Archaeology and beer seem to go together, and it’s not just because a cold brew helps wash the dust from your teeth after a long day on the digs. I’m an archaeologist by profession and a homebrewer by avocation. Lots of archaeologists brew their own, and those who don’t often have a passion for more exotic commercial brews.
A few years ago I helped organize a conference for more than 1,000 archaeologists. When my colleagues and I spoke with the staff of the hotel where the conference was to be held, we repeatedly stressed that they should be certain to have lots of beer on hand. And not just any beer, but the “good stuff” — microbrews and specialty imports. Despite our warnings, the beer ran out very early on the first night. The conferees were thirsty and surly; the organizers were angry; and the hotel staff members were chagrined. The next day, beer trucks lined up around the block and everyone was happy.
It is fortunate that more than a few brewers and scientists with skills allied to the brewer’s profession seem to like archaeology as well. The resulting interplay between the science of discovering the past and the art of making better brew has produced a handful of novel beers from homebrewers and commercial breweries alike. But why the love between archaeologists and brewers? Well, let’s dig into a little history — or, rather, prehistory — to get to the heart of the matter.
The Neolithic Revolution: Daily Bread or “Party Time?”
Long before radiocarbon dating and similar techniques, the first serious archaeologists divided Old World prehistory into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. The Stone Age was further divided into the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Neolithic period was characterized by newer forms of stone tool technology; specifically, by the presence of ground, rather than chipped, stone tools. However, by the middle of the Twentieth Century, archaeologists understood that the Neolithic was about a whole lot more than tool-making technology. It was about a thorough revolution in the way human beings lived on this earth. After millions of years of depending on wild plants and animals, people settled into permanent villages, and supported themselves with herds of domestic animals and fields of cultivated crops. This led, over a relatively short time in archaeological terms, to the rise of cities and all the complex trappings of civilization.
Of course, there was not just a single Neolithic Revolution; we now know that this process of domesticating plants and animals happened repeatedly, often independently, throughout the Old and New Worlds. The process continues today in some areas.
The key ingredient that seems to anchor the switch from hunting and gathering to gardening, herding and farming, is the domestication of starchy staple foods. The first of these were grains — particularly wheat and barley — domesticated in the Near East and Asia Minor beginning around 12,000–10,000 years ago. Wheat and rice were largely responsible for fueling similar cultural evolution in Asia. Likewise, sorghum and yams were domesticated in Africa; as were maize, potatoes and cassava in the Americas.
Domesticated starchy staples revolutionized life because they provided huge amounts of energy and, especially, because they could be stored to feed folks even through lean seasons. As I noted, wheat and barley were among the very first domesticated plant foods. And what do we do with wheat and barley? Well, we make beer, of course, and for that reason some archaeologists have argued that beer was the reason that people settled down and began to farm in the first place. In this view, beer itself might have led to civilization. Certainly, no reader of Brew Your Own would doubt that life without beer could scarcely be called civilized!
Others have argued, using archaeological evidence in the form of pictures on pottery and the like, that bread was the primary product of early grain domestication. Back in the 1950s and 60s, there was a great debate in archaeology over whether it was beer or bread that most likely fueled the Neolithic Revolution. Of course, these earliest domesticated grains — wheat and barley — can also be used to make gruel or porridge. Over the years, archaeologists have posited that beer was brewed by soaking bread in water, or by diluting porridge, to make a mash. But the big question was whether or not it was specifically the quest for beer that led to the enormous social, technological and economic changes we call the Neolithic Revolution.
In 1994, anthropologist Thomas W. Kavanaugh again took up the debate. Was his in-depth academic study published in some august anthropology journal? Nope, it appeared in Brewing Techniques, the now-defunct craft brewing magazine. After a thorough review of the arguments that had been laid out by archaeologists, Kavanaugh concluded that one key bit of technology was probably essential to the development of brewing: ceramic pottery, and as all archaeologists know, pottery was a product of The Neolithic Revolution. In other words, the Revolution had arrived before beer brewing became widely established. (For those who are interested in the details of the Great Debate, you can read Dr. Kavanaugh’s entire article online at http://www.brewingtechniques.com/library/backissues/issue2.5/kavanagh.html.)
Of Microbes and Molecules
Any attempt to store starchy staple foods has to deal with microbes. The world is filled with little buggers that are looking for a free meal, and nothing turns dried starch into food quicker than a little water and a little warmth. Warm water interacts with enzymes to convert starch to sugar and the microbes come to lunch. What happens next depends upon the microbes. If they are “friendly” yeasts, they will either make dough rise or they will turn grains into beer. If they are other sorts of yeasts, or bacteria or molds, they may do something less useful. It’s called spoiling the food! Most successful forms of early storable foods rely to some degree on controlling the work of microbes to make useful, pleasant and non-toxic products. Think about sauerkraut, cheese, yogurt, bread, wine, mead, and — of course — beer.
We archaeologists could learn a lot about the dawn of brewing if we could track down and identify the work of these microbes. Fortunately, chemists have found ways to identify specific molecules that relate to byproducts of distinctive fermentations: good stable molecules that can sometimes be found under exceptional archaeological conditions. It has been the curiosity of archaeologists and the chemists who work with them that has led to the discovery and recreation of historic and prehistoric beers. Sometimes, however, archaeologists get even luckier than finding tell-tale residue — sometimes they find a written beer recipe.
