Food history | the difference between mead and beer | Norway

Mead and beer are both alcoholic drinks known from Norwegian history. The Norwegians call them «mjød» and «øl». But do you know the difference between the two?
LA Dahlmann | talk NORWAY
Beer - and ingredients. | Photo: Nitr - adobe stock - copyright.
Beer - and ingredients. | Photo: Nitr - adobe stock - copyright.

Pronunciation

Mjød – øl

Divine qualities

The making of beer and mead stretches several thousand years back. The preparation process is similar, so the main difference lies in the ingredients. In historical times, the Norwegians thought the two drinks had divine qualities and were linked to the old Norse gods. Throughout the Middle Ages and well into modern times, people made beer at mid-summer and at Christmas – and in connection with weddings and other festive occasions. Brewing the Christmas beer was almost a sacred process. It started a few weeks before, on a rising moon and at high tide; otherwise, people were certain the beer would go sour.

Mead – mjød

To most modern-day Norwegians, mead is but a distant acquaintance, mainly associated with the Vikings and their sagas. The core ingredients are honey, water, hop and yeast. People sometimes also added a variety of herbs and spices, depending on local tradition. Hop acts as a preservative. Mixed with the honey, it also gives the mead a bittersweet flavour. Some argue that mead is closer to wine than beer.

Beer – øl

Beer retained its significant place in Norwegian food culture – throughout history and into the modern era. The core ingredients are malt made from barley, water, hop and yeast. Depending on availability and local tradition, people also used other types of grain. Malt is the result of the following process:

  1. Take fully ripened barley and put it into water for a day or more.
  2. Remove the water and spread the barley out onto a surface in a warm location. Leave it to sprout for a few days.
  3. Then immediately dry the sprouted barley in a hot environment – again for a day or two. Be careful, however, not to roast it.

You now have malt, a product you can store, before grinding it into a course substance and using it when making beer.

The below YouTube video made by «Kvinesdal.no», takes you through the process of making beer the old Norwegian way – from planting the grain – to drinking the finished product. Sadly, the audio is in Norwegian only, with no subtitles, but it gives a fascinating insight.

Wooden container - stettekolle - used for making beer. From 1777. | Photo: Haakon Michael Harriss norsk folkemuseum - digitaltmuseum.no NFL.15952 - cc by-sa.
Wooden container – stettekolle – used for making beer. From 1777. | Photo: Haakon Michael Harriss – Norsk folkemuseum cc by-sa.

Main source: «Norsk mat» – Norsk Bondekvinnelag and J.W. Cappelens Forlag 1965.

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