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The yeast scream

Posted in Beer on 2017-01-25 16:58

Terje Raftevold pitching the kveik

A strange custom they have in Stjørdalen in Norway is to scream into the fermenter as they pitch the yeast. The brewers claim they do this so that the beer will be strong, and people will be cheerful when they drink it. This might sound like a tall tale, but it really is true. The local radio station in Stjørdalen even had a competition over which brewer had the best "gjærkauk" (yeast scream).

This seemed like just a quaint local custom until I read that Finnish brewers used to do the same thing. That's when I realized that there had to be something more going on here. But what? Why would people scream into the fermenter?

Later on, I spoke with Roar Sandodden, who said that from talking to brewers in Stjørdalen he got the impression that really the point was to frighten away supernatural creatures so that they wouldn't spoil the beer. Of course, the brewers don't believe in the supernatural creatures any more, but some believe it helps prevent the beer from going sour. Roar had spoken to one guy who told him "I'm not sure it works, but it costs so little" (de e' itj' sikkert de' virka, men det kosta så lite).

Did people really believe in this in the old days? Oh, yes. In fact, these supernatural creatures were part of daily life and ritual to an extent that's unimaginable today. Halvor Nordal told me his grandmother would always, after opening a door, first step aside as if letting some invisible person out, and only then go through the door herself. This may sound unbelievable, but there are so many sources for this kind of belief that we just have to accept that people really thought this way.

Pre-Christian magic symbols, from the door of Borgund stave church

The psalmist Sigvard Engeset, born 1885, writes in his autobiography:

That the "supernaturals" (literally he says "subterraneans", those living underground, which means the many types of supernatural creatures) existed was as certain as anything could be. There was no lack of people who had seen them, or at least traces of them, throughout the ages. "So why doesn't anyone see them now, then?" my father once asked. "Hmmm-well, maybe they died out," said grandma. She could concede that much, but no more.

This type of belief seems to have been universal in the Norwegian countryside of 1-2 centuries ago. And not only there. Once I realized that this was something more than a Stjørdal tradition I started looking for it in other places, too. This turns out to have been a custom throughout most of Norway. I asked Ugis in Latvia, and he laughed, saying there it was tradition that "a woman should scream" when the yeast was pitched. Later I was to meet variations on this theme in Estonia, too.

Paavo Pruul pitching the yeast, Hiiumaa, Estonia

But I still didn't really know for certain why people did this. Roar's theory sounded plausible, but there was nothing to confirm it, until I came across this story, in manuscript M2954 from Folklivsgranskningen at Lund University, from Vislanda in southern Sweden, dated 1930. It's written by Blenda Andersson, born 1880.

A story is told about a farm where the trolls (she writes 'troll', but I'm pretty sure this really means the "subterraneans", and not the conventional giants) would always take the wort just as the yeast was added. They therefore asked a wise old man for advice, and he told them that just as the housewife pitched the yeast, someone else in the brewhouse should pretend to be frightened and scream "There's a fire on Killingeö" (Killinge island). When they later followed the wise man's advice, a troll woman ran out of the brewhouse, shouting in fear "Oh dear me! Then all my children will burn!" From that day on the trolls never took their Christmas beer.

Later I found other variations on this story, and many more claims that the purpose of the screaming was to frighten away evil spirits from "infecting" the beer. So it seems pretty clear that this really was the reason.

And this actually makes a kind of sense. When you pitch the yeast you've reached the end of the part of the process that you as a brewer are in pretty good control of. Now you're handing the rest of the brewing over to unseen and rather capricious forces, which might or might not do what you wanted. (Remember, at this time everyone was still using their own yeast.) There are many stories about the anxieties of the time after the pitching, before the beer started fermenting as it should.

So this definitely was an anxious moment, and so it's not at all surprising that so much superstition should attach to it. What is surprising, however, is that the superstition is so similar over so enormous an area, and across many different cultures. Strangely, the Danish accounts have no mention of any yeast scream. I'm guessing this is because all forms of superstition seems to have more or less died out in Denmark by the time the tradition was recorded (1930s onwards).

As far as I know the only video of an actual yeast scream (starts at 00:54), from the Norwegian farmhouse ale festival 2016

But why was the superstition so similar? I don't know yet. More work is needed on this, but it's interesting.

Another question, of course is why people still scream into the fermenter in 2017. Surely all superstition is rooted out today, right? The answer seems to be complicated. For one thing, superstition in many forms (astrology, homeopathy, etc) is still alive and well. For another, many do it either because it seems to be a natural part of the brewing, or simply because they enjoy it.

My daughter (now 8) is firmly in this latter group. When we go to my brother-in-law to brew, she comes along to play with her cousins, and to shout for the yeast, which is her favourite moment in the brewing process. So there really are all sorts of reasons why this particular tradition lives on.

Kristoffer, Ingrid, and Oda shout into the fermenter. Rælingen, Norway







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Comments

Ernest - 2017-01-25 13:21:04

It also might have started to give the yeast a little help starting fermentation. In our mouths we contain lots of bacteria and yeast that is very active and that on it's own can ferment a brew, so maybe the scream is just introducing a little of our own into the brew.

Bryan Betts - 2017-01-25 17:39:40

Fascinating! Belief in the hidden folk must have been common across the Nordic region in the old days, it's best known these days in Iceland, where some of those customs to placate the hulduflk still survive.

Johann Renner - 2017-01-25 17:42:23

Do you say something while pitching the yeast? I'm wondering if people have different phrases or if it is just a scream or weird sound. Nice story Lars!

Keith - 2017-01-25 22:09:30

Wonderful blog. Brewing is full of folklore so thanks for sharing it from your part of the world. Screaming at the pitch is not in the Canadian tradition, but I'm going to start. I think your daughter has the best reason (it's just fun), and as you note, it doesn't cost much. Cheers

Glenn Simpson - 2017-01-26 01:00:18

No. Bacteria bad for beer unless making a sour. And that first pic of guy making soup does not look like yeast.

Lars Marius Garshol - 2017-01-26 01:36:20

@Ernest: The bacteria in your mouth are not really stuff you want in the beer, so I think this was one piece of brewing lore that's actually unhelpful. But you're pitching trillions of yeast cells at the same time, so generally those will win out.

@Johann: It varies. Many people just shout or scream. In Stjrdal people may shout variations on "hush, go away!", while in Estonia some shouted "At 'em! Go get'em, boys!" There were more variations, too, which we'll get back to.

@Glenn: It looks like soup because it's a yeast starter. He's taken unboiled wort (that's why it's so muddy) and added lab yeast to it, plus crushed blackberry leaves. His beer was outstanding.

Roar Sandodden - 2017-01-26 08:15:27

Shouting is an essential part of the traditional brewing of course :-) As Lars Marius mention we shout over the varitation "go away" to frighten away the tuftfolket (little people) dwelling underground. Unlike fjsnissen (barn elfs), Tuftfolket is not to be trifled with!

I am by the way a little concerned about the unpotent yeast scream exhibited on the video from Hornindal. I was there but missed it. This year we should try to arrange something more consistent if they want good beer. Arrgh!

Mika Laitinen - 2017-01-26 13:57:21

According to ethologist Matti Rsnen one Finnish yeast scream was "the sun has risen, the moon has risen, when will you rise". I guess fermentation did not always begin as soon as hoped, and shouting relieved the anxiety. Rsnen also mentioned that stronger the shout, stronger the ale will be.

Tailor von Schmitt - 2017-02-14 19:03:40

I think the reason is something a little more obscure. If you seek the etymology of the word yeast in various Germanic and even non-Germanic branches we have links with the word "ghost, agitation, fury,spirit, foam,work". So screaming at these supernatural force would be logical at the time.

"Yeast is the soul of beer" does not seem so wrong after all ...

Dag Jrgensen - 2017-03-29 10:30:48

We really enjoy the screaming into the kettle during transfer. Its a fun and natural part of our brewing and tradition. "Kauking" has its own tick-box on the brew sheet here at Voss Bryggeri. Not to be forgotten, who knows what might happen..? A powerful general scare, and also the desired final gravity is what I normally scream. Y! Come-on 1.020 oooaaah! y y y

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