Kvasir: Bronze-Age Ale?

Dogfish Head, the quirky commercial brewery out of Milton, Delaware, has a reputation for their style-defying—and style creating—experimental brews. Their 60 and 90 minute IPAs are popular with the hop-lovin’ crowd, and then there are the more unusual (and often expensive) offerings, such as their Ancient Ales series. I mentioned DFH’s Kvasir in a previous post, and now it’s time to write more about it.

In case you weren’t paying much attention last year when the brew was first released (I wasn’t), there was quite a bit of hype surrounding this particular beer. Like the other entries in the Ancient Ales series, Kvasir was inspired by antiquity, and created in collaboration with DFH’s tame archaeologist. Some say he’s the Beer Archaeologist, and that he once helped to make a beer from a Pharaoh’s tomb. All we know is he’s called Dr. Pat.

Before we get any further into its historical and scientific origins, let’s talk about the beer itself.

Kvasir

With its 10% ABV, Kvasir is no lightweight. We split the 750 ml bottle between two Belgian-style pint glasses, which made for a pleasant evening. Ratebeer.com gives this libation a score of 89 overall, and 95 for style, in the Traditional Ale category. Honestly, I’m not sure how you go about judging a beer that’s based on scrapings from thousands-of-years-old drinking vessels and bark buckets, but someone managed to do it.

Cranberries and cranberry juice are two prominent ingredients, but the taste is drier and less cranberry-rich than I expected. Kvasir is definitely a beer/ale*, not a berry wine or fruit mead. Ben’s description: “Kvasir is a spicy, slightly sour, full-bodied berries and wheat-tasting ale with a very dry aftertaste.” It’s also quite effervescent, and dangerously smooth. It doesn’t taste like 10% at all, so it’s just as well we only had the one bottle. It’s the birch syrup what does it. Tree syrups ferment 100%, so they buff up the ABV without leaving any hint of it in the taste.

The color is lovely. Kvasir is a warm cherry or cedar heartwood hue, evocative of newly-turned maple leaves. It pours with a one-finger cherry sapwood head that fades to a long-lasting ring of fine bubbles, like champagne. That happened by the time I took a picture. Tasting before photography, folks.

This is very much an autumn brew, and I suspect that it would be great with a turkey dinner. Alas, I wasn’t able to try it with my Thanksgiving dinner. If any of you have done so, please tell me about it in the comments. I also wonder how it is with pumpkin pie.

Now, about all this archaeology stuff. According to the Dogfish Head blog and many other articles, Kvasir was inspired by four digs—three in Denmark, and one in Sweden. Dr. Patrick McGovern and two other archaeologists published an article in the Danish Journal of Archaeology detailing the relevant artifacts found at the sites, and giving the results of chemical analysis from two of them. You can find the article, titled “A biomolecular archaeological approach to ‘Nordic grog’” here. That article does not mention the Egtved Girl, but it is she, holding a birch bark bucket and standing in front of her log coffin, who is depicted on Dogfish Head’s Kvasir label.

wpid-20141207_102310_20141207165827396.jpg

At first, I thought the illustration was cute. Until I realized that the log-looking thing in the background is the girl’s coffin. Yeah, I know she’s been dead for almost 3400 years, but I can’t help but feel a little sorry for her, whoever she was. After all, most of us would find it macabre to be depicted in front of our own coffins. At least, I would. Anyway, the Egtved Girl was buried with a birch bark bucket that contained residue of an alcoholic drink. Perhaps the bucket was what inspired Dogfish Head to use birch syrup in their ale. As British archaeologist and ale blogger, Merryn Dineley, points out, birch syrup isn’t in the ingredients identified by scientific analysis, nor is concentrated birch syrup a bronze-age product. My guess is that DFH added it to help them achieve a smooth, yet very high-grav product, which it did. As Ms. Dineley observes, the operative phrase when considering the ancient-ness of Kvasir is “inspired by.”

Though you probably won’t find it at your local beer store, Denmark’s National Museum sells bottles of Egtvedpigens Bryg, an ale they developed “in cooperation with the brewery Skands.” Of course, they don’t give away their recipe, but they do list the ingredients. I had to translate it from Dansk, but here are the ingredients in their—probably more accurate—version:

Organic barley malt

Organic wheat malt

Organic hops

Honey

Sweet gale

Cranberries

Yeast

Water

They give the ABV as 5.5, which is much closer to the average of most old beer and ale styles that I know of. The more modest alcohol content also wouldn’t require buffing with extra sources of sugar, as DFH did with their Kvasir. Of course, as Ms. Dineley points out, an ingredients list does not a recipe make. But if you’re a homebrewer who likes making your own recipes and fiddling about with obscure styles, the Egtvedpigens Brew ingredients at least provide a jumping-off point for experimentation. I just might try brewing one myself.

*Note: Both Ms. Dineley and DFH are correct in referring to ancient brews as ale, rather than beer, since beer contains hops, and they hadn’t come into use for brewing yet. But DFH does use some hops in their Kvasir, so I’m not going to worry too much about having called it beer.

Resources:

Egtvedpigens Bryg – 50 Cl.” Museums Butikken. Nationalmuseet.

Dineley, Merryn. “Beakers were for Beer! part two: a birch bark bucket with residues.” ancient malt & ale. Merryn Dineley, 13 Apr Sunday.

Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ale Kvasir revives hybrid Scandinavian grog.” Blogfish. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Inc., 27 Mar 2013.

Ratebeer.com – Dogfish Head Kvasir

Mcgovern, Patrick E., Gretchen R. Hall, and Armen Mirzoian. “A Biomolecular Archaeological Approach to ‘Nordic Grog’.” Danish Journal of Archaeology 2.2 (2013): 1-20. Taylor & Francis Online. Taylor & Francis Group.

Tucker, Abigail. “The Beer Archaeologist.” Smithsonian Magazine 1 Aug. 2011.

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monsterid
Meagan loves words, and frequently combines them into stories and articles, very often involving tasty libations. She enjoys writing about the intersection of beer (or spirits) and life. This is her blog. You can find her on Twitter @meagwil, or shoot a regular ol' email to meaganwilson@burntgraphite.net.
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