Science & Research

Beer, our first biotechnology

Friends of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology know that Thursday evenings are simply referred to as “beers.” As in, are you coming to beers? I stopped by for a pitcher of Fat Tire this summer and hatched an idea for the next blog.

Dating back at least 9,000 years, brewing beer represents our earliest attempt to harness the power of other living organisms. To be clear, I mean humankind’s first attempt at booze… at least two tree shrews, several rodents, and a small primate have been known to drink fermented palm nectar (and there’s also anecdotal evidence of drunk elephants, though scientists are dubious).

pat and sam cheers to scienceBack in May, I attended a World Science Festival event — Cheers to Science (pictured) — in Brooklyn’s Bell House with Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione and biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

I was given a Back-to-the-Future opportunity, Calagione called it, to taste modern reconstructions of ancient beers (paired with fine cheeses, of course).

To clarify, I use the term “beer” loosely. Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law of 1516, restricted allowable ingredients in beer to water, barley, and hops. Thousands of years before Germany laid down its beer law, humans in every great civilization were experimenting with booze, Popular Mechanics explains. The original artisanal microbrewers combined whatever ingredients they found around them into concoctions that don’t fit easily into today’s classifications. “There wasn’t beer, there wasn’t wine, there wasn’t mead,” Calagione says. “Every beverage was a hybrid.”

He and McGovern (also known as the “Indiana Jones of ancient ales, wines, and extreme beverages”) have worked together over the past dozen or so years, recreating ancient beer recipes from plant and other organic residues found in archaeological sites. (Some of these have become part of Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series.)

McGovern uses techniques like mass spectrometry and chromatography to parse where the remains come from. If he see traces of beeswax, for example, that’s a clue that ancient brewers used honey in their beer. Sometimes he’ll see calcium oxalate — commonly found in something known as “beerstone,” a sort of scum that forms after the brewing process — and know that people once made beer there.

The first stop on our liquid time machine was Midas Touch (750 BC), made with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas, whose funeral feast included barbequed lamb or goat and lentil stew. Somewhere between wine and mead, it’s a sweet yet dry beer made with honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron. That last ingredient is a calculated guess, based on the fact that hops didn’t become the go-to beer bittering agent until about 800 A.D., and that saffron is available in Turkey.

jiahuNext, we tasted the chronologically oldest beer of the evening, Chateau Jiahu (7000 BC), based on the oldest known fermented beverage. “The only way you could get this recipe is by chemical and botanical analysis,” McGovern says. Its ingredient list was unearthed from a 9,000-year-old tomb in China: hawthorn fruit, sake rice, barley, and honey. Beer is older than wine, did you know? The earliest date for wine is 5400 BC.

Something I learned: To make certain potables like sake, people would actually chew the rice to convert starch to sugar. Being the better chewers, women are the true brewers of antiquity; men picked wives based on this.

Beer #3 was called Birra Etrusca Bronze (800 BC), based on analyses of drinking vessels found in 2,800-year-old tombs and contains hazelnut flour, pomegranates, Italian chestnut honey, Delaware wildflower honey, and clover honey. Hops were added but the bitterness comes mostly from gentian root and the sarsaparilla-like Ethiopian myrrh resin. It’s then fermented with bronze, a traditional material used in Italian brewing.

Something else I learned: In the Iliad, wounded soldiers drank a beverage with grated cheese on top. Sometimes women wore pendants of cheese graters, and graters were found in men’s tombs.

The last beer we tasted was called Kvasir (3500 BC), a revived Nordic grog. Its ingredients include bog myrtle, bog cranberries, lingonberries, red winter wheat, and wildflower honey, and it’s based on evidence from drinking vessels found in mid-4th millennium BC Scandinavia and Scotland. One of the vessels was made of birch bark and was found in the tomb of a leather-clad woman who was possibly an upper-class dancer or priestess.

So, which came first you think: beer… or bread? More specifically, is the first cultivation of grain — and ultimately, our settling down from a nomadic life — about making bread or is it about making beer? The debate still rages.

And relatedly, or somewhat unrelatedly but just for funsies, the two talked about how a few decades ago, American brewing was the laughing stock. As the joke goes, how is Coors like having sex in a canoe? “Fucking close to water.” Hmm. Anyways, cheers!

Images: J. Fang (top), Dogfish Head (bottom)


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