Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Root Beer - with some history

As a medieval reenactor, and brewer, I was unsurprisingly asked – begged! – by my kid to help him make root beer. We both quite like the taste of root beer, and the idea of going on a root-and-herb scavenger hunt in the back swamp spoke to both of us! The cunning plan was to have the kid enter his root beer in a brewing competition hosted by a medieval reenacting Society (SCA.org) and thus he had to know at least some of its early history. But – how period is root beer? The two ingredients most often mentioned to make root beer are sarsaparilla and sassafras, so let’s first take a look at those.

sarsaparillaA Flora of the State of New York by John Torrey Vol

Sarsaparilla (Smilax ornata; top) was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by the Spaniards, first from Mexico and later from Honduras. Mexico, Central America and many parts of northern South America abound in various species of sarsaparilla, valued by the natives for their, more or less, medicinal qualities. The natives value its nourishing and healing qualities so much they would drive their cattle to areas where it grew in abundance in order to feed on the plants and receive its benefits.


Sassafras (Sassafras albidum; top) was a well-known plant to the natives of the southwestern United States way before the Europeans came around. It had many purposes, including cooking (to flavor bear fat, to cure meat) and medicinal. The European interest in sassafras brought Europeans into closer contact with the Native Americans during the early years of settlement in 16th and 17th century Florida, Virginia and parts of the Northeast. Early European settlers enjoyed the aromatic scent of sassafras – according to legend, Christopher Columbus finally found land because he could smell the sassafras! As early as the 1560s, French visitors to North America discovered the medicinal qualities of sassafras, as well as the Spanish who arrived in Florida.

Sassafras trees were reported as plentiful at the arrival of the English on the coast of Northeast. Sassafras bark was sold in England and in continental Europe where it was made into a dark beverage called ‘saloop’ – touted to have medicinal qualities and used as a medicinal cure for a variety of ailments. This refreshing beverage was sold in place of tea and coffee, which were much more expensive, and was served in a similar way with milk and sugar. Sir Francis Drake was one of the earliest to bring sassafras to England in 1586, and Sir Walter Raleigh was the first to commercially export sassafras in 1602. Since the bark was the most commercially valued part of the sassafras plant due to large concentrations of the aromatic safrole oil, the trees would be stripped of their bark  – which kills the tree. This meant that as significant amounts of sassafras bark were harvested, supplies quickly diminished and sassafras became more difficult to find. For example, while one of the first shipments of sassafras in 1602 weighed as much as a ton, by 1626, the English colonists failed to meet their 30-pound quota. Unfortunately, over-harvesting is not a modern thing either.

Martin Pring; in his own words (1603):
“In all these places we found no people, but signes of fires where they had beene. Howbeit we beheld very goodly Groves and Woods replenished with tall Okes, Beeches, Pine-trees, Firre-trees, Hasels, Wich-hasels and Maples. We saw here also sundry sorts of Beasts, as Stags, Deere, Beares, Wolves, Foxes, Lusernes, and Dogges with sharpe noses. But meeting with no Sassafras, we left these places with all the foresaid Ilands, shaping our course for Savage Rocke discovered the yeere before by Captaine Gosnold, where going upon the Mayne we found people, with whom we had no long conversation, because here also we could find no Sassafras. De-parting hence 3 we bare into that great Gulfe which Captaine Gosnold over-shot the yeere before, coasting and finding people on the North side thereof. […] Bancroft, following Belknap, identifies Whitson’s Bay with the harbor of Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, which is in the latitude of 41° 25g. […]and finding a pleasant Hill thereunto adjoyning, we called it Mount Aldworth, for Master Robert Aldworths sake a chiefe furtherer of the Voyage, as well with his Purse as with his travell. Here we had sufficient quantitie of Sassafras.”

Is root beer period plausible?

What this rather long introduction means is that both main root beer flavors – sarsaparilla and sassafras – were known in 16th century Europe, and at least sassafras was used in a drinkable medicinal concoction in Europe. Unfortunately, it was not (yet) fermented… The tradition of brewing, or fermenting, root beer is thought to have evolved out of other European small beer traditions that produced fermented drinks with very low alcohol content. These were thought to be healthier to drink than possibly tainted local sources of drinking water, and enhanced by the medicinal and nutritional qualities of the ingredients used. For instance, the 14th century recipe Tizanne Doulce (like a tisane, or infusion) uses barley, licorice root and crystal sugar to make a root beer-like beverage.

Le Ménagier de Paris, 1393
TIZANNE DOULCE. Take water and boil it, then for each sester [the sester of 8 pints] of water put in a bowl heaped with barley, and it matters not if it be hulls and all, and two parisis [2 1/2d.] worth of liquorice, item, figs, and let it be boiled till the barley bursts; then let it be strained through two or three pieces of linen, and in each goblet put great plenty of crystallised sugar. Then the barley is good to give to poultry to eat to fatten them. Note that the good liquorice is the newest and it is a fresh greenish colour, and the old is more faded and dead and is dry.


Roots, bark, resin, fruits & flowers

We chose these specific roots, barks and leaves as these either grew in the back yard (our property adjoins a New York State Protected Wetland, so plenty of bio-diversity) or we already had in the kitchen cupboards. Even though I met someone via Facebook who lived in the South and had a sassafras tree in his backyard and was willing to ship rootstock, unfortunately, facebook ate the conversation and he was never heard from again… so this time around, at least, no period-correct Southern grown sassafras. We substituted with black birch, as that has a root beer typical wintergreen-like flavor, and spicebush (bottom).

Spicebush or Lindera Benzoin.  Wm PC Barton. 

We went on a scavenger hunt and gathered as much as we could from the back yard and surrounding property. Ironically, it is in our modern middle Ages not possible to buy fresh, green licorice; therefor we’ll have to do with the ‘dead’ dry stuff. The kid made name cards to label each baggie of ingredients.

Backyard scavenger hunt with friend.

