Some Thoughts On Vikings and Mead

Who hasn’t at least occasionally wanted to spend the afterlife in Valhalla fighting all day and drinking all night. That the Vikings (Norse or Northmen if you prefer) drank mead is clear from the sagas and myths. “What recipe do I use to make Viking mead?” is one of the most common questions about historical mead making. Unfortunately, I am aware of no recipes that specifically detail the ingredients or methodologies used by the Viking-era Norse to make mead. But that does not mean we can’t draw some solid conclusions. Let’s approach the question *very* briefly from two angles: time period, and geography.

First time period. The Viking Era is roughly 8th through 11th centuries. Dagfinn Moe published a paper detailing detailed lab analysis of grave goods from many times and places including multiple BCE sites with evidence of mead using filipendula flowers (meadsweet or meadowsweet) as an additive. I’ve added meadowsweet flowers (tasting notes with scant ¼ cup per gallon from myself and others: floral, green flavors, floral aroma, slight bitterness from flowers) I really liked this. Evidence from Birka (8-10th C. CE) shows honey and filipendula in coprolites (fossilized feces) in situations that suggest mead with filipendula added. Based on this, if I were making a ‘Viking’ mead today it would either be plain mead with no flavors or mead with filipendula. See also the writings of Patrick McGovern (who just published a new book – Ancient Brews – on archaeological based drinks), he doesn’t have anything specific to Viking-era, but is generally an informative read.

By geography, we look at Denmark Norway, and Sweden. Olaus Magnus’ 1555 (in Latin) book called a History of the Northern Peoples contains a long segment on mead with multiple recipes. Initial ratios of honey:water of 1:4-6 (less honey in the summer) are boiled (how much is unclear; boiling can be skipped by reducing the amount of water) and the brew is flavored with hops, myrtle, or juniper (create a tea from the herb and then add that); sometimes ginger is added (this is noted for a winter drink). Lees of beer, lees of wine, or fermentum are noted as options for yeast. Given that customs changed much more slowly at this time, it is not inconceivable that these ingredients were the same as 400 or so years earlier. I recently bottled 3 versions: hops, juniper, and hops/ginger. All 3 turned out well – the hops worked well with ginger.

Finally we can look sideways to ‘traditional’ drinks, beer gruit, and general horticulture of the area. This is a complex discussion, but can lead to additional possible ingredients such as bog myrtle, juniper, heather, and spruce.

As with many of these historical issues, these few hundred words only scratch the surface, simplifying complex issues into a few words.


McGovern, Patrick E. 2017. Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created. W.W. Norton & Company.
ISBN: 978-0393253801
Focuses on the early history of fermented drinks as discovered through archaeology evidence and interpreted using scientific techniques. This book focuses on specific discoveries and carries them through to modern recipes.

Magnus. Olaus. 1555. Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus. Rome. Also Google Books and
in Latin. A History of the North. Book 13 is on agriculture and food. Starting with Chapter 19, a number of chapters on wine, mead, and beer, including woodcuts.

Moe, Dagfinn, Klaus Oeggl. 2013. “Palynological evidence of mead: a prehistoric drink dating back to the 3rd Millennium B.C.” Veget Hist Archaeobot 23:515-526.         
Summarizes information from numerous locations and digs connecting data on pollen content to honey and mead including contents of mead specifically meadowsweet/meadsweet.

Last updated June 19, 2018