The Ovate Brewer: A brief discussion of the brewing of beer in Druidry, with a note about mead
by Donna Deeks
…sacred beers…came out of a worldview in which the sacred
is ever present with us, where all things possess a soul… 1
Brewing is as ancient a craft as any in this world. Beer—the drink made from the malting and fermentation of grains—was first brewed between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia (modern Iran), spreading southwest into Sumeria (modern Iraq) and Lower Egypt. Over the centuries, the process of fermenting grains to create tonic, ritual, or healing drinks seems to have arisen in all the indigenous cultures of the world, along with fermenting honey to make mead and fruit juices to make wine, depending on local tastes and supplies.
The Celtic, Teutonic, and Slavic tribes of Europe in the early years of the Common Era were already well-skilled at brewing beer; Pliny recorded in his Natural History that
…the populace of western Europe have a liquid with which they
intoxicate themselves, made from grain and water. The manner of
making this is somewhat different in Gaul, Spain and other
countries, and it is called by different names, but its nature and
properties are everywhere the same. 2
Over the centuries in Europe, beer making was the province of the monasteries, and of women; until about the 15th century in England, women could and did run their own small-scale businesses selling their own ales. After that point, when commercial brewing and guilds became dominated by men, women still continued brewing for home use—but the profession of brewer was firmly out of women’s reach.
Yet moving back to the time when Druids were part of society in Ireland and in Great Britain, it seems fair to posit that, while the women of a settlement or household would have taken on brewing for family and guests, brewing would also have been part of the Ovates’ responsibilities. Assisting a local brewster with fermentation problems; advising on herbs for flavour or for health; creating medicinal beers and alcoholic tonics; and in the case of master-brewer Ovates, teaching refinements to the process—all would have fallen within the Ovates’ community remit. For the Druids alone, Ovates would have created the beers used as ceremonial drinks—inspirational, possibly psychotropic—or herbal beers drunk simply for fellowship amongst themselves.
How would they have done this? Hops did not arrive in the Ireland and Britain until long after the Druids had gone, so a mixture of herbs—known as “gruit”—flavoured the beers. This aspect of herbalism would have been second nature to trained and accomplished Ovates; but would they have performed certain rites of blessing around the grains, the gruit, the fermentation process? How did they view fermentation? How did they encourage it, welcome it, both spiritually and physically? Answers to these questions are necessarily speculation, but a few probabilities about the basic brewing process of the ancient Ovates can be surmised by looking at what we know of Northern European brewing in the early Common Era, and before.
Grains are “malted” when they are warm and moist, and start to sprout. The sprouting action releases enzymes in the grain, which convert the grain starch into fermentable sugars; the malting process itself was developed in Sumerian and Egyptian brewing millennia ago, but had become known to the ancient Irish and British, probably through trade or migration. In Ireland, archaeological finds indicate that beer had been brewed there as early as the Bronze Age (roughly 2,500 to 1,200 BCE) and the grain used was barley. Britain has a similar story: beer has been mentioned in the records of Roman garrisons in the north, but was probably brewed on the island long before these 1st century CE Roman soldiers recorded the fact. The garrisons purchased stocks of emmer wheat, presumably for brewing.3
Ovate brewers on these islands would definitely have had suitable grains to work with, whether grown themselves or obtained from local sources —barley the most frequently used, but oats, wheat and rye were also available, not to mention herbal brews made without any grains at all. They would have known about the malting process—and then what?
The first written mention of adding hops to ale was in a monastic manuscript from 822 CE, from a Benedictine abbey in Picardie.4 (By the 16th century, a distinction between beer flavoured with hops, and ale brewed without hops, had been established. 5 For this discussion, I will stay with the more general term of beer to cover both styles of drink.) While the use of hops was accepted and refined across continental Europe in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until the 16th century that they were accepted in England. But beers without hops were far from insipid: for flavouring and preserving, and for adding tonic, medicinal, or inspirational goodness to their beers, Druid brewers would have used the mixture of herbs called gruit.
