Bronze Age Microbreweries

Bronze Age Brewery

(In borrowed gear at the excavated burnt mound near the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney)

While in the Orkneys last year, I noticed the plethora of “burnt mounds” on the OS map, and I wondered what they might have been for. While in the visitors centre of the Tomb of the Eagles, one of the archaeologists there was hot with excitement about something she’d just read. She asked me to guess what the mounds might have been and I offered something about cooking and food storage, and she said– “Almost! How about a brewery? Think about it!” and I did.

I was prompted to post this shortly after reading the story of St. Brigid, the patron saint of brewers, turning bathwater to beer for some lepers. This bathwater might have been a vat of soaking barley, part of the malting process, as The Zythophile points out. Recent research conjectures these bronze age burnt mounds might just be ancient versions of this kind of processing. Apparently these researchers brewed an ancient ale using similar facilities, and the drink was “sweet,” being unhopped– I would have liked to try that!

St. Brigid is the Christianized version of a much older Goddess, Bride, whose name appears in places all over this island. If these researchers are correct, this brew, a joy older than bread, has left its ancient mark on the landscape. Sumeria has written records of brewsters and even recipies, but these sites will remain a prehistoric mystery, not unlike the process of fermentation itself. Michael Jackson describes wild yeast, “descend[ing] from Heaven even more gently than rain.” He imagines it must have seemed magical to ancient people. And I would venture– a gift of a benevolent and fecund goddess.

9 Responses

  1. One of the great things about taking the BJCP (beer judge certification program) class was that I got a window into how beer used to be made. Open fermentation was normal, and there are abbys in Belgium that have, over the centuries, been able to make the same beer due to what was in the air, and no more. I was even told of an abby that when told it had to replace the roof, had all the particulates in the rafters (dust, spiderwebs, other dietrus) collected, saved, and then replaced when the new roof was put on.

    Which is pretty damn cool.

    I realize that the beer of long ago is a very different drink than that of today, and part of that is due to technology, not just gastronic discovery if you will. The clarity, and heck, even yeasts of some beers probably would exist without the technology to test and duplicate them. (Hops I figure someone would’ve figured out, eventually, but I’m not sure if they were involved from the start.)

    That beer could be magically formed, and discovered, is one of those little gifts of the Universe, that reminds me that things aren’t all bad.

  2. You don’t seem to have a link to it, so I’ll stick one in here: The Great Beer Experiment website has more information on the theory and practice of bronze-age brewing, and a video of the experiment. There’s more the the company’s blog as well. The full article they wrote for Archaeology Ireland is here.

    Grotusque, you can see that roof-tile replacement in action at the Cantillon brewery/gueuze museum in Brussels.

  3. This is going to sound like ‘any opportunity for a shameless plug’, but I swear it’s not: the two guys who have researched and recreated bronze age brewing in Ireland are friends of mine. The story of how I met them, and went drinking in Ireland with them, is in Three Sheets to the Wind, and they are wonderful, legendary, unique guys. If you ever visit Galway let me know and I’ll arrange an introduction. Their blog, with details of the bronze age ‘fulacht’ beer, is at

  4. Hey, Beer Nut– thanks for the links.

  5. Hi Pete– Three Sheets is on my “to read” list, and I’m currently reading Man Walks into a Pub and it’s wonderful! Thanks for the link to their blog, and for the offer of an introduction! I would like to meet these guys.

  6. Well, Isn’t it a very small internets world – Not only are we friends of Pete and regular readers of Beer Nut’s blog, but the guide you spoke to at the Tomb of the Eagles was probably none other than Merryn Dineley, with whom we are in regular contact.. She’s an archaeologist and home brewer who we worked with on the bronze age beer theory, and Billy and I just happened to have been at the very spot you are pictured two years ago as part of the research for the project. Feel free to visit if you’re in the West of Ireland any time. We will be demonstrating the brewing again at the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin in July and in August we are repeating the experiment and party at Billy’s houses in Headford and will even have bands and a stage set up this year.

  7. Hello there! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I don’t remember the name of the archaeologist but it would make sense that she would be a brewer– she really captured my imagination and was an engaging speaker. Everyone at the centre was really wonderful– I was quite moved by their love for the place.

    I plan to go back to Ireland hopefully in the winter–it’s all very exciting, this exploration of ancient brewing! It sounds like I will miss what promises to be an amazing party! I look forward to keeping up with the project via your blog in the meantime.

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