Our recipe

  • 0.6 oz black birch bark
  • 0.6 oz spicebush bark
  • 0.3 oz licorice root
  • 0.3 oz dandelion root
  • 0.3 oz birch bark
  • 0.3 oz black cherry bark (included resin)
  • 0.3 oz juniper berries
  • 1 tbs hops flowers
  • 1 tbs ginger root
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 ½ quart water
  • 1 cup sugar (brown sugar)
  • yeast starter (ale yeast, reclaimed from a perry).


Then it was time to brew! The kids scraped the bark off the wintergreen and spicebush twigs. He chopped the dandelion root and grated the ginger root. He broke the birch bark, the cherry bark and the dried licorice root into little pieces. He picked the juniper berries from between the greens. And crushed the cinnamon stick. Mom got homegrown hops from the freezer (he’s not touching the hops supply). He measured everything on the scale, and added it all to the big sauce pot. He measured and added the 2 ½ quarts of water. Turned on the stove, and brought it up to a boil. When boiling, it was turned down to a simmer, to simmer for 20 minutes. When done, mom put the pot in the sink in cold water to cool. The infusion was left to sit overnight.


The next day, he poured some reclaimed ale yeast into a 1 gallon carboy, and poured the infusion – through a filter – into the same carboy. He added 1 cup of sugar, for the yeast. He then shook the carboy well to dissolve all the sugar, and carefully poured the infusion into his recycled fliptop soda bottles. They were left in a warm place to start fermentation. They will stay out for a few days, until carbonation is visible, and then be refrigerated to stop/slow down the yeast.

A table showing the different botanicals that can be used in root-beer (X marks the ones we used):

Roots and herbs

Sassafras albidum – roots, leaves, bark
Pimenta dioica – allspice

Smilax ornata sarsaparilla X Juniperus communis – juniper berries

Smilax glyciphylla – sweet sarsaparilla
Trigonella foenum-graecum – fenugreek

Piper auritum – root beer plant
Myroxylon balsamum – Tolu balsam
X Glycyrrhiza glabra – liquorice (root)
Abies balsamea – balsam fir

Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
Myristica fragrans – nutmeg

Gaultheria procumbens – wintergreen (leaves and berries) X Cinnamomum verum – cinnamon (bark)
X Betula lenta – sweet birch (sap/syraup/resin)
Cinnamomum aromaticum – cassia (bark)
X Betula nigra – black birch (sap/syrup/resin)
Syzygium aromaticum – clove
X Prunus serotina – black cherry
Foeniculum vulgare – fennel (seed)

Picea rubens – red spruce X Zingiber officinale – ginger (stem/rhizome)

Picea mariana – black spruce
Illicium verum – star anise

Picea sitchensis – Sitka spruce
Pimpinella anisum – anise

Arctium lappa – burdock (root) X Humulus lupulus – hops (bells/flowers)
X Taraxacum officinale – dandelion (root)
Mentha species – mint

Other ingredients

Hordeum vulgare – barley (malted)

Hypericum perforatum – St. John's wort

X Sugar


X Yeast

Note: black birch and the evergreen Gaultheria are both sources for the scent wintergreen.
Note: while in medieval European brewing Juniperus communis was used, as we have several mature trees of Juniperus virginiana we used that instead. Like its European counterpart, Virginian juniper is also used to flavor gin.

Medieval European plausibility of our chosen ingredients: [yes / no]

black birch bark wh eastern North America no
spicebush bark wh eastern North America no
dandelion root wh native to Eurasia and North America yes
birch bark wh native to Eurasia and North America yes
black cherry bark wh eastern North America, Central America no
juniper berries hg native to Eurasia and North America yes
hops flowers hg introduced to northern Europe in the 9th century yes
licorice root cs native to southern Europe and parts of Asia yes
ginger root cs exported to EU via India in the first century AD yes
cinnamon stick cs exported to EU via Africa (Egypt) from Sri Lanka yes

Legenda – wh: wild harvested; hg: home grown; cs: commercially sourced


  • this is an excellent youth-adult project!
  • neither of us liked the licorice after-taste.
  • next time we intend to add burdock, and maybe some mint, or anise – the possibilities are endless!
  • only add a little bit of lees. There is plenty of yeast in even a little bit to start fermentation.
  • if using commercial dry (bread) yeast, a pinch to each bottle is enough.
  • as soon as vigorous carbonation is visible on the outside of the bottles, put them in the fridge.
  • just in case, have a large container ready when opening the flip-top to catch any overly-carbonated blow-out.
  • fermented root beer will go alcoholic eventually – keep an eye on the brew so the kids don’t get too frisky.
  • alcoholic root beer tastes quite good!

And as Sir Kenelme Digby so aptly advised, in his slightly post-period brewing cornucopia:
“You may use what Herbs or Roots you please, either for their tast or vertue…”


Monday, April 30, 2018

Interesting historic brewing blogs

Inn of Bards Rest
Historical research on Beverages and Tavern Life

Brewing Nordic
Exploring the Past, Present and Future of Nordic Beer

'Zee-tho-fyle', by Martyn Cornell, an award-winning blog about beer now and then


A Friend In Mead
Master Madoc Arundel's SCA Brewing Blog

The Draughts are Deep
Master Magnús hvalmagi's quest for the mead of wisdom

Ancient malt and ale
an archaeologist, a brewer and a blog about how the ale was made

Misha's Brewing
Homebrew, Homestead, History and How-to.

Jordan Rex
Beer archaeologist

Literature. Drinking. 【文飲】
Reconstructing Medieval Chinese Wine

Mythbusting medieval brewing preconceptions

You probably have heard them too, those hard-to-check factoids of medieval life. Medieval people had no concept of hygiene. They were dirty people who never bathed as nobody washed themselves in the Middle Ages. The drinking water was so disgusting they drank beer like water. Honey could only be harvested by killing the whole hive. Or, medieval beer was always sour, and flat to boot. It might make us Modern people feel good we know 'better' than our uneducated ancestors, although not all 'facts' are as factual as one might think...