Gruit, in its most basic form, was traditionally made from three herbs: bog myrtle (sweet gale), yarrow and wild rosemary (marsh rosemary).6 From this starting point, the herbal knowledge of the Ovate brewer could create an limitless variety of beers, for a broad range of purposes—from birch to heather to St. John’s Wort, from chamomile to meadowsweet to mugwort and more, all had their places in gruit; while an Ovate master-brewer would have had the knowledge and skill to dispense entirely with the basic three herbs, and create unique, specialised gruits.
The character of the water used for brewing has as much effect on the beer as the grains and herbs do. Is the water from the surface, say a lake or stream, or is it ground water from a well, or is it collected rainwater? If it’s from a well, how does the geology of the area affect the water? What minerals have leached into the water from the ground—or does it have a peaty flavour from the soil around it?
With their study of and sensitivity to the land, I suggest that the Ovates would have been aware of all these variables: that rainwater or local stream water tasted sweetest perhaps, or that beer made with water from a local well made a beer with a distinctive flavour and unusual clarity; or perhaps beer made from the local well water didn’t ferment properly (probably too alkaline).7 If problematic water was all they had to brew with, would the Ovates have discovered the mashing work-arounds that would have made the water suitable for brewing (by unknowingly adjusting the pH imbalances)? We have no way of knowing how far the Ovates’ intuitive knowledge of chemistry extended; but whatever sort of water—or sorts, if they were lucky—the Ovates had to hand, I suggest that they would have experimented and found solutions to its challenges, even if the solution was to use rainwater exclusively.
With malted grains, gruit and a suitable source of water, the Ovate brewer was nearly ready, but there remained one last challenge: fermentation.
Ancient peoples did not have microscopes, but they knew that
there was a unique, special substance that came through the air,
or sometimes on things, that caused the sugar water (the wort)
to become ale. 8
Of all the steps to making beer, fermentation is the most magical, and to ancient societies, the most sacred. Fermentation is simply the biological process of yeast turning the sugars in malted grains into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yet even for the modern brewer, it can be tricky—yeast is a living organism, fermentation is a living process and sometimes it seems that the yeast has a mind of its own. Commercially-produced yeasts for the home brewer can arrive dead, or near to it; home-cultured yeasts can refuse to perform; yeasts can choose to work at first, but then stop and sulk in the fermenting vessel for reasons known only to themselves. With all our scientific knowledge of strains and tolerances, modern yeast still does not guarantee 100% success.
The Ovate brewers had different challenges: wild yeasts were all they had to work with, and they would have had to encourage the good wild yeasts to bless the wort (brewed but unfermented sweet beer) and ward off the bad ones (bacteria) that would ruin it. In Northern Europe there were two common source of good wild yeasts: unwashed heather, and heather honey.9 Clinging to the stems of fresh heather is a powdery moss, locally called “fogg”, that contains wild yeasts—and which was found to begin fermentation in its earliest recorded use, a beer made from heather alone.10 (Fogg is also a mild hallucinogen and narcotic; hence the modern commercial brewers’ practice of thoroughly washing the heather tops used in their beers.)11 Adding heather or heather honey to the wort would have been a fairly reliable start to the fermentation process, and some ingenious ancient methods of preserving this yeast for the next brew would have made subsequent successes more likely.
These are the four basics necessary for brewing, the same today as several thousand years ago. The question now is how the Druids would have handled these basics? We know that the ancient Druids performed rituals and ceremonies and blessings around the natural world, seeing it as sacred—and as Bards, Ovates and Druids, we have experienced and performed these rites ourselves. How, then, might an Ovate brewer have made the brewing process sacred?
The Ovate Brewer
The beer…is a beer made with prayer to the plants from which
it is made, to the ancestors who went before, and to the spirits of
those who taught them in long-ago times how to ferment beer. 12
Admittedly, we’re now into speculation about how the raw materials and their journeys to create beer, and the final product, could have been sanctified by Ovate brewers. But clues exist, contained in the Druids’ own activities and in the methods used in other Northern European cultures, which may have found their way into Druids’ methods of brewing beer via the migration of the Celtic tribes of the European continent to Great Britain and Ireland.
