Glühbier, Jólöl, and Ale Brewing Viking Women

Christmas is here! As I type this I am thinking of all the things I should be doing to get ready for the holiday. But ehh procrastination is a particularly well-honed skill of mine, cultivated during the many years of my PhD, and I like to fancy myself somewhat of an expert in, as Shit Academics Say, ‘preloading guilt contingent motivation’. So I was feeling particularly ambitious this year and decided to try my hand at making Glühbier, or mulled beer. It’s meant to be delicious, it’s a new project, and better yet, it is absolutely zero help in doing any of the things I should be doing. It was, in a word, perfect.19897817_10106047255683189_454242815_o

Now for a recipe. I was trawling the internet and came across this fascinating article from Tempest in a Tankard about mulled beer and other hot beer-based beverages; it also included a recipe for the Glühbier that I decided to try.  I opted to use a Belgian Quad as my base, the one I chose was also made with figs, which I thought really lent itself to this beverage. Other than that, I followed the recipe, modified for just a single beer, omitting the honey because I was using a sweet honey rum I picked up in Lanzarote a few years ago.

So I threw the beer, cherry juice, mandarin oranges and spices into the crockpot and let cook for several hours (it made the house smell amazing by the way). I finished with a generous serving of the honey rum and voilà:


My Glühbier! And hey look, I managed to put out one decoration!

And the verdict: You know I was really surprised about how much I liked this. It was sweet, but not too sweet, with a slight bitterness from the beer and orange peel. The cherry juice played really well with the fig flavours and honey rum added a bit of sweetness and alcohol warmth. It was really quite lovely. 10/10 would do again.

Making the Glühbier also gives me a great excuse to write about other winter seasonal beverages, and my personal favourite: the Viking tradition of Jólöl, or Yule ale.  And since this is Braciatrix, we are going to talk about those people who most likely made the majority of the beer in this period:

That is of course, women.

Kongens_Bryghus_christmas_beer_1896So first I’m going to summarize some of my previous research on this Jólöl. Yule, or Jól in Old Norse, occurred roughly from mid-November to early January. It was a crucial holiday in the Viking belief system and was associated with complex rituals including the Jólablót, literally ‘Yule sacrifice’. For the festivities, special beers were brewed, drank and sacrificed to Odin, as well as other gods of the Norse pantheon like Frey.

The Heimskringla, or the Sagas of the Old Norse Kings, was composed by Snorri Sturluson circa 1230CE. What is of particular interest to our study of Yule beer is the saga of King Haakon of Norway who lived from approximately from 920-961 CE. This saga indicates


The remaining leaf from a copy of the Heimskringla, known as Kringlublaðið kept at the National and University Library of Iceland

how important the brewing of specific beer was to these Yule celebrations. According to the Haakon’s law in the saga: Ok skyldi þá hverr maðr eiga mælis öl, which I’ve translated to ‘and every man is obliged to have a measure of ale’ or, gjalda fé ella ‘or else they have to pay fé’, Old Norse for assets, livestock or money. Mælis öl is the important phrase meaning ‘measure of ale’, and according to Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson, this means about six and half gallons. So essentially Haakon is stating that every freeman, of a certain status, is required to have this amount of beer brewed for the Yule festivities. This Yule ale would become associated with Christmas as this same king commuted the pagan holiday to the Christian one.


The importance of this ale is echoed in legal codes such as the Gulaþingslova, which demonstrates not only the importance of both brewing this ale and hosting a party to go along with it.  The law required freemen, of particular rank, in groups of at least three to come together to brew beer for ale feasts; one of which was to be held at the Holy Night. If three winters passed without this occurring the man will have ‘forfeited his goods to the last penny’ and if he further refuses he is then banished from Norway entirely.


Medieval Drinking Horn in collection at National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology. Image is author’s own.

While these laws discuss men coming together for the creation of these holiday beers, according to many scholars, such as Jenny Jochens, it was women who were most likely brewing during the Viking period.[1] There were of course exceptions to this, as I will explain shortly.

This conclusion is largely based on the saga material and because beer brewing was often dominated by women throughout Europe in the early medieval period, as a task associated with the kitchen and domestic skills.[2]

As I’ve mentioned before, using the sagas is not without issues, mainly because most of these were written well after the people in them were long dead; long, long, long, long dead. By centuries. It would be a bit like us writing about the people of the Napoleonic Wars, but without any, or very few, written texts. And a whole lot of bias we don’t feel the need to mitigate. At all.


But as sources go, they make up the majority of textual accounts of the Viking period and so it’s up to scholars to try to disentangle the contemporary bias from the historical accounts. This is not always successful and often leads to glaring misconceptions. However, they can be quite valuable when used with caution. So for our purposes today, I am going to use a few examples from these, *carefully*.

We find in Hálfs saga ok hálfskrekka or The Saga of Half and his Heroes, the story of a king named Alrek and his wives (that’s right, two of them).  Here is the translation by Peter Tunstall that I’m using if you want to read the rest of the tale.

So Alrek was already married to a woman called Signy and then was struck by the beauty of another woman called Geirhild, who he came upon ‘brewing ale’. So he decided to marry her as well. As you do.

Now the king couldn’t remain married to the pair of them ‘on account of their squabbles’ and so he decided to ‘keep the one who made him the best ale when he came home from summer’s raiding’. Geirhild entreated with Odin who decided to spit on her yeast. Lovely.

As a result she won the contest and got to remain as wife to a guy who makes marital decisions based on brewing prowess. So, ummm, yay?