A handful of common misconceptions about medieval brews:

#1 Medieval braggot is a malted mead

Modern braggot is a type of mead which gets its fermentable sugars both from honey and from barley malt, typically between 30 to 50%. In history, the definition of a braggot seems to be quite different. The 14th century recipe Ad faciendum brakott from Curye on Inglysch uses already fermented ale from grains used twice; a second run, which would be weaker and benefit from the extra honey sugars. The Customs of London and The Haven of Health and The Jewel House of Art and Nature al use already fermented ale as well. The Haven of Health adds barm at the end to start secondary fermentation and The Jewell House of Art and Nature recommends strong new ale, which would also re-ferment by adding more sugars, i.e. back-sweetening with honey. As historic recipes request ale (fermented) and not malt (before fermentation), even though secondary fermentation is often part of the process, it seems medieval braggot was most likely a back-sweetened spiced ale. The abundant use of spices similar to spiced wine - like pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon - also makes a good case for period braggot to be more akin to hippocras (sweetened and spiced wine) than to malted mead, and the whole process might have had more to do with keeping turned ale drinkable …

The Customs of London, otherwise called Arnold’s Chronicle, 1503.
For Braket. Take a pott of good ale and put therto a porcion of hony and peper in this maner, when thou hast good ale let it stone in a pot ij. Daies and thā drawe out a quarte or a potell of that ale and put to the hony and set it ouer the fire and lete it seethe well and take it of the fire and scinne it clene and than put thertoo the peper and thē set hē on the fire and lete hem boyle wel togedur with esy fir; but peper take iiij. gallons of good ale a pynte of fyn tried hony and the mountenaunce off saucer full of poud’ of pepper, &ct.

The only recipe which seemingly makes malted mead is the 14th century recipe To make fyn meade & poynaunt. Here malt, extra honey, and spices are added to previously fermented fresh mead; in essence making malted mead - but it is pointedly not labeled as a braggot.

10 To make fine mead & poignant.
Take 20 gallons of the previously mentioned pomys cooked in 3 gallons of fine wort, & take 1 gallon of life honey & simmer it well & scum it well until it is clear enough; & add to it 3 pennyworth powder of pepper & 1 pennyworth powder of cloves & let it boil well together. & when it is cold put it into the vessel of the barreled up previously mentioned mead; add it to it, & close it well as it is said before.

#2 Beer, including medieval beer, is made with barley

Depending on where the beer is made, it is made with whatever was easiest to grow locally, or most affordable to import. For instance, during the Dark Ages in the Low Countries this meant mostly oats, with some wheat, as seen in this 1366 recipe from Gouda, the Netherlands, which uses 45 measures oats with 9 measures wheat, and no barley. Not until the middle Ages did barley make an appearance, and even then only as the third grain in the overall grain bill.

1373 - City ordinances of Breda, concerning the beers of Delft, the Netherlands. “Also it is ordained by the lord and the city, that if the beer comes from Delft, the total brew being 20 to 18 full barrels is done with 17 bags of malt of the measurements of Delft, this being six bags of wheat, three bags of barley, and eight bags of oats of the same weight, as used in Delft.” 

While oats were readily available in the middle Ages, brewing with it had a few drawbacks. Oat starch does not convert as easily into fermentable sugars as other grains. It also can not be malted. The malting process of sprouting the grain for it to release the starch-converting enzymes makes oats too soft to be milled. During the steep milled malted oats turn into mush and are then impossible to filter back out. The medieval solution was to use unmalted oats, and to add at least 25% of another grain that was malted, to supply the needed enzymes for sugar conversion (similar to the modern practice of decoction brewing). This explains why on average the medieval grain bill was about 60-70% rolled oats, 10-20% malted wheat and 15-25% malted barley. Using oats, even with its brewing drawbacks, could have been for the practical reason that malting used significant resources, including time, a sprouting floor and a malting oven, and that this way only 25% of the grain bill had to undergo the malting process.

The availability of grains also depended on whether or not the country was in war or had suffered a bad harvest. In years of need, certain grains would be reserved for baking only, to feed the population: “Ergo nobody make malt with rye, nor brew any beer, on a fine of 3 pounds, all this without argue.”

#3 Wort has to be boiled to make beer

In a way, this is true, if the word beer is taken to mean only hopped beer. If it means any grain beverage, then it is not, as ale can easily be made without boiling the must. Wort is made by adding warm water to crushed malted, and unmalted, grains, making a mash. The sprout starches and enzymes leach out and during the warm steep the enzymes convert starches into fermentable sugars. This sugary mixture is called the wort. It is possible in early medieval brewing the wort was only heated shortly and not boiled at all, as the step of mashing and heating would happen in the same vessel and thus include all the grains (boiling often turns grain to pulp). Due to the introduction of hops in later medieval brewing, a separation of the mashing and boiling step was necessary as hops needs to be boiled for an hour or more to benefit from its preservative effects.

#4 Medieval beer is flat

Medieval beer, and ale, was stored in wooden barrels that do not contain carbonation well after active fermentation stopped. But as un-hopped ale did not store well either - it would spoil rather quickly - it was possible to prime the ale during barreling, to have a carbonated brew until it did spoil. The brew needed to be consumed quickly, before the back-fermentation ran out, and made for delightfully carbonated sweet & sour ale.

Nimweeghse Mol is first encountered as geremol in 1519 and quickly became a successful export product of the 16th century city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Excerpt of a 17th century recipe for Mol: “evaporate [the second run or naebier/near-beer] until it is thick as syrup, and store this until 1/2 hour before one goes barreling-up, then add the thick beer as a syrup and barrel up 1/2 an hour after this.