Assuming that one or more Ovates were part of an ancient settlement—either living amongst the people, or with his/her own family nearby and taking part in settlement life—the life cycle of the grain would have been surrounded by Druidic blessings from start to finish, from the Wheel of the Year rituals for Druids and for the entire community. Starting with Imbolc, acknowledging the land’s first stirrings would have been an act of gratitude, as well as of hope of Spring to come. Planting at Alban Eilir would have been the next moment to ceremonially bless the land and the grains now sown within it. At Bealtaine, the hope and gratitude expressed at Imbolc and Alban Eilir grow ever stronger, as the grain also grows sturdily and well, and fertility and abundance are celebrated. More of the same at Alban Hefin, the Summer Solstice, at the pinnacle of the growing season’s light and warmth. As the days slowly shortened, though the Sun still gave light and warmth to the land, came the celebration of Lughnasadh. By then, the extent of the grain crop would have been assessed, and the harvest may have begun. Alban Elfed, the Autumn Equinox, would have been the final ceremony of thanksgiving and celebration for the generosity of the land and of the gods dedicated to it. Then, perhaps, final blessings as the grain was laid out to dry and then moved to storage pits, or stone or wooden huts, to last until the next harvest.
In addition to these ceremonial blessings performed by the Druids, there would have been customs and rituals of blessing and gratitude done by the grain growers themselves, such as the Irish cliars at the Summer Solstice, offerings to Lugh at Lughnasadh, cutting the last sheaf of grain at the harvest, and fashioning corn dollies.
Malted grain needs to be sprouted before it is dried and used for brewing; I suggest that it was at this point the Ovate brewer took over the portion of the harvest to be used for his or her medicinal and ceremonial brewing solely for the Druids’ use, and either completed the malting process alone or perhaps with an apprentice Druid in the early stages of Ovate study, as an assistant. (Also, if s/he were working within a settlement, the Ovate might have blessed the malting work done by the villagers for their own everyday beers.) It is also the time at which the Ovate might have begun to work with the grains as s/he worked with trees and healing herbs: communicating with them, telling them of the goodness and blessings they were going to give to mankind, and asking their permission to proceed—perhaps even singing spells and songs over the grains.13
As an Ovate brewer, I use malted barley almost exclusively in my beers; my own inner guidance surrounding barley grain for beer has led me to the belief that the very essence, the nwyfre of barley, is dancing and singing. The unharvested stalks and grain heads dance and sing as the wind blows through them; and the beer the grains create gives rise to dancing and singing in those who partake of it. The barley gives of itself gladly, as that is its purpose; the grain is precious and sacred, and needs to be acknowledged as such. The image of the grains waving and shining in the wind, under the Sun, is one that stays with me when handling them; in spite of their commercial processing (regrettably, I don’t grow or malt my own grains), their nwyfre makes the act of weighing and mixing the grains a working meditation on their joy and purpose. An additional act of gratitude I like to perform is to reserve a large pinch of each of the grains, spices, oak chips and leaf hops I’m using, and offer them back to the Earth.
Even before the malting had begun, the brewer would have probably planned what beers to create, according to the needs of the Grove and of the community. S/he would know what herbs were necessary, and in what quantities. Ovate herbalists would have had their own rituals for gathering plants and herbs to maximise their efficacy, and would have given them blessings and songs as well. S/he would also have gathered his herbs at different times in the year, including times that were not favourable for brewing; thus, the brewer might be using a blend of fresh and dried herbs and would know how to adjust the quantities of each accordingly, as some dried herbs can be stronger than fresh. And let’s not forget beers made from trees: oak, fir, juniper, spruce and birch beers are known to have been brewed in Northern Europe, using the bark, leaves, berries and/or sap. The Ovate would have revered these trees, and used their components with all due honour and gratitude, much as that surrounding their grains.
