Barbarian Beverages: The Noble Savage - a simple cocktail with an archaeological twist


While recording the latest, third, episode of the Brute Norse Podcast, me and my guest Aksel Klausen strayed into a long digression about one of our favorite subjects: Drinking culture in the past. The act of drinking is, as I've mentioned elsewhere, a deeply symbolic act. What, where, and how we drink unveils our identities, and often our taboos. Drinking correctly can earn you social prestige, but drinking inappropriately has a wider range of possible outcomes, from the carnivalesque to the abhorrent. Next time you go to a party, bring wine and drink it out of a ceramic mug, or a jar. It will raise questions.

Drinking is socially stratified: For example drinking beer was considered somewhat antithetical to drinking wine, historically. I am thinking of my own, native Norwegian society, but it could apply to many other places too. Beer was unpretentious, but also not "cultured". Today, it does not always make sense to talk about beer in broad terms: It's been accepted as the rich culinary expression it is.

With this came an admittance that beer is also culture - obviously, there was never a point where it wasn't. Even the archetype of the village drunk is a saturated cultural expression. What we're really talking about, is shifting perceptions of what constitutes high and low culture.

Anyway, the dichotomy of beer against wine has ancient roots: Wine drinking cultures, such as ancient Rome and Greece, have tended to perceive beer drinking as barbarian, or at the very least vulgar. Bavarians obviously see no stigma in the consumption of beer, while prohibition era Iceland eventually made exceptions for wine and hard liquor (you might say that Nordic drinking culture was spiritual, wink wink), but they made no exception for beer which , unbelievable as it may sound, was illegal until 1989. It was branded a gateway drug, which can be compared to legalizing cocaine, but not cannabis. A poignant metaphor given Rekjavík's past (?) reputation as a safe harbor for yuppies, who were all drinking prosecco anyway.

Beer drinking cultures have tended to be less judgmental, though there are certainly examples where proponents of beer culture have accused wine of promoting decadence and snobbery, both today and in the ancient past. In Norse and Germanic society, there seems to have been a social hierarchy of beverages: Beer is good, and mead is excellent, but wine is the stuff of legend. Heroic poems like Atlakvi­ða passionately refer to the glory of the feasting hall, where champions take deep sips from "wine-heavy ale bowls". Talk about hedonism. 


at juellinge in denmark, this roman era woman was laid to rest with roman drinking vessels and a strange concoction.

at juellinge in denmark, this roman era woman was laid to rest with roman drinking vessels and a strange concoction.

Under the Roman Influence

A proverbial dip into some of the archaeological evidence for Bronze and Iron Age Nordic beverages, primarily in the form of residue on the inside of drinking vessels and containers, suggest that these Nordic cultures were far from purists when it came to what they drank. The residue bears witness to the spectral presence of berries, malt from beer, and pollen and wax from honey mead. There are also occasional traces of wine, and pitch that could either be used to flavor the beverages, but probably as a sealant for the vessels. Wine, of course, being telltale of contact with the mediterranean.

While it is impossible to tell whether or not all of this was contained in the vessels at once, there are enough of these examples to suggest that people living in prehistoric, Bronze Age, and Iron and Dark Age Northern Europe, consumed mixed beverages, often referred to as Nordic grog by the venerable professor Patrick McGovern, who refers to them in such classics as Ancient Wine, Uncorking the Past, and lastly, Ancient Brews - the most recent addition to his bibliography.

I've not read that last one, but you should definitely read the former if you're interested in history, fermented beverages, the history of fermented beverages, or the fermented beverages of history. Let me rephrase that: If you are culturally conscious person person who eats and drinks, then you should read at least one of these books, or die. If you are a scholar, you should buy Uncorking the Past, sit down with a typewriter, and retype every word of it. You will have grown as an educator by the end of it.

There are a lot of opinions about what constitutes a so-called serious academic. I believe it is one who takes his or her material so seriously, that they cannot help but reach out to the public. Who are unafraid of breaking the mold. McGovern is just that, as his impassioned, amiable writing style demonstrates. His books achieve to be both pioneering academic text books, and page turners.

Anyway, my friend and I were chatting. We were already somewhat tipsy on his homemade Roman inspired mulled wine. An earthy, spicy beverage he had fashioned from amphora-fermented Sicilian nectar. As it ran out we decided to return to our barbarian roots and recreate a drink we'd enjoyed many times before, usually by an open fire under the blushing sky of long Norwegian summer nights. This simple, contemporary interpretation of Nordic grog requires only two ingredients: Red wine and lager beer. 

Our choice of ingredients was unpretentious, in true barbarian fashion. The wine came from a Shetland duty free, apparently branded by the store itself. If I recall, I found it somewhat dry and earthy, yet not too heavy on the tannins. Online reviews absolutely slaughter it. We topped it off with Faxe Premium. This Danish pilsner was a no brainer given the horned viking adorning the can.