#5 Medieval beer was sour

Wort exposed to the air will more often than not ‘catch’ more than plain yeast and develop a sour taste due to infections with lactobacillis or brettanomyces. The recipe above shows that, at least by the early Renaissance, sweet & sour ale was made for consumption. The reputation of gruit ale as ‘sweet and heavy ale’ also indicates sweet beer was not unheard off.

#6 Malt extract is a modern invention

Brewing ale or beer with a malt extract is not a modern invention at all. It is quite possible it goes back all the way to the Dark Ages! Brewing solely relying on malt extract, as in, not using any wort made by infusing grains; that is a modern process made possible by the commercial canning industry. The Dutch beer Mol uses evaporated near-beer syrup to make a carbonated sweet & sour beer. English Grout Ale brewers used a similar concentrated malt (or, malt extract) to enrich their brew. The ingredient grout was thought by the English brewers to work as a ferment in the process of brewing, and was thought to make a better, sweeter, high alcoholic beer; a sentiment quite reminiscent with Dark Age gruit brewers.

“English ale is made althus: Take two hundred pound cooked malt / that is wort / two handfuls hop: when that has cooked together and is poured through [filtered off] / one would also mix it together / as has been said above / to know yeast of beer or ale three pounds / and English grout / which we call naerbier / six to eight pounds.”

A 16th century recipe for grout instructs as follows:
“Graut and Naerbier is made althus / said Lobel: take six or eight pounds of milled malt / twelve or fifteen pounds of seething hot water: mix this together well six times a day: cover very well with cloths and straw: and let it soak together so long in a clean barrel that it becomes as thick as syrup. After that one should heat this up with fire / always diligently stirring / so that it does not burn [to the bottom] / until it becomes as thick as porridge.

#7 Medieval mead (or mead in general) is sweet

The popularity of mead waned in the latter part of medieval Europe as the production of honey slowed and prices rose. Due to the increase in availability of cheap wine - by the 14th century a gallon of mead was three times more expensive than a gallon of imported wine - likely only the monasteries and great houses, who kept their own beegardens, could afford to make mead. In southern Europe, where grapes were cultivated, wine became economically more important and elsewhere beer finally supplanted mead. The only wines with which mead could rival were the expensive sweet Southern European wines like Vernage and Malmsey and thus it came about that the dry wine-like mead as it was known then - very good mead was equated with clear, old wine in old medieval leechdoms - became more akin to a sweet sack mead.  

From the Norse Edda’s come two mentions of aged mead (as opposed to young mead):

“Hail rather to thee, youth! and accept an icy cup, filled with old mead; although I thought not that I ever should love one of Vanir race.”
“Hail to thee, Loki! and this cool cup receive, full of old mead: at least me alone - among the blameless Æsir race - leave stainless.”

#8 Medieval mead is made by boiling a hive, bees and all!

According to the medieval & Renaissance printed books, processed honey was valued depending on how it would be removed from the comb: unprocessed ‘life honey’ would be of highest value, that which would easily be leaked out and strained when breaking up or crushing the comb cell structure would be second quality, with third being the washing of the leaked combs in heated water whereby the leftover and crystallized honey dissolves but the wax is not melted. A waste grade would be to squeeze the washed combs with a twisted bag press to get the last little bits of liquid out. Most texts are clear on the value and quality of life honey or first-kind honey, though some are more frugal than others with the leftovers. Thomas Hyll in his 1579 A Profitable Instruction is impatient to let the honey run out by itself and advises, to expedite the process, to press the combs with a heavy weight: “whiche lette lye there, vntil the hony by little and little be run forth, or rather for the more expedition, pressed forthe with a heauy waighte, and the same which is then come forth, is very faire rawe hony” and feels he still gets very fair raw honey.
Butler in Feminine Monarchie lists several techniques to remove honey but feels that pressing goes too far “& some (which is worse) doe violently presse it out. But by these means they shal have no fine & pure raw hony, howsoever afterward they handle it.” He advocates a combination of crushing, after having caught all the life honey, by “pound with a pestle, or crush often with your hands al to pieces, & let it run as before”, and soaking “set it in some vessel over a soft fire, and stil keep your hand in the vessel stirring about the honie and the wax, and opening the wax piece-meale until the hony and not the wax shal be molten: and then powre out all into a strainer, & wring out the hony” and mixes the two to raise the quality of the latter “but thus this good hony wil become but course: and therefore put it to the second shoot”.

Thus, according to these books, honey is not removed from the hive, or the comb, by boiling, but by a gentle rinse. Not until the honey is intended for mead making is it to be boiled, especially honey of a lesser quality. Heresbach mentions in his Fovre Bookes of Hvsbandriethe Honey that is of the worst making, is to be boiled” but as he does not explain what to use this boiled honey for, it is unclear if he means this for fermentation (as honey is often clarified through boiling prior to fermentation), cooking, or something else. Butler also mentions boiling low quality or coarse honey “The coarse honey being boiled and clarified has a most pleasant & delicate tast” indicating clarification betters the taste of the honey to then brew with it: “having boiled and scummed it, put it to your brewlock.” But be aware, even Butler was aware too much (or too high) heating evaporates the volatile fragrances “overmuch boiling consumes the spirittuous parts of the honey, and turnes the sweet tast into bitter” which puts to the question the modern practice of literally boiling honey for an extended time…

#9 Melomels are a modern thing

The historic recipes found show that honey would most often be used to brew plain mead, spiced metheglin or honeyed-ale braggot. The combination of honey, fermentation and different kinds of fruit juice is known, though the practice is not common enough yet to have coined our modern terms melomel (for fruit mead), cycer (for apple mead) or pyment (for grape mead). While melomeli was known to the Romans as a wine made from honey and fruit juices, and the word possibly came by the Greek melimelon or melomeli for apple-honey or tree fruit-honey, it does not seem to have been adopted into the English language as such until well after the middle Ages.