One of the herbs in basic gruit is yarrow, a plant with numerous powerful uses in herbal medicine—and its bittering and antiseptic qualities were prized in sacred beer making. The modern names for yarrow in the Scandinavian countries--jordhumle in Norway, jardhumall in Iceland and backhumle in Denmark—all equate to more or less the same thing: “earth hop”.14 Even before hops, a bitter tang in beer was desirable as a thirst-quencher, and yarrow brought that flavour, in the right amount, without being too harsh. One of its uses in herbal medicine is as a digestive tonic, so a beer containing moderate amounts of yarrow would also have been considered good for digestion. Yarrow’s antimicrobial action would also have helped to prevent harmful bacteria from souring the beer. I can confirm, from personal experience, yarrow’s bittering quality: a tonic beer made with a small amount of fresh yarrow had a sharp bitterness at first, but after 12 weeks in the bottle, had mellowed considerably to a more gentle, teasing flavour. The yarrow’s bitterness nibbled at the palate, instead of snapping at it. I gathered the yarrow from a country lane with much the same ceremony I suggest an ancient Druid might have used: speaking to the plant, telling it what I was going to use it for and why, and asking permission; and then leaving a pinch of mixed grains as an offering.
At this stage, after having planned formulas for the beers and then gathered and prepared all the necessary grains and herbs, the Ovate brewer would have considered the best point in the process at which to add the various gruits, to preserve their goodness: some herbs can withstand the mashing process, and some are better added to the fermentation vessel to infuse the wort during fermentation. At all times during this work, the Ovate brewer would have treated each herb as a sacred being, with its own purpose to fulfill and its own benefit to bring to the finished beers, whether medicinal, ceremonial or recreational.
When the grains, gruit and the water were sanctified and ready, the wort was brewed. The story of Gwion Bach tending Ceridwen’s cauldron would almost certainly have been in the Ovate’s mind, possibly along with prayers that the Awen would bless the wort as it did Ceridwen’s brew. We will never know—but it’s a beautiful supposition, and would also be appropriate for a modern Druid brewer. Also, in many cultures, once the wort was brewed an offering of the sweet wort was given back to the Earth. 15 In a way, this echoes the breaking of Ceridwen’s cauldron, spilling poisoned wort across the land—but in the Druid tradition, the act of offering wort could be seen, and can be seen today, as offering healing to the land, as well as gratitude. Once the wort was completed and its sanctity properly acknowledged, came time to ferment.
The success of the fermentation is of great importance in all
older cultures, and because it was held to be a religious event,
not a secular one, its every element was imbued with sacred
meaning….To cultures that have felt the life force of plants or
of brewing, who have felt themselves make a deep connection
with that life force, brewing is not a science—it is an art filled
with the actions of the sacred. If they fail to show proper
reverence in their actions, if their mind wanders, if they aren’t
properly attentive to the life force in each part of brewing, they
and their community pay for it by the failure of their ale. 16
Fermentation is the sacred heart and soul of brewing; it is the seeding of the life force. Fortunately for ancient brewers on these islands, the earliest components of brewed beverages—unwashed heather, and heather honey—contain beneficial wild yeasts that would have encouraged successful fermentations in wort containing it. Prior experience of single-herb brewing and mead-making would have identified heather as being especially pleasing to the spirits of fermentation, and as such, would be beneficial to include in gruit beers; but as brewing in these early times increased, the very human urge to expand and create drinks with other plants and herbs must have come to the fore. In this instance, the brewer had a choice: to create and perform ceremonies to coax good wild yeasts to come into the wort, or to re-use the yeasts from a successful batch of beer, heather or otherwise. As beer ferments, a thick layer of spent yeast, called the “trub”, builds up in the bottom of the fermenting vessel; much of the yeast is dead, but there is still a good quantity of live yeast as well, waiting for more sugar to bring it back to full strength. In ancient Egypt, brewers carved grooves into the interiors of their earthenware fermentation vessels to allow the yeasts in the trub to find a place to live until the next brew. In Norway, ancient brewers used a “yeast log” in a similar way: a log—presumably a small one—was cut from a birch tree and put in the bottom of the fermenter, to be covered by the trub. The yeasts would be drawn to the sweet sap in the birch log, and would find their way into the wood. After the fermentation, the log would be dried, and the wood would develop some splits; when the log was used to start fermentation in the next batch of beer, more live yeasts would nestle into the cracks, penetrating the wood even more deeply. Renewed by fresh yeasts and cared for between brews, these logs apparently lasted for some time.17
Would Druids have known about these methods of preserving that “special substance” which caused the wort to come alive? Very possibly. If the entire brewing process had spread into Western Europe by Pliny’s day, the Celtic tribes may well have been aware of, and perhaps refined, the Egyptian brewers’ practice; maybe the Ovates carved lines or sacred symbols into the bottom and sides of their wooden fermentation vessels to catch the yeast. In addition, if brewers from Egypt to Norway could intuit that the yeast could be preserved, and developed their own methods to do so, why not the Druids? If they already knew about the benefits of birch sap and realised from observation that fermentation throve in sweet wort, it seems possible and appropriate that Beith, the tree of new beginnings and vitality, could have served the Ovate brewer in a similar fashion as the Scandinavian yeast log. Considering the Druids’ reverence for and deep knowledge of trees, it might also have been seen as another way to sanctify brewing with the help and blessings of Beith.
