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Slainte! the Histories and Folklore of Ales and Beers in Celtic Lands
“The Irish are born thirsty.” – Augustus Mayhew (1865)
“Ag sgagadh leanna!”—Irish ale song
When I speak of beer vs. ale, I typically do so with the modern brewing definitions of where fermentation occurs. Beer is a catch-all for lagers (bottom fermentation) and ales (top fermentation). I tend to differentiate, because I very much enjoy ales more and are a result of the United States’ craft brewing boom, as opposed to the more mass produced lagers. I cast no judgement. I simply prefer one over the other. I’m a beer geek, not a beer snob.
However, brewing history teaches us that it has nothing to do with fermentation. Beer was the product of water, barley, and yeast. Ale was the product that had those, plus herbs and spices for medicinal, flavor, and preservation reasons. Honey is another ingredient that adds a layer of complexity best saved for another day. Adding another layer of complexity are the stouts, where in Ireland and Britain, they were considered an altogether different drink than ale or beer. Even up into the 20th century, the comparative virtues were considered, between bottled and draft, as well as age, and even the preferred drink of each gender (Mr. Ladd, writing to the Beamish brewing company, extolled that their extra stout was much too strong for women, needing it topped off with a smaller ale first).
Barley was the chief grain the ancient Irish used for their ales, but there are remnants of pots that show rye, wheat, and oats were also used. The larger houses even had a man whose job it was to strain ale for guests, and would sing as they did so: “ag sgagadh leanna” or “a-straining ale!”
Nettles, being an easy to come by ingredient, were used for brewing beer in Ireland, not only for flavor, but for easy access during times of famine and also as a cure for scurvy. Nettle tea is still brewed in Ireland, and a wonderful recipe is given by famed chef Darina Allen.
Brehon Laws have much to discuss about ale, including the necessity of a king to maintain an army and an inebriating ale house, and must always have a vat of milk and a vat of ale on hand. The king does get aid from such laws, though, as he is to have ale supplied to him with his food. The king was also to have his own brewer, who in turn was obligated to have a cauldron that never ran dry and dwelt on a public road, where all travelers were welcome, and was to be open 24 hours a day. There were also fully certified brewers, which were the professionals, even if many others knew how and were allowed to brew. If the ale made by non-certified brewers turned out to be of poor quality, though, and a certified brewer, or scoaire, was held completely blameless if he/she followed all of the appropriate steps, from malting through brewing.
The ancient Ulster warriors were much fond of their drink, for after battles they would sit around fires and consume large quantities of ale, though were happy drunks and cheerful for the night. Irish myths include lore on this need for brewing, with Conchobar Mac Nessa going on a quest to gain the great bronze boiler Daradach, much as Thor did in Norse legends, when he took they giant Hymir’s boiler. It was also stated that no one could become king or Eire (Ireland) unless he drank of the island’s beer: “He shall not be king over Eriu unless he drink the Ale of Cualand” and of Flaths and Ferna and Cerna and Ele and Frlochra Ardda and Dorind. You get the idea.
Even Saint Brigid spoke lovingly of the ale she would expect in heaven, with all of heaven drinking it through eternity. In a country where, in the late 1600s, it was estimated 180,000 people were in the brewing business on an island with 200,000 families, this seems quite appropriate to me! Religiously, laws were passed to ensure a good Mass – it was set down that a layman (non-clergy) may drink six pints of ale at dinner, but a monk may only drink three, in order to be sober for prayer time!
More recently, Irish pubs were also storage places for the dead, because of the cool cellars. Autopsies were even performed there. The Coroners Act of 1846, which enabled this, was still on the books until 1962, but still sometimes occurs.
Warning! Beware the Clurichaun! This Irish fairy drinks heavily at night, once his chores are finished for the day. He also drinks before the day's chores, in order to maintain a very nice level of inebriation throughout the day. Treat them well and they will guard your beer/wine cellar. Mistreat them or steal from their cellar, and you'll be hounded and tricked and tormented beyond compare! If you're lucky, though, he'll be too busy riding dogs around the town.
One of Ireland's ancient gods, Goibniu furnished the feasts and drinks for the other deities, both in this world and the Otherworld, where the feast was called Fled Goibhnenn. He also brewed the special ale that would give the gift of immortality to those who drank it. Modern Celts may know him better as Gobban Saer (Gobban the Joiner), who builds churches.
The Scots diet at the end of the 1500s is said to contain ale and Gascony wines as the main drinks, but that mead, cider, and perry (pear cider) were not uncommon. Hops were scarce and so rarely used in ales.
A truly Highland drink was birch beer. Birch sap would be collected in the spring and used with grains to make a fermented drink that was a gentle stimulant. It’s thought that the Gaelic term for whiskey, uisge beatha, comes from uisge beithe, which is “birch water.”
Today, Scotland’s William Brothers Brewing is known for its heather ale, made with heather tips instead of hops. This drink may indeed have been created in Scotland, but the Irish also lay claim to it, though many speculate that both countries learned of the drink through the invading Vikings. The oldest found from archeological dig sites is indeed from Scotland, though (2000 B.C.E on the Isle of Rhum), even if similar finds have been found across the British Isles and in Scandinavia. In Scotland and Ireland, it was called fraoch for the Gaelic term for heather, in Wales and Breton was called coit. Along with mead, it was said heather beer was one of the pleasures the departed enjoyed with the gods in the afterlife, though the same author ascribes it being used by druids and if there is one thing we know about the druids, it’s that we really don’t know a darn thing about the druids.
I love this style and have brewed it when I can’t find it to buy, but it has in the past been considered a poor man’s beer, as it was used during times of poor harvests in place of the usual ales. Some folk tales discuss heather being the only ingredient, with no grains, but that has been shown to be impossible, as it does not contain the required sugars. Rather, it still takes barley or other grains, and the heather is an addition for flavor and for keeping.
A truly Celtic drink is Lambswool. The Scots consider it a Christmas drink, or at least considered so since the 1850s. Many of the Yuletide customs of the north are similar to Halloween, though, and it’s been given as fact by some that this is a wholly Irish drink for Halloween, at least since 1865. The name is derived from “La Mas Nbha,” meaning “Feast of the Apples,” whose pronunciation is close to “lammas ool” from which the current name is taken. Older recipes simply consist of roasted apples and whiskey (sounds good to me!), with milk occasionally being added. Modern recipes include apple cider (both hard and soft), with spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon (which bares quite a semblance to pumpkin pie spice).
Scotland is also home to the water spirit Seonaidh, who resides near Lewis. In order to keep this spirit happy, and prevent it from attempting to take the lives of locals, an ale was brewed and delivered to the spirit by a volunteer. The volunteer would go out at night, with the drink, into the sea, and stand waste deep, crying aloud to the Seonaidh that the offering was given. Then, I'm assuming, the volunteer would throw the ale in and hightail it out of the water while he/she could!
The legendary poet Taliesin speaks of the great druid Ceridwen, who is associated with cauldrons and the intoxicating elixirs of grain and herbs. This preparation, spoken of as far back as the 500s A.D., is called Gwin a Bragawd and was thought to have brought forth to the original Britons science, inspiration, and immortality. (This sounds quite a bit like Odin’s Mead of Inspiration from Norse mythology, doesn’t it?)
In other lore, Ceridwen is not a druid, but is goddess of grain and brewing. She wanted a drink that would give her son inspiration and wisdom, to make up for his hideous appearance, but the young man who stirred the ale spilled it on the last day of brewing, onto his thumb, which he sucked off and gained the wisdom meant for Ceridwen’s son Afagddu. After a long chase and battle, in which the goddess ate the young man, she gave birth to him again later and he became the poet Taliesin. (Similar aspects of this story are seen in Irish mythology – in the legend of Fionn mac Cumhaill, in which he sucks his thumb after burning it on the Salmon of Knowledge and gains its wisdom and in the “Wooing of Etain” where she is swallowed as a butterfly and is reborn later as a human.)
The Welsh, through the Triads, even have designations for the best barley (Llonion in Pembrokeshire) and wheat (Maes Gwenith in Gwent, where come the best bees, as well). The introduction of brewing is a title given to Coll.
Even after the Anglo-Saxon invasion, these sometimes enemies on the Isle gave Welsh beer the proper designation of being the best. The Chronicle discusses the differences between their own fine ale and Welsh ale, called bragawd, made with honey, barley, and spices. This is the original form of the corrupted braggot, a term used in modernity for a mead made with ale grains. King Olfa, pagan king of Mercia, found Welsh beer to be of much better quality than his own country’s, as he readily accepted a smaller portion of “Welsh beer,” in addition to larger portions of “clear” and “small” ales. Other Anglo-Saxon monasteries would pay for Welsh beer, making sure that at least one of every batch included Welsh honey.
The Welsh had two main types of beer, common and spiced, of which the latter was considered of higher quality. Although mead was still the highest in demand, for his rents, a farmer could pay two casks of spiced ale to four casks of common ale, of which these were equal to one cask of mead. This distinction of Welsh beer, versus others, was maintained through the mid-1800s, where one can still find recipes, although now made only from pale malt and hops. There is even some research, by Welsh historian Deiniol ap Dafydd, which indicates Arthur Guinness’ famous stout was made from an old Llanfairfechan recipe.
Definitely more of a neo-religious aspect, I still found intriguing the July ritual to the goddess Habonde, the deity of fertility, luck, magick, and cleansing. On the first Monday of July, the Welsh enjoy a lunch that includes a beer brewed eight months previously. No information is given as to why eight months is the appropriate time. I would think brewing on the previous first Monday would be a better way to honor the deity, but who am I to say.
Fermented drinks were common in Celtic Britain even before the Roman conquest. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C.E., discusses their diet of venison and milk, but that the Britons drank heavily on festive occasions. These drinks were made from honey, barley, and apples, showing that the islanders were making mead, beer, and cider. Of these, the Romans found beer to be the more advanced skill, as mead and cider are simply fermented honey-water and apple-water combinations.
In Gaul, a Celtic region that includes modern Briton, was the god Sucellus. He carried a large mallot that is sometimes thought to be a cask, and is said to preside over the Otherworld feast.
The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1986) Hilda Ransome
The Curiousities of Ale & Beer (???) John Bickerdyke, Charles Henry Cook, John Greville Fennell, and JM Dixon.
St. Brigid’s Alefeast (11th century Old Irish poem)
Brewing Mead, Wassail! In Mazers of Mead (1948) Lt. Colonel Robert Gayre
The Lore of the Honey-bee (1908) Tickner Edwardes
Bee-Master of Warilow (1907) Tickner Edwardes