Of course, fermenting with fruit, an easy to come by sugar often with their own ambient yeast strains, is not at all uncommon and fruit wines were known to be made by settlers of the foothills of the Alps as early as 2000 BCE from wild grapes, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, bittersweet nightshade and cornelian cherries. Cider and perry, or fermented plain apple and pear juice, are also well known and mentioned in numerous historic texts, including the Bible - and in “without sider and wyn and meeth men and wommen myght lyve full long”, quoted from Peacock, 1449. The combination of fruit juice and honey might not have been common practice, but thankfully for us re-enacting melomel enthusiasts a tiny handful of interesting examples does exist. This could be attributed to the medieval idea that while honey and its many products were regarded as healthy and medicinal, fruit was not as such, as voiced by Thomas Cogan “considering that fruites doe ingender ill humours” in his Haven of Health.

The one and only book listing brewing recipes using honey and fruit (a whopping 2 recipes) is the 16th century beekeeping manual Van de Byen (About Bees). Not only does the recipe below make plausible the use of fruit in medieval mead, it also validates the method of adding fruit juice in secondary fermentation. Modern brewers often prefer to brew plain mead first and add fruit juice only after fermentation slows down, about a month later, to make sure most of the fruit flavor is saved for the end product. Otherwise, the yeast will eat the fruit sugars first, and start on the honey sugars only after the fruit sugars are all consumed, resulting in a plain(er) mead.

Van de Byen by Theodorus Clutius, 1597.
To make red wine-like honey-water. Take of the mead of the two types mentioned above 64. stoopen / add 16. stoop juice of amarellen [sour, dark red cherries with long stems] / another two stoop honey / mix this together and set it to rise as above. This wine-like honey-water is very good against fever / and those anguished with excess heat / against defects of the brain / and one can use it instead of wine / for those whom wine is forbidden. At such days one can also make wine-like water with the juice of red currants / red and black cherries / also of grapes / apples / and pears / always add in the proportions of the amarellen / as is previously explained.

Bonus: #10 Did specialty honey exist back then?

As an endnote, a small tidbit on specialty honey. Varietal honey is occasionally mentioned in medieval sources, like lavender honey, but mostly in the context of cooking and cosmetics. As honey bees forage on anything flowering within range, even modern varietal honey only means that at that specific time and place, most of the plants flowering were such-and-such. And if unknown? That’s where ‘wild flower’ honey comes from… Varietal honey is possible due to mono-cultivation, which, apart from extensive French lavender fields, is not typically associated with medieval agriculture.
       Out of all the recipes I’ve seen, I came across only one medieval recipe from the Netherlands (undated) which lists honey specifically from the ‘lis’ (likely the gele lis, or yellow iris; Iris pseudacorus). It is questionable if this single recipe indicates specialty honey would have been available and used in brewing in medieval times, or if it truly is an anomaly…

382. To make mead, take 22 stoops water, and add therin 3 quarters Iris [Iris pseudacorus] virgin honey, when it is dissolved, let is simmer and scum well, and then add 2 stoop water and scum well; add therein another 2 stoop water and scum well; then it shall be 29 stoop and let it simmer down to 26 stoop; and let it shrink another 2 stoop; then it shall be good mead of 2 inghelsen [?].

May the Sources be with you… the experimental brewer!





Flat & Sour
  • Ferro, Rudolf Nunes. Een verloren gewaand bierrecept herondekt. De berijdingswijze van de Nijmeegse Mol. Jaarboek Numaga 41, 1994.
  • Wubs-Mrozewicz, Justyna. Hopped Beer as an Innovation. Trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. Continuity and change in the North Sea area and the Baltic c. 1350-1750. Hanno Brand (Editor). Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2005.
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018. https://www.academia.edu/35704222/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Gruit

Malt extract
  • Karkeel, Paul Q. White Ale. Reports and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art. Vol. IX. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son, 1877 (p. 192).
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. The Rise and Fall of Gruit. 2018. https://www.academia.edu/35704222/The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Gruit

Sweet mead
  • Anderson, Rasmus B. (Editor). The Elder Edda’s of Saemund Sigfusson (translated by Benjamin Thorpe). The Younger Edda’s by Snorre Sturleson (translated by I.A. Backwell). London: Norroena Society, 1906 (p. 77, 93). http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14726
·       Kritsky, Gene. Beekeeping from Antiquity through the Middle Ages. The Annual Review of Entomology 62:249–64, 2017 (p. 253). http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-ento-031616-035115
  • McGovern, Patrick. Uncorking the Past. The Quest for Wine, Beer, and other Alcoholic Beverages. California: University of California Press, 2009 (p. 238).
  • Gayre, Robert. Wassail! In Mazers of Mead. Colorado, US: Brewers Publications, 1986 (p. 101-04, 202).
·       Crane, Eva. Mead. Wine and Food (49) 30-34, 1950. Eva Crane Trust (p. 31-32). http://www.evacranetrust.org/uploads/document/e94db7659de86ee1879ec266b3fdc06d11efcd90.pdf

Specialty honey
  • Vreese, 100 Middelnederlandsche geneeskundige recepten en tractaten, zegeningen en tooverformules (Medieval Dutch healing recipes and manuscripts, blessings and magical formulas). The handwritten manuscript itself is part of the collection of the Royal Flemish Academy (Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie) in Gent.
  • For detailed citations &c.: Verberg, Susan. Of hony. A collection of Mediaeval Brewing Recipes. 2017. https://www.academia.edu/31052051/Of_Hony_-_A_collection_of_Mediaeval_brewing_recipes

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Nalbound hats using the Oslo stitch

Behold the story of the creation of two nalbound hats, entered in the Passing of the IceDragon A&S Pentathlon AS52; Category: Fib5 Nalbinding. The hats originated from two questions: can energized yarn (a common beginners mistake) still make something useful? is it practical to re-purpose warp-weighted loom waste for nalbinding? Both questions were answered with a resounding yes, and I have a suspicion not only could WW loom waste easily be used, but that this is what it was used for.