In any case, once the sacred fire of fermentation did enter the wort, it was important that the spirit was given a peaceful, reverent atmosphere in which to do its work.18 The fermentation could take as long or as short a time as the yeasts wanted to take, depending on the sugar levels in the wort and the strain of wild yeast that had entered it. When the Ovate brewer judged the fermentation to be over—which was a skilled judgment, as storing the beer too early could lead to exploding stoppers and wasted beer (trust me on this one)—the beer would have been transferred into storage vessels and either used fairly soon or left to mature further, depending on its ingredients and intended use. This harvest and laying up of the beer could very likely have been seen as similar to the harvest and storage of grain: a sacred moment for celebration, and for gratitude to the Earth, its products and its spirits. Maybe there were rituals around the successful completion of the brew, offering some of the new beer to the land; maybe there were private rites of blessing and dedication that the Ovate would have performed around beers specifically for ritual and medical uses. A modern Druid brewer could create whatever ceremony feels appropriate, from a formal dedication rite to offer the Earth a portion of the finished product, to a quiet moment of blessing and thanksgiving when opening a fresh bottle of homebrew. But whether with outward ritual or private devotion, it is a fitting close to the ancient, sacred process of brewing beer.
Brewing beer is a sacred cycle that begins with the blessings of growing grains and plants and with the gift of water, and ends with the magic of fermentation, all of which a brewer of the ancient Ovates would have recognized and honoured; and, in spite of our modern technological and utilitarian culture, brewing beer remains sacred and magical to this day. Personally, I see the act of brewing is a metaphor for inner transformation: the heat of mashing brings out the hidden goodness, the emerging potential, of the grains; fermentation is the catalyst that turns the potential into a consuming drive that bursts into dancing, sparkling life. As Ovates, it is our charge and our privilege to celebrate this sacred transformation, in the footsteps of our Druid ancestors who brewed their own beer.
A Note About Mead
In a discussion of Druidic brewing, it seems incomplete not to mention mead-making. Mead certainly deserves its reputation as a sacred drink of the Druids: the gift of honey was precious in its own right, and combining it with water and heather to make delicious, intoxicating metheglin (from the Welsh meddyglyn, meaning “healing liquor”) was even more of a blessing straight from the gods. Yet there was a significant cost to gathering honey for any use: the destruction of both the hives and the bee colonies within them.
Before the 18th century, when framed beekeeping hives began to be developed and refined, collecting honey appears to have changed little since the days of the Druids. As well as natural hives found in trees or rock crevices, there were two sorts of man-made hives in use in ancient times: a log hive, in which a piece of hollowed log held a bee’s nest; and what was called a “skep” hive, woven from straw or wicker in the familiar domed shape. Unfortunately for the bees, there was no way to gather honey from any of these hives without literally breaking them open, and thus destroying the hives and the bees. A beekeeper would have to crack open all the hives for their honey, and then start over again locating new swarms of bees to populate new hives. For a mead-maker the process was even more gruesome, if that were possible: the bees were first anesthetized by smoke, then the hive was knocked (from a tree) or dropped (a man-made hive) into a cauldron of boiling water. Every single bee product went into the mead: honey, wax, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and the venom from very angry, dying bees.19 Any floating matter—wax, bees, straw—was skimmed out of the must, and the maker proceeded with the planned formula. This method, still used by some hobby mead-makers today, creates “whole hive mead.” If Ovates were involved in mead-making—and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why not—doubtless the sacrifice of the hive and the bees would have been surrounded by similar ceremonial blessings as those given to grains, thanking the bees for giving their lives and their products to benefit humans.
