Where to find Britain’s Viking brewhouses

Merryn and Graham Dineley, she an archaeologist specialising in exploring ancient ale-making, he a craft brewer specialising in actually making ancient ales, have produced a fabulous downloadable poster on the visible remains of Viking brewhouses in Britain, which you can find here.

The poster points out that structures which have been interpreted as Viking “bath houses” or “saunas” are much better interpreted as brewhouses, not least because they were right next to the site of the drinking hall, as at Jarlshof on the Mainland of Shetland and Brough of Birsay, a now uninhabited island off the Mainland of Orkney. And really, what do you think a Viking would rather have – a bath or a beer?

To quote from the poster:

We know that the Vikings drank ale. There are numerous references to it in the Sagas. We also know that the ale was made from malt. In the 10th Century AD, Haakon Haroldson, the first Christian king of Norway, decreed that Yule be celebrated on Christmas Day and that every farmstead “should brew two meals of malt into ale”. One brew was for family, the other for guests. There were fines for non-compliance. If they failed to brew for three years in a row their farm was forfeit.
Ale was an important part of the Yule celebrations. Every farmstead had the facilities to make it. The ale was stored in huge vats, close to the drinking hall. The Orkneyinga Saga tells us that Svein Breastrope was ambushed and killed by Svein Asleiferson, who had hidden behind a stone slab by the ale vats in the entrance of the drinking hall at Orphir, Orkney. Since huge ale vats are not easily moved, then the ale must have been mashed and fermented close to the ale store.
The products and by-products of brewing ale are ephemeral, leaving no trace in the archaeological record. Ale is drunk, spent grain is fed to animals and residues are washed down the drains. Only the installations and perhaps some equipment may survive.

Here’s a picture from the poster of the stone-built installation at Cubbie Roo’s Castle, on the island of Wyre, Orkney, a Viking stronghold of the 12th century AD , which, to quote the Dineleys again, “is ideal as a mash oven, with the cauldron sitting above the fire. It may be the best example of a Viking brew house in Britain. The room is well equipped with substantial drains. It has a stone shelf for the storage vats, with a drain beneath. It is located beside the drinking hall.”

Viking brewery, Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney
Viking brewery, Cubbie Roo’s Castle, Wyre, Orkney

Here, incidentally, is a picture of an ale made to a Bronze Age recipe by Graham Dineley, clear as a summer’s day*, albeit with no head – no hops, y’see, hops helping to give beer foamability – and here is that same ale being made in a stone trough at the Bressay Heritage Centre, Shetland in as authentic a Bronze Age manner as possible.

And if you liked that, there’s another terrific downloadable poster here, “From Mead to Snakebite: An Ethnographic Study of Modern British University Sports Team Drinking Culture and its Parallels with Viking Drinking Rituals and Consumption”, in which Matt Austin of Cardiff University compares the social secretary of a university sports club with a Viking thane, and points to the similarities between the ways these two alpha males wield their power over their followers in the beer hall and the university bar respectively through drinking games and exploits. You’ll never look as a sweaty student rugby player trying to empty a pint glass in one go again without picturing him in a bearskin jerkin chugging his heather ale from an oxhorn as the rushlights flicker and fellow warriors shout encouragement.

*Not a Shetland summer’s day, obvs, as you’ll see if you look at the pics of the brewing taking place

0 thoughts on “Where to find Britain’s Viking brewhouses

  1. As an ex-archaeologist, it makes me further rue not doing my dissertation on something I actually found interesting (brewing, Viking horsemanship) – why did I write about Bronze Age amber? I am really excited to see this, though, and would love to see a book (and beer) come out of this research.

    1. You can buy ‘Heather Ale’ from the shops in the UK. It is made by the Williams Brothers Brewery and uses heather instead of hops. It is the most authentic commercially available Viking style ale that I know about …. unless Martyn knows of any more? 🙂

  2. “The products and by-products of brewing ale are ephemeral, leaving no trace in the archaeological record.”

    I know that’s from the poster but I’m not sure it’s quite true anymore, thanks to scientists like Patrick McGovern and his biomolecular archaeology. But inviting him over might lead to a Dogfish Head beer, so careful.

    Fascinating stuff as usual, Martyn.

  3. Great post. I had accidentally sent my original reply to the wrong blog I had on a tab (so you may see a similar post on one of the above links), but I wanted to recommend the papers about the work at Skara Brae by Merryn and Graham Dineley. While Neolithic and not “viking” it is very interesting nonetheless. Some searching may turn up the papers online, but I can’t seem to find them anymore unless through a paid academic journal subscription. The ale was fermented dry and flavoured with meadowsweet. Here are the cited papers:

    Dineley, M & Dineley G., 2000 “Neolithic Ale: Barley as a source of sugars for fermentation” in Fairbairn, A. (ed) Plants in the Neolithic and Beyond; pub Oxbow Books

    Dineley M. & Dineley G., 2000 “From Grain to Ale: Skara Brae a case study” in Ritchie, A. (ed) Neolithic Orkney in its European Context pub McDonald; Institute for Archaeo
    logical research, Univ of Cambridge

      1. Hello – all of my papers and my thesis can be downloaded, for free, here at http://independent.academia.edu/MerrynDineley where I have a page. Or you can just read them online. You might need to join academia.edu but that costs nothing either. There is a great deal of interesting work being put on line there, in all fields of research.

