Food and Drink: Odin's glass of nectar: Michael Jackson learns the secret of Norway's home brews, passed down via Viking 'magic sticks'

It was a little hard to explain to airport security at Bergen that the mysterious bottles in my briefcase contained an ancient Norwegian strain of yeast, perhaps dating back to Viking days. Eventually they gave up and let me through: though I might be mad, I did not seem to be a terrorist.

I was reminded of the episode this week when I tasted the brew derived from those samples. The beer was the colour of lemon marmalade, and had yeasty aromas and flavours reminiscent of apples, toffee and spices. They were the flavours of the past, reaching far beyond the beer's production last month at a mere 200-year-old brewery in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.

Among the living traditions of beer-making in Europe today, the oldest - perhaps a missing link - are those of home brewing in rural communities in Finland, Sweden and Norway. These existed long before their temperance-minded governments rendered commercial beer expensive and hard to find.

Early beers were fermented by airborne wild yeasts. Norse legend says that Odin, disguised as an eagle, spilled the secret of beer from the sky. The Norwegian brewers learnt that, if they kept the stick they had stirred their previous brew with, it would help to start the next fermentation. Coated with sticky residue, the 'magic sticks' harboured millions of living yeast cells. Later called 'yeast logs', some have been kept as family heirlooms.

Today, in the rural valleys of the mountainous west, almost every farmer keeps a supply of liquid yeast for home-brewing, and all say that this precious resource has been in the family 'for as long as we can remember, probably from Viking times'. To explore this culture, I took the train from Bergen to the mountain town of Voss, where most visitors ski or fish for salmon.

This was the train that had until recently been driven by a local man named Arthur Applethun. A year or two after his retirement, Mr Applethun learned that he was terminally ill. He called his daughters, Gerd and Anne-Magrethe, and told them his last wish, which they translated for me as follows: 'I would like to think that our family will always have beer to give our guests, and that it will be a brew we ourselves have made. I don't know whether you girls can brew, but I would like you to try.'

'Our first malt was our father's,' Gerd said. 'Our yeast is, and will always be, our father's. It is his yeast, and it is still alive. When it gives us beer, it is like being with our father again. It means home and family and sociability.'

From Voss it is at least 10 miles (the last couple on rocky tracks through forest) to the spruce cabin where the sisters brew. In the middle of the cabin is an open fire, above which their cauldron-like brew-kettle is suspended from a metal crossbar. When they were not brewing, sides of meat could be hung to smoke. Or the fire could be partially covered with a metal hotplate on which crispbread could be baked.

The sisters' beer tastes smoky, with a touch of treacle toffee, but it is also intensely dry and fruity, with tinges of juniper. Farmhouse brewers in Scandinavia often use juniper berries as a flavour and preservative (in this role, they probably pre-date hops), and filter the beer through a bed of the twigs.

One morning, I climbed a hillside with another farmhouse brewer, Svein Rivenes. He showed me the stream where he had tied a sack of barley so that it would germinate - a primitive form of malting. On the hillside we cut juniper bushes to use in his next brew.

As soon as a fire was set under the kettle and the smoke issued like a signal from the chimney, neighbours started arriving to help. Each brought samples of beer, so that we could quench our thirsts in the heat of the brewhouse. 'This is our equivalent of a pub,' said Svein.

The scale of activity rendered the term 'home-brewing' insufficient: Svein had 700 litres in his kettle, and I would call that 'community brewing'. By law, farmers can brew as much as they like, so long as they use barley they have grown themselves. I heard stories of illicit truckloads of barley-malt arriving in the middle of the night. 'Don't the police stop it?' I asked a community brewer in another town. 'Not here,' he replied. 'I'm the chief constable.'

A few days later, we drank Svein's beer at the Sheep's Head Festival. Once the year's lambs have been slaughtered, the people of the valleys around Voss look forward to feasts of smoked sheep's head in early October. The sisters were there. 'Home-brew and sheep's head]' one of them exclaimed to me. 'Without the home brew, you may as well leave the head on the sheep.'

The head seemed to be smiling at me in profile on the plate. With some difficulty, I obeyed the instruction to begin with the soft fat behind the eye. It tasted like fatty salt beef. They assured me that it was a great delicacy. To bless our dinner, a man in a Viking helmet recited some lines from a saga.

Afterwards, I asked Svein if I could bring a sample of his 'Viking' yeast back to Britain. I wanted to show it to Keith Thomas, a brewing scientist at the University of Sunderland. Mr Thomas has taken a particular interest in yeasts, and once made a porter with a culture found in bottles from a shipwreck at the bottom of the Channel. He argues that while today's barley malts and hops can be more or less matched to recipes from the past, the yeast, being a living organism, is its most elusive element and easily lost for ever. The malt and hops make body and character, but yeast is the soul.

Mr Thomas said that he would experiment with the yeast at a small commercial brewery, to make a product called Original Viking Ale. He started with a five-barrel batch, then moved to a larger brewery where he could make 20. Now, he has produced a 50-barrel batch at Elgood's, the Wisbech brewery better known for its Cambridge Bitter.

The malt used in the new product comes from East Anglia, and hops from Kent, Hereford and Worcester are being preferred for the moment to juniper. The Norwegian farmer's yeast, however, still imparts decidedly 'Viking' tastes, even at 4 per cent alcohol (compared to twice that level in Voss).

Despite eating the sheep's head to prove my worthiness, I have been offered no royalty on the brew. But then I was only the courier - the yeast came from Odin.

Original Viking Ale is available from specialist beer shops and some licensed wholefood stores. It is distributed by Vinceremos Wines and Spirits of Leeds (0532 431691).

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?