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Experiments with Gotlandsdricke, Ales, and Bogbean (long)

3 posts in this topic

OK, a long post after a year of investigating this stuff...

I tried Gotlandsdricke, the drink of Gotland, an isle in the Baltic, back in 1996 at a Gotland midsommar fest.

My friend's dad ran a brewery called Vivungs, which was producing Gotlandsdricke commercially, although it's

traditionally a strictly home-brewed affair. Gotlandsdricke probably represents one of the oldest surviving

ale traditions in northern Europe. Vivungs closed in 1997, although they may still run the malt house which sells Gotland smoked malt to local brewers.

Most modern versions of the drink are made with juniper branches, smoked malt, some sugar, and hops.

Given the isolation of Gotland, and the late arrival of Hops in much of Europe, it's reasonable to think that another plant was used in the distant past. The usual suspects for bittering/preservative herb would be Glechoma hederacea, i.e. the common weed "ground ivy", yarrow, etc. Gruits, i.e. herb combinations used in beer, varied tremendously in different locales. Robert Gayre, in his book on Mead (1948), describes Gruit herbs as "chosen not only for their flavor but for medicinal reasons...since there was a constant search for elixirs of life." Buhner (1998) claimed that Gruit was almost always Yarrow, Bog Myrtle, and Marsh Rosemary, but there was certainly much more variety across Europe and the Isles.

I first read about Buckbean/Bog Bean/ aka Menyanthes trifoliata, in Michael Moore's herb books, but never thought of it as an ale ingredient. Moore (1993) says it's used as a bitter tonic in Europe, and is useful for arthritis, stomach ailments, and indigestion. Clive le Pensee, in "Historical Companion to House Brewing" (1990), translates a German author, JG Hahn (1804), about Buckbean in "porter":

"One lets the buckbean boil in water for a few minutes, and the discards the bitter brew. Then cook the leaves for another hour in fresh water and strain...add half of this extract to the wort, boil for 1 one bucket of beer (about 70 tankards of .5 litres), 10-12 Loth (1 loth=14g) are used. Before fermentation, one cannot drink such a beer, but after it has fermented it loses the harsh bitterness. Such a beer never becomes sour and may be kept for years and thus one can brew in reserve, but it must ferment out."

Rätsch mentions Menyanthes and Glechmoan hederaceae under the name Gundelrebe, as old English bittering herbs that were also "blood purifiers".

Then, in 2000, the semi-mysterious "Adam Larsen", who said he was from the Faroe Islands, appeared on the Usenet group hist-brewing. He posted several dozen posts during the year, full of information on his experiments with ancient, hop-free ales. He claimed to have friends on the Isle of Man, Gotland, and the Faroes, who provided him with recipes, old recipes. These recipes made fascinating reading, and his posts suggested someone who had unique sources. However, several of the books he quotes as sources seem to have never existed; he talks of a George Donnsby, of the Donnsby brewery, on Isle of Man, when such a name and brewery turns up nothing on a google search. The British Beer writer, Martyn Cornell, told me via email that he thought Larsen was a spoof, and that he would consider none of his "historical" recipes authentic until he had a shred of evidence otherwise.

At the end of 2000, Larsen vanishes from the internet.

What interested me: Larsen claimed to have a friend on Gotland, who had an old recipe, written on "parchment", for a Gotlandsdricke made with Buckbean. Hist-Brewing Gotlandsdricke Recipe

Curiously, this and several other Larsen recipes nick the wording of Hahn, above.

Although Larsen claims this beer cannot be brewed with malt extract, I thought otherwise, and made 5 US Gallons with 6lbs Munich syrup, 3 oz dry Buckbean/Menyanthes trifoliata, 1/2 lb brown sugar, 10 oz honey, about 6 ounces of juniper branches, and a tablespoon of Bog Myrtle, a plant claimed by Rätsch and Buhner (1997) to cause increased inebriation in ale. The juniper branches were boiled in water for one hour beforehand, strained, with malt extract added to the juniper water to make the wort. (No smoked malt for me).

3 oz of bogbean in the wort was too bitter, even with Hahn's method of dumping out the first boil. After bottling, I tasted it, it was still a bit too bitter. However, the juniper aromas mixed with bog myrtle were amazing. After a few weeks, I had a very delicious, amber-colored, almost mead-like beverage, with a glorious amber head of foam. The juniper predominated the aroma, the bogbean provided a flavor very close to hops, and the beer gave a nice inebriation without the sleepiness/sluggishess often encountered with hops. This beer was served to many people and although some thought it strange, they all had a second glass. I preferred it to the commercial stuff I'd tried on Gotland.