        Graham and I are really pleased that this idea of ‘brew house not bath house’ is liked by people. Really pleased. We are working on an article to be published in an Experimental Archaeology journal but we just wanted, initially, to get the idea out there.

  4. Having worked in London as an archaeobotanist, it’s worth pointing out that there has been possible charred brewing evidence, charred barley from malting I think, found there. I think this was post-med but charred Viking material would be just as likely to survive, regardless of whether the site was waterlogged. Were these sites dug before sampling was commonplace? Also, I don’t know much about this, but could lipids provide evidence here? Just curious really. Cool idea though.

    1. Hello Kate, I shall try to answer your questions … the barley or malt is probably charred from a failed kilning? I’m interested whereabouts it was found in London and the archaeological context. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get funding to investigate whether or not charred grain was malted – I think it is really important. Maybe most charred grain finds are actually malt? I don’t know.

      The sites on the poster were all excavated before the days of archaeobotanical sampling. It would be great to get good samples from modern excavations of Viking sites. Graham and I shall be publishing in more detail within the next few months and we have looked at several Viking sites & excavation reports – we just chose the best, most photogenic ones for the poster.

      And, finally, yes, barley lipids in the fabric of a pottery vessel are an excellent indicator for mashing and sparging … some were identified on Grooved Ware Neolithic pottery at Barnhouse, Orkney (Andrew Jones) and the excavators interpreted it as being evidence for the storage only of barley. I think it indicates that they were brewing ale.

    1. Our work at Bressay Burnt Mound was inspired by Billy Quinn and Declan Moore of the Moore Group, who were the first archaeologists to mash in a burnt mound trough. See

  5. Is it plausible that the same building functioned both as sauna and brewhouse? Supposedly this was also the practice of sahti-brewers in Finland until very recently.

  6. There is a fabulous brewery-hotel in Ottobeuren, Germany, where the heat from making beer is used to warm the swimming pool. Both are located near the drinking hall, within the same building. This is considered “green” today, and would have required less valuable firewood back then. So yes, it could have been both brewery and bathhouse.

    1. I think that the point we are trying to make is that these buildings, situated beside the drinking hall, have never been considered as brew houses at all until now. How they would work as a ‘sauna’ really does puzzle me. There is far more to this than just making hot water and using drains and we shall discuss these issues more when we write up the poster as a proper article. In the sagas, there are descriptions of Vikings using streams, rivers and lakes to bathe in. If they lived in Iceland, then they bathed in the hot water springs. Snorri Sturleson’s “bathhouse” was, in fact, a hot spring open to the elements. Otherwise, the Norwegian tradition was to bathe in a wooden tub in the porch. I doubt the brewer would want to use this tub as a mash tun after that.

      1. Being half Swede and half Finn I thought I would chip in here. In historical accounts that I have come across concerning the finnish immigration to Sweden in the 1500s and onwards it is made note of the different bathing traditions of Finns and Swedes. The Finns brought with them the sauna tradition of using hot rocks to generate steam for bathing purposes, but with the passing of generations and intermarriages with Swedes they gave up this tradition over time. On the other hand, the combination of a bathhouse and brewing in the same building is something which seems to have been commonplace in Sweden in the form of a bryggstuga (brewing cottage). The difference between the finnish sauna and the swedish bathhouse would appear to be the use of hot rocks in the Finnish sauna to generate steam, whereas the Swedish tradition consisted of simply heating water to bathe in (with bathing being an infrequent occurence compared to the finnish sauna tradition). One interesting tid-bit of information to go along with this is that it was noted in travel accounts from the 18th century into parts of Finland by Swedish travellers that the Finns used hot rocks to heat their mash when brewing beer, which was different from how it was done in Sweden. The use of heated rocks thus would seem to be a shared feature of finnish bathing and brewing in older times, and different from the Swedish traditions. Now from what I understand it was mostly people from what is now Denmark and Norway who went over to the british isles but it is perhaps reasonable to imagine that the bathing and brewing traditions of fellow germanic tribes would have been similar to where the differences between finns and swedes in this area also applies inbetween finns and norwegians or danes. I would thus make a distinction between a sauna and a bathhouse, and between germanic and finnish traditions in this area.

  7. Hello. I’ve just come across this by accident, but I am the author of the second poster mentioned. Thank you very much for the acknowledgement, and a better write up than I could ever manage myself!

    I too am working on turning it into a paper, although it is a little more ephemeral than Merryn and Graham’s scholarly and important contribution!

    Anyway, thanks again. Loving this blog, will have a proper read tonight.

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