Right, so do we really think this happened? No. But what it does illuminate is that women were certainly brewing ale. Indeed, it is not viewed as remarkable in the least that


Viking Ladles in collection at the National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology. Ladles such as these could be used by women of high rank to serve ale. Image is author’s own.

Geirhild was brewing, nor is it shocking that Alrek’s other wife Signy would be able to brew as well in order to compete. So this does support the arguments that women were brewing in the Viking period.


This is further supported by a vignette discussing the brewing of ale in honour of bishop Pall, which unequivocally attributed the responsibility of the task to the ‘housewife’.[3] Additionally Jochens cited a mixed gender Swedish monastery called Vadstena, where at the end of the fourteenth century a laysister was in charge of brewing for the inhabitants.[4]

To be clear, men were also mentioned with some frequency in relation to brewing ale, so it was not solely the domain of women, in contrast to what some scholars have argued. For example, ale brewed at the Allthing, commonly made on the spot, where women were likely not present means that it was likely a male task.[5]

Brewing was not an insignificant job, nor was the ale itself without ritual importance. This can be seen, for example, in the practice of freedom ale:

‘If a thrall takes up land or sets up a home, he shall give his freedom ale,[serving the brew of] nine measures [of malt]…Now if the owner seems willing to let him give his freedom ale, he shall ask him before two witnesses whether he may give his ale and he shall invite him with five others to the feast that he plans to give his freedom ale…’[6]

This ale feast was a critical part of the emancipation and plays a crucial role throughout the legal texts, mentioned numerous times in connection with strict legal codes and ritual. This was also echoed in my previous article on funeral and inheritance ale.


The valkyries Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk bearing ale in Valhalla (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

But perhaps the most critical function of women in relation to ale was serving it. And this is evidenced in the saga materials such as the Atlakviða, a poem dating to around the first quarter of the eleventh century. In this story, Guðrún comes out to greet her husband with ale:


Out then came Guthrun | to meeting with Atli, With a golden beaker | as gift to the monarch: “Thou mayst eat now, chieftain, | within thy dwelling, Blithely with Guthrun | young beasts fresh slaughtered.”

Just a brief tangent because this poem is brilliant. The main theme of this work is vengeance, and it is certainly successful in that endeavour. Atli was the leader of the Huns, who had murdered both of Guðrún’s (his wife’s) brothers. So in an act of revenge, Guðrún fed him the flesh of his two sons that she had slaughtered, ‘”Thou shalt never call | to thy knees again| Erp or Eitil, | when merry with ale…’ At this revelation the whole hall takes up weeping. All except Guðrún, who the poem makes clear, never cries, not once, not when her brothers were killed nor now for her sons. Atli, rather stupidly, opted to get wasted while she gave away his wealth, and freed his dogs and thralls.

And in her final act, slaughtered him and burned his hall to ash with all those remaining inside.

The Norse really knew how to tell a story.

If you want to read the rest, which I highly recommend, here is the Henry Adams Bellows translation I used above. It’s from 1936, and the language is a bit…archaic, but it’s still great, and most importantly, its free!

In his seminal work Lady with the Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophesy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tene to the Viking Age, Michael Enright explored in detail this link between women serving ale, or alcohol more generally, and rituals of power. You see while ale itself was a critical component of rituals as seen above, the activity of serving it was integral to Viking cultural traditions. Over and over and over again, throughout the corpus of Norse sagas and beyond, women were directly associated with alcohol. In fact, Enright argued that ‘so commonly and internally consistent is this pattern as to be practically impossible to overlook.’[7]


Viking bowls in collection at National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology. Image is author’s own.

And the archaeological sources support such arguments. For example, bowls are often found in Viking furnished burial. These are usually declared to be female graves, and according to Shelia Raven, their presence in these burials, along with other ‘luxury’ vessels associated with liquids, ‘may either signify a wealthy woman’s role as hostess in the feasting hall, or alternatively her status as a woman of wealth and refinement in having at her disposal a personal “washing set”‘.[8] Bowls of any kind might have been viewed as an important status symbol for the Viking woman.[9] Raven argued that items related to the serving of liquids in so-called female burials, emphasized the importance of women’s role in hospitality and feasting as well as their wealth.[10] And indeed, one of the most common depictions in Viking art is ‘that of a female figure presenting a warrior with a drinking horn.’[11]


So there we have it, a brief glance into the Viking female servers and brewers of ale. And, in a bit of shameless self-promotion, if you want to hear more about Vikings and brewing, specifically about Vikings, brewing and medieval Dublin, come along to my February 13th talk, ‘A Brewers Tale,’ for the Friends of Medieval Dublin Lunchtime Lecture series at the Dublin City Council Offices, where I’ll be chatting all about brewing from the Vikings to the Anglo-Normans to the English.

Happy Holidays!

[1] Jenny Jochens, Women in Old Norse Society, (Ithaca, 1995), p. 127.

[2] Michael J. Enright, Lady with the Mead Cup: Ritual, Prophesy and Lordship in the European Warband from La Tène to the Viking Age, (Dublin, 1996), p. 126.

[3] Jochens, Women, p.127.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Laurence M. Larson (trans.), The Earliest Norwegian Laws: Being the Gulathing Law and the Frostathing Law, (Clark, 2008), p. 335.

[7] Enright, Lady with the Mead Cup, p. 80.

[8] Shelia Raven, ‘ The Scandinavian Bowls’ in Rupert Leo Scott Bruce-Mitford (author), The Corpus of Late Celtic Hanging-bowls with an account of bowls found in Scandinavia by Sheila Raven, (Oxford, 2005), p.60.

[9] Raven, ‘Bowls’, p. 43.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Enright, Lady with the Mead Cup, p. 104.