The result was, according to the words of my companion, the best of both worlds: A drink that achieves to be both diluted wine, and fortified beer, satisfying Roman, as well as barbarian thirsts in equal measure! Like a patrician in the gutter in the final days of Rome. Mind you, the wine provides a better complement to the beer than the beer does to the wine, leaving a wine-heavy product laced with the light head and tapered fizz of the danish pilsner. While both ingredients matter as they need to balance each other, don't go overboard with the choice of wine. Save your wallet. Even then it feels significantly fancier to drink than the beer would have felt on its own, as it proved to be quite silky and easy on the tongue. 

Recipe: The noble Savage

1 parts dry, young red wine

1 parts pilsner or similar lager beer


1. Chill the ingredients slightly

2. Pour stoically into a glass drinking bowl,

(Alternately: a highball glass)

3. Mix carefully, don't spill a drop!

4. Sip medio-slowly

Suggested pairings:

Cured ham, gift exchange and blood oaths.

If you would like to hear Aksel's favorite recipe for Roman spiced wine, pledge your support over at the Brute Norse Patreon page.

Seaweed: An Authentic Viking Age Beer Snack


Few things are as telling about a culture as what, how, and where we eat. The seemingly mundane rituals of our daily meals, whether we skip breakfast, eat out, or prepare decadent dinners in our own homes, each meal is a piece in a cultural puzzle that reveals aspects we might not communicate or consider much in our daily lives.

Food fascinates me, and it's only natural that this fascination extends to my love of the past. For all intents and purposes, the fates wanted it so that culinary history became one of my prime research interests, and particularly the cultural history of drinking. The act of drinking goes far beyond the menial task of consuming liquids. At its best, drinking is the celebration of life and happiness. At worst, it's damnation. This dualism is worthy of investigation!

Whether it is tea or tequila, performative drinking offers a framework for social, political and religious rituals. In the case of alcoholic beverages, it contains an alibi for bonding, even courtship (and seduction), under the assumption that intoxication will undress our true motives and reveal who we really are.

Drinks and delicacies

Drinking fits well in the company of light meals. Bitter coffee or wine is frequently accompanied by chocolate, beer is suitedable for savory snacks, like nuts or chips. This was a truism even in Norse culture, where drinks were accompanied by krásir, a term best translated as "delicacies". It's not entirely clear what these delicacies consisted of, though the 13th century Trójumanna saga names the extravagant luxury of pairing wine with "peppered deliacies" of hens and peacocks.

There's no need to go overboard, though. I've found that beer and red dulse seaweed (Palmaria palmata), or sǫl in Old Norse, make for an excellent duo. Incidently, the combination of dulse and drink (though non-alcoholic in this specific case) saved the life of the infamous 10th century viking and poet Egill Skallagrímsson.

Egill thirsts for life

Throughout his days Egill was haunted by traumatic events and near-death experiences. When his much beloved son Bodvar died driving a load of timber that Egill had purchased, it finally drove him off the bend. He fell into psychosis and holed up in his bedchamber in an attempt to starve himself. However, his daughter Þorgerðr devised a cunning plan: She convinced him she was suicidal too, and sat down by his side, chewing salty dulse seaweed, which she claimed speed up the process. This puzzled her father, who asked for a taste. In fact, it did anything but kill him: Þorgerðr eventually called for a drink of water, which proved too tempting for Egill to resist (the saga paints a picture of a very thirsty man), though he was angry to find he'd been tricked into drinking nutritious milk. Once that was done, the girl compelled him to compose a funerary poem to honor their loss, an elegy, insisting they could well die later if they wished. Yet when the poem was finished, Egill no longer felt like dying. His thirst evoked his poetic passion, and his his passion for skaldic poetry whetted his appetite for life.


Palmaria palmata in the wild. Photo: Secretlondon/Wikimedia Commons.

Palmaria palmata in the wild. Photo: Secretlondon/Wikimedia Commons.

The new and archaic Nordic kitchens

Despite its millennia old roots in the Nordic diet, dulse sank into obscurity in modern times. For long, the only means of acquiring it was by going to shore at low tide and foraging it yourself. This can be a quite charming activity if you live in a relatively unpolluted coastal area. Seaweed has since resurfaced in the commercial niche of the new Nordic kitchen, and today it is globally available through select online vendors and Nordic specialist markets. 

If for whatever reason dulse is not available where you live, there are many other options. Japanese and asian markets usually offer some variety of kombu or nori marketed for this exact purpose, and high end American supermarkets like Whole Foods may stock a small variety of kelp and seaweeds as well. Ultimately, there is no feeling that can replace the joy of a free, self-harvested batch dried on your kitchen counter. But whether you are foraging for yourself, or opting for a store bought variety, mind your teeth! You'll be wise to search them for small rocks or grains of sand that may be embedded in the surface (this is not a problem with processed nori). Most edible seaweeds make great snacks if you can stomach the ocean-y taste, and sure as hell makes for a healthier snack alternative than most!


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