Penn Museum researcher finds ancient Scandinavian ‘grog’

When a desire for an alcoholic beverage strikes, sometimes the best strategy is to use what you have to make your own.

That appears to have been the approach taken by the ancient Scandinavians, who crafted fermented beverages as far back as 3,500 years ago. Research led by Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum, has found that people from northern Europe incorporated local ingredients into their brews, such as honey, lingonberry, bog myrtle, birch tree resin, and cereals. McGovern’s analysis also revealed the presence of grape wine imported from southern or central Europe in a 3,000-year-old drink, offering evidence of an early trading network across the continent.

“This adds to the picture of how innovative humans were in designing fermented beverages,” McGovern says. “They used what is native to their region and played with the possibilities.”

McGovern, who has characterized ancient foods and beverages in locales from Egypt to China to Honduras, obtained the residues of these hybrid drinks, or “grogs,” from vessels found in four sites in Denmark and Sweden, dating between 1500 B.C.E. and the first century C.E.

One of the samples came from the well-preserved grave of a woman who might have been a dancer or priestess. A bucket found with her remains, which date to approximately 1500-1200 B.C.E., was lined with a dark substance—the remains of a mixed beverage that may have been part of a ceremony or ritual.

Working with Gretchen Hall of the Penn Museum and Armen Mirzoian of the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, McGovern used techniques including gas and liquid chromatography and double-mass spectrometry to filter and analyze the chemical components of the residue.

The results revealed that a wide variety of local herbs, fruits, honey, and cereals such as wheat, rye, and barley were used in various combinations. In a sample dating to 1100 B.C.E., advances in mass spectrometry allowed the team to identify wine compounds. McGovern says wine may have been brought from southern or central Europe to trade for amber from the northern nations.

As has been the case with other ancient beverages, McGovern worked with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery to reimagine the Nordic grog for modern consumption. The brewery’s new “Kvasir” beer incorporates lingonberries, cranberries, a Scottish yeast, honey, wheat, birch syrup, yarrow, clover, and bog myrtle.

“The data that came out of the botanical analyses show that these ancient ‘grogs’ might have been comparable to a Belgian lambic,” he says, “so we put Kvasir more on the sour side. I think it works quite well.”