A Swedish appetite for beer dates back to the Iron Age, according to new discoveries made by Lund University in Sweden.
The team of archaeologists has discovered carbonised germinated grains, which show that malt was produced for brewing beer during the Iron Age. According to these new findings, beer was produced on a large scale; most likely for feasting, celebrations and trade.
“We found carbonised malt in an area with low-temperature ovens located in a separate part of the settlement. The findings are from the 400-600s, making them one of the earliest evidence of beer brewing in Sweden,” says Mikael Larsson, a specialist in archaeobotany, the archaeology of human-plant interactions.
Beer: a hazy history
The brewing, consumption and distribution of beer was an important aspect of many ancient societies across the world. By way of example, beer was produced in Mesopotamia as far back as 4000 BCE. There have been suggestions that Mesopotamians could have been drinking beer in 10,000 BCE, but there is little evidence to back this up. We do know, though, that beer was drunk in Northern China 9,000 years ago.
But for the Nordic countries, evidence of early beer consumption is scarce, as there are no written sources from before the Middle Ages in this region. Knowledge of beer production has been, so far, dependent on botanical evidence.
Existing findings are limited, though early traces of malt for beer brewing have been discovered in two other places in the Nordics. One is in Denmark from 100 CE and one is in Eketorp on Öland from around 500 CE.
“We often find cereal grains on archaeological sites, but very rarely from contexts that testify as to how they were processed. These germinated grains found around a low-temperature oven indicate that they were used to become malt for brewing beer,” says Larsson.
A centre of political & religious power
Uppåkra, where the grains were discovered, is the largest known Iron Age settlement in southern Scandinavia. It served as a densely populated political and religious centre of power for more than 1000 years, from the 100s BCE to the 1 000s CE.
Many imported and luxury items have been discovered at Uppåkra. Jewellery and glass bowls found on the sites indicate that the location was a rich, bustling trading centre – one that would likely play host to Scandinavia’s oldest brewery.
Scandinavia’s oldest brewery
Making beer is a two-stage process.
Before the actual brewing, the malting process must be executed. Grains are soaked in water, which will allow the grain to germinate. While that’s happening, enzymatic activities convert both proteins and starches of the train into fermentable sugars. When enough sugar has been formed, the germinated grain is dried in an oven with hot air. It was this oven that was discovered and studied in Uppåkra, Sweden.
Larsson explains: “Because the investigated oven and carbonised grain was situated in an area on the site with several similar ovens, but absent of remains to indicate a living quarter, it is likely that large-scale production of malt was allocated to a specific area on the settlement, intended for feasting and/or trading.”