What is nalbinding
Nalbinding is a textile technique usually done with a needle and thread, in which loops are connected to form a fabric. As opposed to working with a needle and tread as a seamstress or embroiderer to mend or embellish existing fabric, someone using nalbinding is creating new fabric. It is a technique still found practiced in many (lesser developed) parts of the world. (Claßen-Büttner 2015, 9)

Selected historic finds from Scandinavian context
The oldest nalbound fragment, supposedly a piece of a mesh sieve made of plant fibers, is from a cave in Israel, Nahal Hemar, approximately 6500 BCE. Fragments found in Denmark date from 4200 BCE. (Claßen-Büttner 2015, 32; neulakintaat.fi)

Cloak tab with silver and gold nalbound decoration from 10th century Mammen, Denmark.

In a grave of a man buried with expensive clothes in Mammen, Denmark (970-971 CE) were found pieces of nalbinding in gold and silver wrapped silk threads. (Iversen 1991,132)
10th century nalbound sock from York / Yorvik, UK.

An intricate Viking Age artifact is the nalbound sock discovered during the Coppergate excavations in York from 1976-81. Archaeologists from York Archaeologist Trust (YAT) were surveying the ground underneath a demolished factory ahead of the shopping centre being built, and discovered incredibly well-preserved remains of streets in the principal Northern city of Viking Britain.  Waterlogged, oxygen-free soil had stopped not only 1000-year-old timbers from rotting away, but had also preserved a huge selection of Viking artifacts, large and small. The stitch type used in this sock has not been found anywhere else, so it is called York Stitch or Coppergate Stitch (also Jorvik Stitch), based on the place where it was found. (yorkarchaeology)

    Finnish Viking Age nalbound mittens.

Another Viking Age find from Finland includes mittens made with nalbinding. The find also included a pair of shields and helmets, a pair of shoulder brooches on the shoulder, a pair of chain cuffs, a pair of twisted cuff links, bronze twisted ribbons, and two rings on each hand. On basis of the jewelry and money, tomb 56 is dated to the very end of the Vikings. Possibly, English money outside the neckline is from coins of the youngest tomb. The coins were beaten in 1018 AD. (translated from Finnish by author; Vajanto 2003, 22, 24)

[above] An 11th century mitten found in Oslo, Norway. It is made using the Oslo stitch, the same stitch I used on my hats. The material of the mitten is unknown, but likely wool. (Claßen-Büttner 2015, 46)

[below] The nalbound hat of Saint Simeon, from Trier, Germany of around 1000 AD. The material of the hat is undyed wool. The linen fabric and tablet woven border on the edge were added later. The hat was believed to provide a miracle cure for headaches. (Claßen-Büttner 2015, 49) 

My project
I made two nalbound hats using the Oslo stitch. One hat is made from homespun dyed and undyed wool, plied into an energized 3 ply for a stretchy hat. The other is made from commercial single ply warp-weighted loom waste, plied into a 4 ply. It is thought that because of the nature of the nalbinding technique, which uses short pieces of yarn as opposed to a continuous yarn like knitting, nalbinding would be a great way to re-purpose loom waste that otherwise would be too short for use.

Hat number one:
I used my first hand spun yarn for this hat (California red roving a friend had processed). As I had a bunch of small dyed balls of roving lying around from a previous Natural Dyeing A&S practice I decided to spin that, about twice the diameter as the white single, to ply together to create a pleasing visual texture. I used my brand new spinning wheel to wind the white single on two bobbins, and the colored single on one, and then plied all three together to make a 3 ply yarn. Unfortunately, I had misunderstood the plying instructions and added twist in the same direction both times. This resulted in quite an energized yarn (more like an elastic band, than a yarn!) full of rat tails. I figured, stretch in a hat is not a bad thing, so let’s make this a learning moment, and go with what I have... and as I hoped, it indeed made an awesome stretchy hat, which fits many heads.
 The highly energized yarn showing many 'rat tail' tangles.

The dye colors came from several different dye baths, including madder, cochineal, copper, iron, onion, logwood, tumeric, black walnut etc. The dyes were all leftovers from the 2017 Gulf Wars fiber classes which I brought back up North for a natural dyeing A&S practice.

Hat number two:
I used loom waste singles of about 3 feet long, this is a typical length for loom waste from a warp-weighted loom as there is quite some length between the top heddle bar (above which is woven) and the hanging weights.

First I tried with a 3 ply, but the grey loom waste singles are thin and with my bone needle (the width determines the loop diameter) it made for an open structure. Next I made a 4 ply and that worked well. At first I plied them with a drop spindle and set them in hot water, but when I realized they would twist themselves, I just put them in hot water in a bundle of four by themselves to twist and turn to their hearts content. It made very nice, fluffy yarn and worked beautifully with my bone needle. I added a small white trim as that was the yarn I used in the selvage of my weave.

       Working on the second hat – the beginning top circle.

The Oslo Stitch
After taking several classes on nalbinding, none of which took, I got lucky with a hand out my sister shared with me. The images in the handout did it, and I learned I do not nalbind using my thumb, which is what most classes teach. I keep the loop between my fingers and use the gauge or diameter of the bone needle to determine loop width.

The Oslo stitch is a simple stitch, described with O/UO: this means ‘over’ / ‘under,’ ‘over’ or the needle goes first over the thread of the loop (or bottom row of stitches), then under, and then over again of the previously made stitch.

 From 'Basic Naalbinding:' the beginning steps to make a circular loop using the O/UO Oslo stitch. This loop would become the top of the hat (the tail is pulled to the inside).

Forming shapes with the nalbound technique is a matter of adding a second stitch to a loop, or skipping a loop (stitching two at the same time). This will increase or decrease the diameter of the fabric. It takes a bit more attention to make a flat hat, than it does to make the typical pointed Viking ‘Hershey’ hat. I made one of both for this project.

Both hats on display.

