How did Vikings get yeast for mead?

Answered by Douglas Hiatt

The Vikings, known for their love of mead, didn’t have the luxury of readily available yeast or starters like we do today. However, they were resourceful and found alternative ways to obtain the necessary bacteria for fermentation. Let’s explore how they acquired yeast for their beloved mead.

1. Natural Sources:
The Vikings often relied on natural sources of yeast for their mead production. One of the common methods was using fruits such as apples, grapes, or berries. These fruits naturally carry wild yeast on their skins, which can initiate the fermentation process. The Vikings would crush the fruit and allow the yeast present on the skins to interact with the sugars in the juice, kickstarting fermentation.

Additionally, tree bark was another resource utilized by the Vikings. Certain tree barks, like birch or oak, contain wild yeast. The Vikings would scrape off the outer layers of the bark and add it to their mead mixture, allowing the yeast present to contribute to fermentation.

2. Wildflowers and Herbs:
Vikings would also gather wildflowers and herbs from forests and meadows to enhance the flavor and aroma of their mead. These additions not only added complexity to the beverage but also introduced additional natural yeast and bacteria into the fermentation process. The wildflowers and herbs carried microorganisms that could aid fermentation and contribute to the unique flavors of the mead.

3. Spontaneous Fermentation:
In some cases, the Vikings would rely on spontaneous fermentation. This occurs when the environment naturally harbors yeast and bacteria, which then colonize the mead mixture. The Vikings would leave their mead exposed to the air, allowing wild yeast and bacteria present in the surroundings to inoculate the liquid, kickstarting fermentation. While this method was less controlled than using specific ingredients, it was a viable option for the Vikings in the absence of cultivated yeast.

4. Unintentional Yeast Capture:
The Vikings might have also stumbled upon yeast unintentionally. For example, if they stored their mead in wooden containers that had been previously used for fermentation, the wood could retain traces of yeast. This residue could then introduce yeast into subsequent batches of mead, providing a consistent source of fermentation agents over time.

It’s important to note that the Vikings’ understanding of the fermentation process was not as advanced as ours today. They relied on trial and error, passed down knowledge, and the natural resources available to them. Their mead-making techniques were rooted in practicality and utilizing what their environment offered.

While we now have access to cultivated yeast strains and starters, the Vikings’ resourcefulness in obtaining yeast from natural sources is a testament to their ingenuity. Their methods contributed to the creation of unique meads that were characteristic of their time and culture.