I often join guided walks in other cities and countries, but until today I have never joined one in my own city. Today I joined one of the Oslo Citywalks with my mom and we were a group of 15 people. We had a very nice time.
The walk was very interesting and it was called “Enebriate yourselves!” It was a guided tour through some interesting facs about the drinking culture from the medieval times until more modern times through funny anecdotes, drinking stories and old folk drinking songs. The guide focused both on facts and on funny stories.
As a result of this walk I found the history of alcohol in my city and in my country to be very interesting and I started looking into it and here I have gathered quite a few known facts and I hope you will enjoy!
People started producing alcohol as far back as 7-9000 years ago. The ice over Norway was barely melting at this time and for the early settlers brewing alcohol might now have been their first priority, but there are proofs that alcohol has been produced for at least 2500 years.
Norse drinking culture
In the old Viking age alcohol was first and foremost linked to big celebrations, seeing that the country was poor on grain and that most of the beer that was brewed was quite mild and had a short durability. Hence one they had access to alchohol it was commonly believed the alcohol had to be finished off fast.
Offering your guests alcohol and enebriating yourself and your guests was seen as an expression of hospitality and generosity. Withstanding huge amounts of alcohold is seen as a good quality in a King.
Not drinking at a party was illegal for armed men.
Alcohol held a very important role in celebrations and visitation, especially for the religious celebration of Michaelmas and Christmas, and according to the law at the time – any farmer that refused to brew alcohol 3 years in a row for the religious celebrations, had to leave their farm and ground and flee the country. The beer was dedicated to Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ to thank for a good year, good crops and peace. Other reasons for celebrations were Weddings, Baptisms and Funerals.
However the farmers weren’t only expected to brew the alcohol, they were also expected to participate in the parties in the beer houses and participate in ritual drinking teams where important descisions were made. If you were skipping your drinking duty you could risk punishment and if you became so ill he wasn’t fit for beer drinking or horse riding he could loose his right to vote.
During this period all celebrations were characterized by huge amounts of alcohol. One was supposed to drink to get drunk. Especially for the host it was shameful if the guests didn’t end up drunk, and in some occations wormwood was mixed into the beer to assure that people got drunk. A successful party was known to include a lot of Trouble, Fights and Drukenness.
During the medeival time the common Norwegian drank 6-8 liters of beer each day (even kids), because the food was very salty and the water was, particularly in big cities, quite polluted.
With easier access to alcohol it also became more common and pharmacists started selling Aqua Vitae as medicine. Mixed with different herbs the Aqua Vitae was supposed to help for a number of diseases.
Aqua Vitae became so popular that the pharmacy industry became more and more popular and the church created a law that no alcohol was to be sold until after midday on church day so that noone would have an excuse not to participate in religious activities. However with this new law it became normal to go to the pharmacy after church on sundays to get a few drinks and a tradition to hold parties after church on sunday started.
Other types of alcohol was not so common in Norway until the early 1600’s. The Vikings had however tasted wine during their raids and lootings in southern Europe, and they had also brought home samples. Liquor had been brewn, but nothing that tasted particularly well.
During the 1600’s the Hansa trade settled in Norway with the main seat in Bergen and with them, easier access to wine and liquor. However in the beginning the alcohol was imported in small amounts and only for the richest members of society.
Especially among Royals and UpperClass it became normal to drink huge amounts of alcohol and party without limits. It became so normal to drink until they lost their senses that policitcians were seen as suspicious if they did not show themselves highly enebriated in public regularly. There are descriptions of parties so wild with alcohol where people drank so much that someone regularly fell over dead.
The arrival of the potato ensured that the access to harder liquor was far easier. One could get 4 times as much Alcohol from the same amount of potatoes as grain. This was good news for the home brewers. Another good thing was that potatoes could replace grain as a food source and hence grain could be used to produce liquor without worrying that people wouldn’t have enough food.
In the early 1800’s home brewing harder liquors became fully legalized, but there were a few conditions. The farmers were allowed to not only brew, but sell Alcohol brewn on grain grown from the farm, however if the grain was bought from someone else – the alcohol brewn on it was only legal for the farmers private use. However there were no restrictions on alcohol made from potatoes until 1824 when it became illegal to sell alcohol made from potatoes bought from stores or other farms.
Between 1816 – when the home brewing became legalized, and until the 1840’s, the liquor usage reached unknown proportions. While the import of liquor in 1814 was about 1,5 litre pure alcohol per capita, it was estimated that in 1833 the usage was about 7 litre liquor per citizen, women and children included.
During this period it was common for employees to receive parts of their salary in alcohol and they also had access to drinks during their breaks at work. Who wouldn’t need a drink every now and then when the workdays were often as long as 12-14 hours.
It is said that the average employee drank as much as 1/2 litre liquor each day and that the employees were drunk more ofthen than they were sobre. During the weekends consumation was significantly higher and often the new workweek didn’t start until tuesdays, because most employees were incapable of working on mondays.
However in the 1847 people started to worry about the development and a suggestion was raised by the government to liquidate all home brewing of alcohol. The King, however, refuesed to approve this decision. Instead a law was introduced that taxed people according to how much alcohol they brewed. In addition it became illegal to brew during summer months.
1900’s – The dark days
From 1916-1927 there was a ban of selling alcohol in Norway, but just shortly after the 1st world war broke out in 1914 the government forbade anyone to make alcohol from both grain and potatoes. The food supplies were running low and the government needed all the supplies as food.
The restriction had very negative aftereffects. The legal import of alcohol increased dramatically and only in august and september that year over 200 000 liters of licor were imported, mainly from Denmark. Brewing their own alcohol became a very important way of earning some extra money in areas where imported licor wasn’t easily available. However the home brewers didn’t care about the restrictions and the Temperance Movement gained a lot of ground during this period leading to the total ban of alcohol.
However pharmacis were allowed to sell alcohol for medicinal use and each househould were allowed 1/2 a liter of licor. An increase in divorces was seen in those days (where the two parties still lived under the same roof with the kids) because that way they got two 1/2 liters instead of 1. One Oslo doctor perscribed over 48 000 perscriptions of alcohol in one year which led to the government restricting the alcohol sales from pharmacies even for medicinal use.
In 1927 the era ended and alcohol was made legal again.
The government did not wish to allow as uncontrolled sale of alcohol as they had previously seen and they introduced a liquor store, Vinmonopolet, where all kinds of alcohol was sold and controlled by the government.
Seen with a long perspective the alcohol usage from the 1850 decreased slowly from over 5 litre pure alcohol per capita (with a top of 6 litre per person during the mid 1870s) to just about 2 litre per person towards the end of the mid war period.
References (all links are in Norwegian)
Use of alcohol in Norway
History of alcohol in Norway
When King Alcohol reigned in Norway
Alcohols place in history
Norwegian journal of epidemology
Alcohol use in the old Norway
Alcohol in medieval times
Selvstendighet og brennevinsflom
Forholdene etter forbudstiden