- energized yarn makes awesome hats
- I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to ply singles, and what a nice yarn it makes
- loom waste is great for making nalbound projects

Next up, I am challenging myself to make socks, like the Yorvik sock shown earlier in the documentation. It will be interesting to see if I can make a matching set.

Side note:
Yes, I made the bone needle myself. I used a metal hack saw to cut strips from the leg bone, a file to shape it to a point, and sand paper. The hole was drilled prior to filing, and then sanded out. It is from the leg bone of one of our backyard goats. I find bone needles to handle more pleasantly than metal or smooth wood, especially if the bone still has some file marks to give it texture.

Previously published in the AEthelmearc Gazette as Nalbound Hats:


Ulrike Claßen-Büttner (2015) Nalbinding What in the World is That? History and Technique of an Almost Forgotten Handicraft. Norderstedt: Books on Demand (BOD).

Sarah Goslee (undated) Basic Naalbinding

Mette Iversen (ed.) (1991) Mammen Grav, kunst og samfund I vinkinetid. Jysk Arkaeologisk Selskabs Skrifter XXVIII I kommission hos Aarhus Universitetsforlag. Højbjerg, Denmark: Jysk Arkaeologisk Selskabs.

Sanna-Mari Pihlajapiha (undated) History of Nalbinding

Krista Vajanto (Master’s thesis) (2003) EURAN EMÄNNÄN NEULAKINTAAT, TUTKIELM A LUISTARIN HAUDAN  56 NE ULAKINNAS FRAGME NTEISTA (Euran Shoulder Needles, research from the fragments of the area of Luistar Hauda 56) Kulttuurien tutkimuksen laitos Arkeologian oppiaine.

Artefacts discovered during the Coppergate excavations in York 1976-81

JORVIK Viking Centre brings the Vikings to life in York once again (2017)


York sock image (as the museum images are now only for sale)

Oslo stitch mitten (probably from Nordland 1961, and also on page 45 of Claßen-Büttner 2015)

Hat of saint simeon (image from Claßen-Büttner 2015, 49 but in color).

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Felt - nature's nurture

Felt, the oldest known textile used by mankind, is not woven. It uses no loom to make, and needs no special equipment or ingredients. Technically, it does not even need mankind. Take a wild sheep out frolicking in the rain and sun, and felt will inevitably happen. Early man would have seen this too: this matted wool hanging off the sides of sheep, shed wool stuck to branches subsequently formed by the elements into a mass of fibers. And maybe one day a clever one thought: my rawhide shoes hurt, I wonder, what would happen if I pad it with some of this soft, bouncy stuff lying about?

 Icelandic sheep in need of some TLC.

            This is the stuff of myths and legends - and quite literally. Making felt is older than spinning and weaving and many cultures have legends about how felt-making was invented. Sumerians claimed felt-making was invented by their legendary traveler and warrior hero Urnamman of Lagash. Christian legends speak of Saint Clement, the patron saint of hatters, and Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, fleeing from prosecution and footsore had packed their sandals with wool. At the end of their arduous journey, the movement and sweat had turned the wool into felt socks. A favorite with children is the story of Noah’s ark, where the animals herded together in the Ark shed their fleece and during the voyage trampled it underfoot. When the animals left the Ark, Noah was amazed to find the floor carpeted in felt! In Persia the discovery of felt is attributed to Solomon’s son who was a shepherd. Having seen matted wool up close and personal, he was sure it could be made into fabric without the aid of a loom. But try as he might he could not make the fibers stick together, and stomped about on the fleece crying large tears of frustration. Lo and behold! He had discovered felt. Of course, the archaeological evidence points to the existence of felt long before Christian times. Felt is considered to be the earliest man-made fabric, and was critical to the survival of many early communities. However, the legends do contain an element of fact: they all refer to the three things necessary to produce felt – fleece, moisture and agitation.
In history, felt played a central role in the lives of inhabitants in Central Asia, Mongolia and parts of the Middle East. These tribes made clothing, saddles, and tents from felt because it was strong and resistant to wet and snowy weather. They also buried their dead covered with felt, and some of the earliest felt remains were found in the frozen tombs of nomadic horsemen in the Siberian Tlai Mountains and date to around 700 BC. Felt found in the frozen tomb of a nomadic tribal chief from the fifth century BC shows a highly developed technology of felt-making. The earliest felt found in Scandinavia was also found covering a body in a tomb in Hordaland, Norway, and is believed to be from about 500 AD. The Roman and Greeks knew of felt as well, and Roman soldiers were equipped with felt breastplates for protection from arrows, as well as felt tunics, boots and socks.
            Because of its weather resistant properties felt is still in use in many parts of the world, especially in areas with harsh climates. Traditionally, the yurts or tents Mongolian nomads live in are made from felt. Nomadic tribes from South Central Asia also uses felt as tent coverings, rugs and blankets. In Scandinavia and Russia, felt boots are produced and widely used. The kepenek, a Turkish shepherd’s cloak, is thought to have been in use at least since medieval times and protects the wearer from heat in summer and cold and wet in winter. And in the province of Agri, Turkey, men still wear the traditional kullik, a conical felt cap made from lamb’s wool.

14th century Lappvattnet medieval hat from Sweden, thought to be one of the best preserved medieval hats in Sweden, Scandinavia and possibly even Europe.

             It is generally assumed all felt is made of wool. This is not necessarily the case: for instance early hat-making felt was produced using animal fur, generally beaver fur. The fur was matted with other fibers—including wool—using heat, pressure, and moisture. Beaver felt hats were made in the late Middle Ages and were much coveted. By the end of the fourteenth century hatmakers in the Low Countries started mass producing them, thus driving down the price. A process called ‘carroting’ was invented in the middle of the seventeenth century by which skins were dried in an oven (over-heated fur would turn carrot-orange), stretched and sliced off the fleece. This process used a solution of the mercury containing compound mercuric nitrate and this toxic solution, and the vapors it produced, resulted in widespread cases of mercury poisoning among hatters. The phrase "mad as a hatter" might be more literal than generally realized!
Flaundryssh bever hat (Flemish beaver hat)
The Merchant in the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ca. 1410.

