Most of Denmark is ideal for farmers: flat, fertile soil with plentiful rain, yet also warm and sunny. In the old days, that meant that farmers had more than enough grain to feed themselves, so they did what any sensible person would do: They brewed beer with the rest.
In fact, they brewed so much that Danish farmers drank beer against thirst every day. The custom was that on the table in the living room a big beer mug would stand, and anyone who was thirsty would go there and drink their fill. If the mug was empty, they went into the cellar to refill it. And if the barrel was about to run out, the housewife would brew more. In summer she might do that every other week.
While Danish farmers certainly cared about their beer, it was also an everyday thing, and opening a new beer barrel was no cause for much anticipation or fuss—except, however, for once a year. That was when they broached the barrel of gammeltøl.
Around the Farmhouse Table
The literal translation of gammeltøl is “old ale.” The tradition was that in March or April, before the hot weather made brewing uninfected beer difficult, the farmers would brew a batch of extra-strong beer. Often twice the strength of the ordinary beer, this was kept in a separate cask over summer and opened only in the autumn. By then it was “old” compared to the normal beer; hence the name.
One source describes how as a child he was allowed to sit “quiet as a mouse” in the background when three neighboring farmers came by for the solemn tapping of the gammeltøl barrel. The guests sat around the oval table in the finest dining room, with one glass for each, and then the farmer’s wife would bring a mug of gammeltøl. She’d set it on the table, saying, “You’re welcome.” The farmer would then pour a beer to the guest on the left and proceed around the table counter-clockwise. Finally, he would say, “Welcome, let’s taste it,” and everyone would raise their glasses to admire the color of the beer. Every single time, it was considered “fully satisfactory,” and sometimes one neighbor would exclaim that “the devil’s own beer could have no better color.”
Then they’d drink and solemnly consider the taste before nodding and putting the glass down. Someone would remark that “the taste didn’t leave much to be desired, either,” and sometimes the housewife’s skill as a brewer would be praised. This source adds, “And that she deserved, because my mother was a skilled brewer.”
Brewing the Gammeltøl
Now, gammeltøl was, strictly speaking, not a style. The gammeltøl was basically the same beer the farmer’s wife brewed during the year, but with extra malt and hops. So, most of the various kinds of Danish farmhouse ales had their own gammeltøl version.
However, over the past century or so, Danes seem to mostly have associated the gammeltøl with the farmhouse brewing on the island of Funen. Part of the reason could be that a couple of breweries on Funen brewed gammeltøl commercially. Many of the other descriptions of gammeltøl also come from Funen, so it seems fitting to home in on specifically that type of gammeltøl.
On Funen, the malts were all made from barley, heavily smoked using a few different types of kilns that let the heat and smoke rise up through the drying malts. The wood used was mainly alder, just like in present-day Stjørdal, and the malts must have been rather similar (see “The Cult of the Kiln,” beerandbrewing.com).
The brewing process was fairly simple. The brewers would heat water, pour it on the malt, and stir it in. Later they would move the mash to the lauter tun, which was a tub with a hole in the bottom; the filter in the bottom was normally straw. There also was a long rod rising out of the hole and over the edge of the tub. By raising the rod, the brewer allowed the wort to run into a bucket under the tub. Separately, they would boil some hops in water to make hop tea and blend that with the wort in the fermentor, where the wort would cool before yeast was added. Indeed, it was a raw ale—they didn’t boil the wort.
Farmers maintained their own yeast and pitched it at body temperature, so it behaved similarly to Norwegian kveik—but nobody today knows exactly what kind of yeast it was. In later years, brewers have made gammeltøl using both baker’s yeast and modern ale yeast.
Funen beer had a reputation for being heavily hopped, and the dose of hops in the gammeltøl would typically be double that of an ordinary beer, so the gammeltøl most likely was quite hoppy. That doesn’t mean hoppy in the modern sense, with New World hops, but more like European Noble ones.
It was common to add a couple of things to the gammeltøl that were not added to the ordinary beer. Adding a bottle of aquavit or rum to the barrel to fortify the beer wasn’t unusual. Also, quite a few people would drop in a few eggs; the belief was that the eggs made the beer keep better. All accounts agree that by the time autumn came round, no trace would remain of the eggshells or their contents, though nobody seems to know exactly why or how.
It’s difficult to say how strong and hoppy gammeltøl was because it would have varied from farm to farm and over time. All sources agree it was stronger than the ordinary beer, with figures varying from 50 percent stronger to quadruple the strength. They seem to have multiplied the hops at the same rate as the malt.
Commercial brewing of gammeltøl ended in 1962, but it continued on the farms long after—a YouTube video shows film of gammeltøl being brewed in 1975, for example. On Funen, farmhouse brewing is still just barely alive. It’s entirely possible that there are still people brewing gammeltøl there.
Denmark’s Own March Beer
The description of farmhouse ales brewed in spring for drinking in autumn is a familiar one. It’s the same story often associated with Wallonian saison; while many have doubted that story, the evidence that saison was brewed in spring for drinking in autumn is quite persuasive. Nor is it the only example.
In England there was something called “March beer,” also brewed in March and cellared for a long time. Gervase Markham described it in 1623, and it’s described in English farmhouse brewing again in the 20th century, so clearly this went on for a long time. Another term for the same thing seems to have been “October beer,” also brewed in spring for drinking in the autumn—and, again, that appears to have been a farmhouse ale originally. (As you may recall, this eventually developed into IPA.)
A similar thing is known from Germany in several places. The German märzen also signifies March; likewise, it was originally stronger and hoppier, brewed in March for drinking in the autumn.
Many have wondered about the origin of the German altbier of Düsseldorf, which also means “old beer.” German archive documents describe the brewing of farmhouse ale about 100 kilometers north of Düsseldorf, saying that this beer was brewed in March for consumption at the grain harvest in the fall. Several sources say it was similar to commercial altbier. Could these two kinds of “old beer” have a similar origin? Perhaps, but more evidence is needed to be certain.
Now, if you want to try a gammeltøl, what should you do? One approach might be to trawl the country lanes in the foggy, blustery countryside of Funen in October, knocking on the doors of likely farms in the hope of finding someone still brewing. The only approach likely to yield any actual beer, unfortunately, is brewing it yourself.