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
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
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

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral