Behind the Brew: The Materiality of Alcoholic Fermentation in Early Medieval Ireland, A.D. 400-1100

PhD Candidate: Jessica Gleman
Supervisor: Dr Meriel McClatchie


Alcohol fermentation has been utilised by societies across the globe over several millennia, despite differences in societal structures, cultures, economies and broader foodways. In early medieval Ireland (AD 400-1100), alcohol, particularly ale, was central to social gatherings and ceremonies, from the inaugurations of kings to the payment of labourers. This begs the questions, how was alcohol made, presented and shared in Ireland’s past?

The production and storage of ale requires a suite of suitable objects and containers – the brewing kit. Whilst alcoholic fermentation is frequently discussed in terms of consumption and ritual, there is far less consideration of the container itself, and relationships between the contents and the vessels used in fermentation and storage. Vessels have an observable effect on beverages and the fermentation process –today these effects are mostly associated with aging alcohols to add flavour complexity. This project will examine evidence of fermentation in early medieval Ireland by exploring ale through a multidisciplinary approach, drawing upon historical writings, folklore, archaeological science, material culture and international ethnographies, along with scientific analysis to compare wooden vessels of different materials and analysis of how fermentation affects the vessel (use-alteration) and vice versa.

The selection of materials is influenced by the interplay between brewing, the brewer and cultural choices. In contemporary society, the emergence of the craft-beer movement demonstrates a new appreciation of the brewer and their creative outlet. This project will investigate choices made by early medieval brewers, in particular vessel material selection, and the wider concept of the craftsperson. International studies on fermentation have developed useful scientific approaches and ethnographies, but such approaches have not been applied to early medieval evidence, especially in Ireland. This proposal will therefore utilise an international approach to better understand brewing and associated material culture in early medieval Ireland.