Ninkasi was the Sumerian Goddess of Beer, and the Hymn to Ninkasi has come down to us written on cuneiform tablets from the Sumerians of 4,000 years ago. (See sidebar on page 41 for full text.)
In 1989, Fritz Maytag, who salvaged the archetype of California Common Beer when he purchased Anchor Steam Brewing Company, became fascinated by archaeology’s focus on early brewing after reading an article on the bread or beer debate written by Dr. Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania. Katz had mentioned the existence of Sumerian tablets with pictures of brewing and beer-drinking, as well as cuneiform texts related to brewing. Maytag contacted Katz and got him to visit Anchor. Maytag also managed to get Professor Miguel Civil, who translated Ninkasi’s Hymn, to help work out some of the details of the recipe it contained.
Anchor produced Ninkasi Beer just one time. Barley was the only grain used in Ninkasi, although honey was also added. Ninkasi didn’t make a huge splash except as a novel idea. Perhaps Anchor’s interpretation of the recipe was too realistic? Or, more likely, the beer-drinking public wasn’t ready for a sweet-sour brew flavored with dates and no hops.
I found many challenges in trying to recreate a beer from just 300 years ago using a detailed, handwritten recipe and archaeological evidence from the kitchen/brewhouse of the housewife/alewife who penned it. (See “Colonial Beer” in the January-February 2003 issue of BYO.) I concluded that we cannot avoid the need for interpreting, for reading between the lines of history. Nonetheless, by paying attention to details, from inscriptions on clay tablets to molecules recovered from inside clay jars, we can learn things we otherwise wouldn’t know about the past.
The hymn to Ninkasi reveals that Sumerians, living in Iraq 4,000 years ago, made a sweet wort from loaves of bread and malted grains, and this, in turn, was brewed with honey and wine. The Phrygians, living 2,800 years ago in the Anatolian Highlands of Turkey, buried a king with drinking vessels containing evidence of a beverage made of grain malt, wine grapes and honey. Could it be that the ancient brewers simply used everything they could find to provide sugars for those hungry beer-making microbes?
When Fritz Maytag experimented with Ninkasi, his brewery and the homebrew renaissance was still in its youth. Today, beer enthusiasts are familiar with wine-like beers flavored with fruits or spices, some even modified by “bad” microbes that might have been very common in ancient brews. And who doesn’t like a little honey in the brewpot? Perhaps what is old is new again — perhaps our Homebrew Revolution is just the Neolithic Revolution, version 2.0.
Really Old Style
(Ancient Sumerian Beer)
(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = 1.062 FG = 1.009 ABV = 6.9%
- 4.5 lbs. (2.0 kg) Weyermann rauchmalz (smoked malt)
- 3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg) bappir (“beer bread”)
- 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) rice hulls
- 1.5 lbs. (0.68 kg) honey
- 1 gallon (3.8 L) date wine
Step by Step
Make the date wine (see below), then bake the bappir (see below) one or two days later. Let bappir cool overnight. The next day, add crushed malt and crumbled bread to your kettle. Mash in to 131 °F (55 °C) with 3.0 gallons (11 L) of water. Immediately begin slowly heating the mash to 156 °F (69 °C), stirring constantly, then rest at 156 °F (69 °C) for 45 minutes. Heat mash to 170 °F (77 °C) and transfer it to your lauter tun. Stir in rice hulls. Let sit for 5 minutes, then recirculate briefly and run off wort to kettle. Collect 4.0 gallons (15 L) total. Boil for 15 minutes, then cool to 70 °F
(21 °C). Remove bag of date skins from fermenter. (If you can get a friend to hold the bag, you can use two cookie sheets to gently press the pulp and yield a bit more juice.) Combine fermenting date wine with your fresh wort, then stir in honey. Add water to make
5 gallons (19 L), aerate and let ferment at 70–80 °F (21–27 °C) until fermentation subsides. Keg or bottle.
(1.0 gallon/3.8 L, fruit wine)
OG = 1.092
- 3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg) dates
Step by Step
Pit dates and place them in a large nylon grain bag. Put fruit bag in the bottom of a sanitized bucket fermenter and crush the fruit with a potato masher (or your feet). Add water to make 1 gallon (3.8 L). Let the wild yeast on the fruit begin to ferment the juice.
Bappir (Beer Bread)
- 3.0 lbs. (1.4 kg) Weyermann rauchmalz (smoked malt)
- 1.0 lb. (0.45 kg) unbleached (wheat) flour
- 1.25 lbs. (0.57 kg) honey
Step by Step
Grind barley malt into flour. Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Fold in honey. Slowly add water and knead dough until it is roughly the consistency of cookie dough. Form dough into large, flat loaves about one inch (2.5 cm) thick. Bake at 350 °F (176 °C) on a pizza stone until outside browns. Remove from oven and let cool. Cut cooled bread into "logs" about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) thick (think biscotti). Rebake at 350 °F (176 °C) until bread just hardens. Let cool overnight.
Dan Mouer is a frequent contributor to BYO. His article on Dogfish Head’s archaeobeer experiments will appear in the November 2007 issue.