While wild bees abounded, in Ireland the Brehon laws included a complex system of entitlements, called Bechbretha20, to the bees’ produce, depending on where the bees were found—the finder of a new swarm had to part with between 1/9th and ½ of the honey harvest to the owner(s) of the land, or to the tribal chief if the bees were gathered from common land21. So finding new swarms to populate new hives added to the cost of honey, and of mead. (I have not yet found an indication of whether or not Druids—if the Ovates, say, were beekeepers along with their other responsibilities—were exempt from these laws.) Honey was precious and costly in itself; and presumably some of the harvest was used for food as well, so the amount available for mead was further restricted.
Another cost of mead was in time. Meads have different fermentation and aging times, depending on the amount of honey used in the must, whether the maker wants a sweet drink or a drier one, and the kind of mead being made. Honey contains fructose, glucose and sucrose. In fermentation, the glucose is consumed first within a matter of days, but the fructose and sucrose are more difficult for the yeasts to consume—thus, the complete fermentation can take weeks, if not months. While simpler, sweeter meads might only need a few months to a year of storage after the fermentation is complete, in the case of complex metheglins, the meads brewed with herbs and spices for flavour or for medicinal use, it might literally take years of storage for the drink to reach its peak of flavour and efficacy.
Making mead was a serious undertaking, an investment of time and of great effort, in terms of the supply of honey and of bees. Together with the sanctity of the brewing process, already discussed, these factors were more than enough to ensure the reputation of mead as a precious, sacred drink, suitable for the most solemn ceremonial or celebratory moments. Yet I do suggest that, by virtue of its presumably restricted supply and careful usage, mead was not the only sacred drink of the Druids. Grain beers would have been made in greater quantities, and would have been ready for use sooner, than mead; the process of sacrificing grain to create beers would have been every bit as sanctified by the Ovates’ work as that of sacrificing a bee colony to create mead. The blessings of the herbs and of the fermentation process would have been the same for both beer and mead. Many modern commercial “beers” have, for years, been adulterated and cheapened into the merest shadows of what beer can be; some commercial “meads” have been nothing but inexpensively produced white wine flavoured with honey. A dedicated, modern Ovate brewer can bring both beer and mead back to the sacred status that they deserve.
* * *
About nomenclature: “mead” is actually a generic term for fermented honey and water; different additions to the basic formula give different names to the drink. Below are the most common names for varieties of fermented honey beverage:
Mead: plain mead, made from honey, water and yeast.
Braggot: honey, water, yeast and grains / hops.
Cyser: honey, water, yeast and apple juice.
Melomel: honey, water, yeast and fruit.
Metheglin: honey, water, yeast and herbs / spices.
Rhodomel: honey, water, yeast and rose petals / rose water / rose hips.
1 Stephen Harrod Buehner, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers (Boulder, CO: Siris Books,
2 Garrett Oliver, ed., The Oxford Companion to Beer (New York: Oxford University Press,
3 Martyn Cornell, Beer (London: Headline Book Publishing, 2004); op. cit. online, Wikipedia
(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_in_England) “Beer in England”
4 Oliver, ed., op. cit., 410.
5 Ibid., 410.
6 Buehner, op. cit.,169.
7 Charlie Papazian, The Homebrewer’s Companion (New York: William Morrow, 1994), 80-
8 Buehner, op. cit.,64.
9 Ibid., 32; 152.
10 Ibid., 31-32.
11 Ibid., 32.
12 Ibid., 3.
13 Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Plant Oracle (London: Connections Book
Publishing, 2017), 9.
14 Buehner, op. cit.,183
15 Ibid., 67-68.
16 Ibid., 69.
17 Ibid., 65-66.
18 Ibid., 67.
19 Ibid., 36.
20 Stair na hÉireann / History of Ireland. Online, www.stairnaheireann.net. “Bechbretha:
Brehon Law on Beekeeping.”
21 P.W. Joyce, A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906); online, Library Ireland
(www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland). Chapter XVII, pt. 7, “Honey.”