Celtic Wine, Beer, Mead, and other Drinks

Updated: Nov 5


The cycle of yeast was not unlike the other cycles that so ritualistically defined the Celtic day. “If a new wine were set to ferment after each festival, it would be ready in time for the next, three months later.” (Wood 155) The start of the Celtic New Year also marks the ripening of the elderberry, which is one of the richest natural sources of wild yeast in northern Europe. (Wood 155) This yeast, from the fermented berries, can be used as a wine, beer, or yeasted bread starter. Common ingredients in Celtic beer could have included spruce, nettle, dandelion, and barley. A drink made of bog myrtle, emmer wheat, cranberries and honey were found in a birch bark container in a Bronze Age barrow at Egtved in Denmark. Also, from a 50 A.D. Danish burial on the Island of Lolland, a bronze pail was found which contained the residue of cranberries, barley, and myrtle. (Wood 137) Another example, radiocarbon dated from a transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age (dated the mid-16th century B.C.), was found in a beaker at North Mains, Strathallan. It accompanied a 25-year-old woman in a cist burial. Pollen analysis exposed the organic deposit at the bottom of the beaker to be a cereal-based drink flavored with meadowsweet. (Dineley) Athenaeus states, “The poorer people drink a type of beer called corma, which is sometimes flavored with honey. They pass around a common cup taking small but frequent drinks. The cup is passed to the right, not the left, and by turning to the right in this way they honor their gods.” (Freeman 25) Corma is probably a beer brewed from barley and the word ‘beer’ takes its name from baere, the Old English for just that. Beer was often avoided by the more ‘civilized’ people of the Greek and Roman cultures who preferred to drink wine, often watered. Beer was associated with the ‘Great Unwashed’ in the non-Mediterranean countries and their prejudices for such individuals who indulged in beer could be summed up in the Latin epithet sabirarius, or beerswiller. (Arnold) Indeed, the Mediterranean peoples may have had good reason to dislike beer as prehistoric versions often could have been pre-paired as sweet, un-hopped gruels that had to be consumed through a straw to extract the brew from the barley pulp. Strabo, a Roman historian from the first century AD records in volume 2:75 of Geographica, “They also drink beer: but they are scarce of wine, and what wine they have made they speedily drink up in merry feasting with their kinsfolk”.


Wine is a well-noted favorite of the Celts. “‘Being inordinately found of wine they gulp down what the merchants bring them quite undiluted,’ wrote Diodorus, ‘Many Italian merchants, prompted by their usual cupidity, consequently regard the Gauls’ taste for wine as a godsend. They take the wine to them by ship up the navigable rivers or overland by cart and it fetches incredible prices: for one amphora of wine they receive one slave, thus exchanging the drink for the cup bearer.’” (The Celts 585) Athenaeus adds to this stating, “The wealthy drink wine imported from Italy or the Greek colony of Massalia. This wine is usually, but not always, un-watered.” (Freeman 25) Wine was traded from mainland Gaul to oppidas in Southern England where it would have had a short distance to travel by sea. Archaeological evidence for this trade is plentiful with amphorae laden wrecks found throughout the French coast and the distribution of amphorae vessel finds are concentrated along the principal French rivers. (The Celts 584) Wine trade along the Atlantic coast seems to have declined after Caesar’s invasion of Gaul in the 50s of the first century B.C. Amphorae, now even more valuable, seem to be monopolized along the Southern oppidas whose elite kept it to themselves. Interesting enough, the earliest written plant name in Scottish history consists of ‘PACI[OV]’ written on a buff amphora found at the Roman fortress of Carpow on the south side of the Firth of Tay. This spells out the Greek word for White Horehound which was used as a wine flavoring as specified in a recipe by Dioscorides. (Dickson 125)

The Celts would have made wines out of, but not limited to, Elderberries, birch sap, rosehips, heather, blackberries and raspberries, and barley. (Wood 156-163) Diodorus Siculus, a Greek writing during the first-century B.C., states, “The cold climate of Gaul prevents the growing of grapes for wine or olives for oil. Since the Gauls are deprived of these fruits, they make a drink brewed from barley called zythos. They also make a drink from the washings of honeycombs.”

Honey was the only true form of sweetener used in prehistoric times. We can trace back bee domestication to at least the Bronze Age during the rise of metal casting using the lost wax method. Wax was also important to seal up containers of jelly, verjuice, ale, and mead. It was also a popular seasoning when mixed with salt and used on roast meat and fish in Ireland. (Prehistoric Cookery 74) Undoubtedly one of its most important uses was in the production of mead or metheglin, as it is known when mixed with another fruit or juice. Any honey, if left for a period, will eventually ferment, and honey when mixed with water and left to ferment will produce mead. The natural yeast in many fruits would have furthered this process. Pots with perforated bases have been discovered at several Iron Age sites and could have been possibly used as honey strainers to remove the wax. Such examples have come from Glastonbury Lake village and all Cannings Cross, in England. (Prehistoric Cooking 76) One of the earliest examples of mead comes from a Bronze Age burial at Ashgrove in Fife, Scotland which dates from 1000 B.C. It was produced from two types of honey and pollen analysis revealed large amounts of immature lime pollen and meadowsweet. It is suggested that the mead was produced in part, from lime honey and meadowsweet for taste. (Arnold and Dineley) Interestingly enough, limes do not appear to have grown any closer than the English Lake District and so it would seem that either the honey or the mead must have been transported quit a distance. Bryan Action and Peter Duncan mention in there book Making Mead: Metheglin, Hippocras, Melomel, Pyement, Cyser that the Celts were known to have not only brewed mead, but also a form of metheglin by adding the juice of the hazel tree. (Action 7) The Hochdorf burial, from 550 BC south-west Germany, also contained 600 pints of mead which had become a dark black cake in the bottom of the large krater in which it was stored.

While hops were known in Europe from prehistoric times, they were not introduced into England till the 16th century; however, any tea can be fermented into wine. Teas can be made from anything pleasant to taste and edible. Celtic teas could have included mint, elderflower, heather flowers, wild strawberry leaves, bilberry leaves, or any fruit steeped in boiling water. (Wood 164-5) Other drinks or tisnes can be made from the dried flowers of lime, elder, chamomile or woodruff, and the fresh flowers of gorse and mint leaves. (Prehistoric Cookery 70) Sorrel flowers can be brewed into a drink or tea. Indigenous to Britain, it is also listed under Buster Ancient Farm’s Project Trust list of Celtic plants. It is still used today. Burdock and dandelions are still made into a well-known children’s drink in Britain. The dandelion roots by itself are commonly made into a coffee substitute when roasted. (Wood 150) Chicory also is listed as one of the plants grown in the Buster Ancient Farm Project Trust paper and is kept in the ‘culinary, aromatics, tea and wine’ bed. Chicory produces a coffee-like drink and is often served today as a coffee substitute or in a coffee blend.

Cited from the academic paper by Jaqui Wood

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