The question is, given dubious provenance of Larsen's recipe, whether Bogbean is found on the isle of Gotland, and could therefore have been the ale adjunct of the Hansa traders and Vikings. According to Ölands Flora: checklista över Ölands kärlväxter (available as online pdf), it is. Bogbean is found on the isles of Öland and Gotland, under its Swedish name, Vättenklover.

If anyone has any information on Larsen, or authentic ancient Gotlandsdricke recipes, please let me know. All I've found out is that one can indeed make an excellent hop free ale using juniper, buck bean and bog myrtle, and that Bogbean is a superior bittering agent and preservative for beer, and may have other medicinal properties besides.

Larsen also gave recipes for Stone Ales, (wood) Shavings Ales, a Braggot, various supposed Faroese ales featuring yarrow, Alehoof (Glechoma spp.), etc., which can be found towards the bottom of this page. Again, I would take the "history" of these with a grain of salt at least...but they are interesting. One wonders why, assuming he did fake the history, he didn't just post them as his own inventions.

All of this was a year ago. What I'm drinking now is my second Bogbean ale, this time modeled on Hahn's (above) version of a "porter". I adapted it slightly to one of my porter recipes (5 Gallons US):

3.5lbs amber malt extract

3.5 lbs dark extract

1/2 lb chocolate malt

1/2 lb belgian aromatic malt

1/2 lb brown sugar

1/2 lb mollasses or dark treacle

<2 oz Bogbean, boiled via Hahn's method above

30 minutes into boil:

2/3 oz chinese licorice root

1/3 oz juniper berries, crushed

2 sticks cinnamon, crushed

final 10 minutes:

1/2 oz star anise

1/2 tablespoon szechuan peppercorn

at end of boil:

1/2 oz cardamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

I used Ringwood ale yeast due to its hardiness, also easy to recycle.

Alt yeasts like Wyeast 1007 are also good.

I'd have added a few ounces of ginger if I'd had them.

This porter is dark purple-black like an Okocim (poland baltic porter), has a cardamom/ginger/molasses

aroma. Wonderful mouthfeel, as they say, strong but not too thick, with a taste similar to a baltic porter

but spicier. The juniper berries are evident, but mix well with the licorice and treacle to provide a great body. It is not too sweet. The bogbean is very similar in taste to a small dose of German hops. The bitterness is just right here. The beer is only a week in the bottle -- as heavily spiced/herbed beers like this mature, the flavors undergo permutations. The cardamon is mainly a scent now, but may become more prominent in flavor.

It's a smooth and deceptively powerful beer, perfect for a winter or spring night.

I encourage anyone as obsessed with pre-hop ales, Gotlandsdricke, and early Northern European beers

to contact me, as after several years experimenting, I still feel like a novice on the subject. I do think that

Bogbean is one hop surrogate you can serve to your friends, and taste-wise, none could tell the difference.

And in my experience, an excellent preservative. I agree with Christian Rätsch that ale without hops is a superior inebriation, now and then.

I have yet to taste homebrewed Gotlandsdricke, but would love to hear from those who have, or the Gotland brewers.

Next I want to try wormwood as bittering/inebriating/preservative, but I doubt it'll taste as good as this.

Rätsch, C. Bier: Jenseits von Hopfen und Malz. Orbis Verlag1996/2002 pp. 32-33

Le Pensee, C. The Historical Companion to House Brewing. Montag Publications (UK) 1990. p.130, 142-3

Buhner, S. Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. Brewers Publications, 1998.

Moore, M. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, 1993. (pp.91-92)

Gayre, R. Wassail in Mazers of Mead aka Brewing Mead, Brewers Publications, 1946/1986.

Schwandt, Erich. Ölands Flora: checklista över Ölands kärlväxter E. Schwandt Verlag 2001.

Edited by Rizla

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Wow! Fantastic post, Rizla! Good to see you back again and still doing work with alternative bittering agents :)

You said you used a "half ounce" of cardamom?! That's a ton, in my experience. Was it ground or just cracked?

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Whoops, mea culpa, too many fractions in the recipe, what I meant was 20 ground cardamom seeds.

I love cardamom seeds in almost any beer. It can be really subtle, gingery, contributing both aroma and a clean finish.

Ginger is great too, I add the Szech peppercorns to bring out the ginger's heat.

Good to see you, too!

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