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Drinking stories from the Botanical Gardens

Research — Craft breweries have had a breakthrough in terms of draught beer’s traditional hops and malted barley - or so we thought. Until we visited the Nordic Beer Garden in the botanical gardens. Here there is an enormous diversity of plants that have been used for brewing beer in the Nordic countries through the ages. Especially the Vikings were innovative.

In its most simple form, beer consists of malted barley, yeast, hops and clean water. Breweries around the world work in pretty much the same way today. But it hasn’t always been like this.

In the age of the Vikings, there was, for example, a huge diversity of brewing methods, and the Viking women brewed beer at home on the different individual farms.

Their imagination had free rein, and the Vikings made beer with some surprising wild effects and flavours. So if you think that many microbreweries in recent years have made a breakthrough, think again.

Natalie Ahlstrand

Trained as a botanist from McGill University in Canada in 1999. PhD from UCPH in 2017. Has been developing the Nordic Beer Garden since March 2018. The project has received financial support from the Carlsberg Foundation and the Augustinus Foundation.

“The beer was often brewed to have medical or euphoric effects which, for example, came from plants and fungi,” says Natalie Ahlstrand, botanist and researcher at the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen.

She talks about the beer’s Nordic History, while standing in the Nordic Beer Garden in the botanical gardens, an exhibition that has blossomed since the opening 8th June.

They have held a number of guided tours throughout the summer and the audience were also invited to taste the beer that has been brewed on different types of hops and other plants.

Beer was a threat to the state

Natalie Ahlstrand has been employed at the Natural History Museum of Denmark for four years. Next to her research she has worked on planning the Nordic Beer Garden, obtaining plant materials, and sharing Nordic beer stories with anyone who will listen:

“Up until the middle ages, there were thousands of different beer types. Large quantities of a thin beer was brewed for daily use. This was what children drank, because it was much cleaner and healthier than the water from the wells. And then you had some specialities for special occasions, including the euphoriant beer,” she says.

“But the church, the King and the nobility saw the euphoriant beer as a threat to their power, and in around 1400 a new law was adopted that hops should be the only beer flavour,” says Natalie Ahlstrand.

At the same time, the Church and the State could tax hops production, and Swedish researchers have found old, hidden hops maps showing where hops was grown in, and outside, Swedish cities.

The maps were necessary for the government to levy a tax on hops.

Found old hops plants

Today, the researchers have been able to use the maps to track down the original hops plants in Sweden. They have been found growing in the same areas and containing a high level of biodiversity. Today they can be seen in the Nordic Beer Garden.

The diversity in brewing continued in the Nordic countries until the 15th century. Then something new happened.

“They began to brew beer on a much larger scale, but also in fewer places and with less diversity,” says Natalie Ahlstrand.

However, the large differences in beer taste continued. This changed in the 19th century, where all the beer started to taste the same.

This has changed again with the advent of the new Nordic beer movement, that in the past 25 years has seen many different types of beer coming on to the market from a large number of smaller breweries – a bit like in the 15th century. And the interest in the natural resources that Nordic countries traditionally have had access to in brewing, has grown in parallel.

Today malted barley (consisting of germinated barley) is used as starch to keep the fermentation going, where the Vikings frequently used rye. In addition, they used many other – and many different – kinds of grain in the fermentation process – in addition to a wide variety of other flavours than the hop plant.

The plan is that several of the many different plants in the Nordic Beer Garden are to be harvested in the course of September. For scientific purposes, of course.