The medieval technique of using water to felt fibers is called wet felting. Only certain types of fibers can be wet felted; including most types of fleece (like sheep, alpaca and camel), mohair (goat), angora (rabbit) or hair from rodents such as beavers and muskrats. The reason why these fibers can be felted and others not, is because these fibers are covered in tiny scales. Moisture, motion and heat within a fleece cause the scales to open, and agitation causes them to latch on to each other, creating felt. Plant fibers and synthetic fibers will not do this and thus do not wet felt. A more modern method of felting uses needles to create the felting effect without using water. The needles have notches along the shaft of the needle that catch fibers and tangle them with other fibers to create felt. Needle felting is used in industrial processes to create large sheets of felt, and in crafting to create three dimensional shapes and adornments.
When choosing felt to recreate medieval garments and accessories, it is good to realize the difference in technique of wet felting and needle felting between modern commercial felt, and felt used in medieval times. Medieval felt would mostly be wool or fur based and wet felted, while modern felt is mostly made of synthetic fibers and needle felted. Keep in mind that while felt is made from scratch, fulled fabrics are first woven and then wet felted, to create a sturdier and more weatherproof woolen fabric. Thus a woolen fabric can be fulled, but is not a felt; and (pre-)felt is fulled to make felt. Not to be confusing, or anything.

How to make your own sheet felt.
Start with roving (wool prepared for spinning) of a type of wool that felts well. Not all wool felts equally, and a simple but effective way to test this is to take a bit, dampen your palms, and rub both hands together with the roving in the middle. The friction, combined with moisture, will create heat and the wool roving should compact and shrink, and thus felt.

 Workshop Felt 101: Layering the roving.

            On a large piece of plastic lay out thin layers of fibers pulled from the roving, all pointing the same way. Expect shrinkage of about 30% so adjust your size accordingly. When you’ve made your first layer (left to right), add another layer on top – now going the opposite direction (perpendicular, thus up and down). Having the layers of fibers cross each other helps interlock the fibers more firmly. When you have about 3 to 5 layers, spray warm soapy water over the whole piece, concentrating more of the water in the central area then at the edges. All fibers should be dampened, but not soaked; a little water goes a long way.
With your hands gently rub the fibers together, like a relaxing back massage. Imagine pressing the water into and through the fibers. If you like, lay some tulle or netting - like the bags used for bulk onions or oranges - over the fibers to help with friction. When the fibers start to tangle, or interlock, take another piece of plastic and cover the top. Roll a pool noodle over the whole piece while flat on the table, up to a hundred times. The piece can be flipped over and rolled from the opposite side as well.
Then take your noodle, and wrap your fiber package around the outside of it, and wrap a towel around that. Secure and go sit down and watch a good TV show, while continuously rolling this fiber-towel-roll randomly underneath your feet, in front of the couch, for about a hundred times and more.
When you think it is done, unroll the piece and gently pull on a little bit to see how well it has tangled. If the fibers are overly wet it can tear easily, so be careful when removing the plastic. Check for wrinkles which can develop if the piece is not rolled firmly and smooth them out. Remove any excess water by rolling and gently pressing with the towel. Move on to the next step, or let it dry to use later, either on the table or draped over a chair or drying rack. You have just made your first piece of pre-felt.

Rolling the pre-felt with soap and pool noodles.

Rolling the pre-felt with feet.

To full or shrink pre-felt down to its final size.
  • Remove the pre-felt from the plastic and gently wring it out. If it does not seem very soapy, add some more soap. Wet with hot tap water and wring out again. Rub the pre-felt between your hands until it begins to feel as if it is shrinking. Open it up and check to see how it looks and rub to shrink areas as you go.
  • This is the fun part: throw the felting piece into the sink about 100 times. Do this at random, letting the piece move around so it hits the hard surface differently each time.
  • Put some cold water and vinegar into the sink (the acidic vinegar neutralizes the alkaline soap). Submerge the felt and let it soak for a few minutes.
  • Empty the sink; rub the pre-felt and throw it some more to shrink it even further.
  • Heat up water to the boiling point, pour into the sink, add the felted piece and let it soak for a few minutes. Add some cold water until it is just cool enough to put your hands in. Swish the felt around and press the water out.
  • Drain the sink and fill again, this time with real cold water, and add the felt. Swish around until the felt is cool.
  • (repeat the previous two steps if you think it necessary)
  • Gently press out the water and roll the felt in a towel to remove excess water. The felt can be further dried by ironing it, putting it in the dryer for circa half an hour, or simply by hanging it to dry. Steam can be used to set a three dimensional shape: a stock pot steamer for felt stuffed with newspapers works; a steam iron works just as well (for more info see links below).

Home made sheet felt has many uses: a thick mat can be used to sleep on when going a-Viking Hiking, or used to make armor. A small piece can be added as insoles to thin-soled turnsole shoes. It can be used to make rabbit-fur edged Viking hats (with or without the rabbit fur). It can be doubled over, with plastic in the middle, to felt into a bag. It can be molded over a bowl, or a ball, to make all sorts of hats. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination…

DIY pictures are from a workshop I took this summer at ROC Day, organized by the Black Sheep Handspinners Guild of Ithaca, NY. The felting information is summarized from the accompanying handout Introduction to Felting Workshop ROC Day 2018.

For more information on making hats:
- Modern felting instructions on making a felt hat from fibers.
- Tips on making medieval hat reproductions.
- Links to medieval manuscripts showing many period hats.
- How-to on making a Scythian felt hat, based on a Scythian archer pictured on a Greek vase.

For more on the history of felt:

Workshop photographs by me.

Previously published in the AEthelmearc Gazette as Felt: Nature's Nurture, May 3rd, 2018.