas. It might have been something like kveik, an heirloom-type yeast still used by some Norwegian farmhouse brewers today. Or not. He also said that there is evidence of hops in Viking settlements as early as A.D. 600, though it’s not clear if they were used for brewing.
How did they heat the beer? Probably with fire-heated rocks. “We’re sure Norwegians over a large area were using stones in brewing from the 7th to the 16th century,” Garshol said. “Probably because copper kettles were so rare and expensive.”
They didn’t necessarily boil the beer either. Like the raw farmhouse ales of Lithuania, these might have been simply mashed warm, then fermented. “I’m pretty sure it was all, or nearly all, raw ale,” Garshol said. “I have lots of accounts of brewing with stones now, and not a single one describes the use of the stones anywhere but in the mash. Which makes perfect sense. If you have no kettle, the thing you absolutely must do is heat the mash. Boiling the wort with stones is hard, and as we know, a millennium later many people still aren’t boiling the wort.”
It probably didn’t take long to brew, either.
“You can be sure fermentation times were short, just as they are today,” Garshol said. “There’s several descriptions of when people brewed their beer … where there’s clearly just a few days from the brew day until the beer is consumed.”
Sahti is another candidate, or some proto-version of it. But the oldest physical evidence—in the form of biochemical archaeology—suggests blends of all sorts of things: mead, cereals, fruit and herbs. Residues from about 3,500 years ago in present-day Denmark included traces of honey, berries, juniper, birch resin, grains and even grape wine. Calling it grog, the archaeologist Patrick McGovern has likened these mixed drinks to Gotlandsdricka. So there’s another option for anyone wanting to get in touch with their inner pagan.
Wassail is another. Supposedly the Romans arrived in Britain in 55 B.C. to find the locals already getting cored on the fermented juice of apples. Records of “wassailing” don’t come until later, but they tell of apple farmers offering cider to the trees to ward off evil spirits and bring a good crop next year (some of them still do it). Traditionally this is done on the Twelfth Night, the end of Yuletide, though it’s unclear whether that night has pagan origins or is a Christian innovation. These days the word stands for a warmed, spiced cider or cider punch.
It’ll warm the cockles, no matter what you believe.