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
Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Popes current and former won't be watching the football together
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Sport
News
people
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

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial