Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Viking Totem Sticks

Viking Totem (or magic) Sticks are essentially branches or sticks, usually Birch or Alder, used to transfer the yeast used for brewing meads and ales between batches and also through the generational family.

Totem sticks were considered sacred by the family and were usually held by the wife or matriarch who would also be responsible for brewing the ales and meads. (1)

Basic brewing techniques apply; grains would be malted and crushed then steeped in hot water before being allowed to cool. Once cool the Totem Stick would be bought out and used to stir the wort. The same technique would be used on meads, except it would be just honey and water heated and allowed to cool.

The act of stirring the wort / must transferred grains of yeast previously dried and trapped in the ends allowing them to reanimate and continue their life cycle, a short lag period whereby the yeast would be multiplying followed by the growth phase. During the growth phase, the wort would be actively foaming and bubbling. The Totem Stick would traditionally be left in for the time the wort was active and this would help to reinforce the quantity of yeast on the Totem but also selectively harvest the quickest growing / working yeast.

   To reprove the concept, we first needed to kill off any wild yeasts by immersing the Totems in water doctored with sodium metabisulphate, we could then inoculate our chosen Totem sticks and to do this we brewed two identical batches of sweet mead. Both contained 2kg of yellow box honey, 1 teaspoon of yeast nutrient, 5gm of Lalvin D-47 yeast and water to make a total volume of 4.75L. The first batch was placed in a 5L glass demijohn with a bung and airlock inserted to seal it off, and the second into a glazed pot (a plastic bag was used over the top to seal off the pot and avoid any wild yeasts invading the must.). Once the must was fermenting and had a good krausen we placed two different versions of Totem sticks into it.

The first is a long stirring stick, which when used to stir the next batch will transfer the yeast over, and the second is a group of twigs which would be just dropped into the must once it was mixed.

After the first week of fermentation the Totem sticks are removed and allowed to air dry naturally.

After the second week of fermentation the must is moved out of the pot and can be consumed (known as small mead) or as we elected to do, racked into a secondary vessel. This allowed us to then clean and reuse the pot for the proof of concept batch. The batch would be made exactly the same as the first two except the only source of yeast would be from the Totem sticks. We would try first the long stirring Totem and in a subsequent batch, the shorter twigs.

After a week of air drying, we made up the third batch to the same recipe leaving out the yeast and using only the Totem stick to mix the must instead of the bar mix. This gave us less aeration of the must, but a more accurate representation of the original process.

Success, after a lag time of about 14 hours we started to see signs of fermentation. And after 18 hours we had a full krausen. The extra lag time is due to the lower levels of yeast at the start and the lower aeration.

The only change we will make to the Totems will be to carve their lengths, not only for decoration but also to allow the yeast more places to settle allowing a higher transfer rate.

(1)    Brewing was usually the work of women in medieval Iceland, and probably in the Viking Age throughout Scandinavia as well:

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