With the exception of the fictional Indiana Jones, the perception of archeology is generally that of a rather dry subject. But for some archeologists, the goal of unearthing ancient bits and pieces is to bring back the beers of the past to be tasted and enjoyed in the present.
“The Beer Archeologist” was the title of a 2011 Smithsonian article that applied to the term to Dr. Patrick Edward McGovern. He is the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he also teaches as an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology.
McGovern calls what he does “experimental archaeology.”
As “the world’s foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages,” he scrutinizes recovered ancient jugs for any residue of such libations to analyze chemically to identify various ancient brews and liquors. Among them is “the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China’s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.”
The research is not strictly academic. Since 1999 McGovern began working with the brewers at Dogfish Head to create the Ancient Ales Series, and his Chinese discovery led to their second beer of the series called Chateau Jiahu.
Others, among them University of Colorado classics professor Travis Rupp, have also gotten involved in researching and recreating ancient brews. Rupp holds the title of Beer Archaeologist at Avery Brewing.
In a blog post, Rupp described how his archeological skills were need for Avery's vision of innovative brewing. In their search for new beer flavors, they decided to go forward by going back.
They set out “to recreate ancient beers in a way that people haven’t done before or haven’t done” in a thousand years or more. That was the basis of the launch of a series of beers called “the Ales of Antiquity.”
“ These Ales of Antiquity beers take several months or even years of research to create,” Rupp added. You can see more about those ales in the video below:
The taste of the past is different from what you're used to
Beer brewing is indeed an ancient art, and the process if pretty much the same today as it was in ancient times. The basic science behind brewing beer and the role of is explained in this video:
However, the taste expectations of the drink were somewhat different, as were the ingredients and some of the preparation techniques, which means that though you can pretty much recreate what they drank a thousand years ago in some ancient civilization in which beer was normally imbibed, you may not enjoy the actual taste sensation as much as you would a pint made for today’s consumer tastes.
The beer shared by people in ancient Egypt, for example, was more nutritious and less alcoholic than the beers of more recent times, qualities that may make the drink not altogether appealing to those who expect more of a buzz from their brew. The differences are explained in this video:
A fresh batch of beer made from ancient yeast
Among the sites where vessels containing remains of ancient brews have been found in where researchers have successfully extracted yeast from ceramic vessel found from digs that include the site of an Egyptian brewery that dates back 5,000 years. The project heads were Hebrew University microbiologist Ronen Hazan and antiquities authority archaeologist Yitzhak Paz.
While Patrick McGovern, as mentioned above, has succeeded in devising drinks based on analysis of remains and ancient recipes, those do not incorporate the resurrected yeast of the past. But the Israeli researchers found they could bring the yeast back to life and were surprised that it was able to survive that long with no sustenance.
Had it not survived on its own, it would have been lost forever, as this particular variety would not be included among the 4,000 plus species found in the UK in the National Collection of Yeast Cultures. As yeast is the key to the unique flavor of several brews, to prevent the loss of any of the many distinctive varieties, samples are kept there as explained in this video:
Instead of invoking Indiana Jones, Aren Maeir, a Bar Ilan University archaeologist, compared their experience to the scientists featured in “Jurassic Park.” However, he added a very important distinction: while in the movie “the dinosaurs eat the scientists,” in this case “ the scientists drink the dinosaurs.”
Here’s the video:
For the first run of drinking the dinosaurs, the researcher teamed up with a Jerusalem craft brewer to produce a basic ale that incorporated the ancient yeast. It was not quite an authentic ancient brew because it did include components that would not have been available in the area during ancient times, like the ingredient many of us have come to consider synonymous with beer - hops.
Still, though, the yeast would have lent it some authentically ancient flavor. Shmuel Naky, a craft brewer from the Jerusalem Beer Center, who was involved in producing the beer from the yeast explained that it did replicate the basic flavor of brews of the distant past, and that came through the suggestions of spice and fruit that come through its complex flavor as a result of the influence of the ancient yeast.
But it's not just the thrill of the brew that gets the researchers excited.
"Today we are able to salvage all these living organisms that live inside the nanopores and to revive them and study their properties" Hebrew University microbiologist Michael Klutstein, said.
The ramifications of that extend beyond reviving the yeast that defined a beer’s flavor. Maeir said it actually makes it possible to bring back a whole range of foods built on fermentation form the past:
"It opens up a whole new field of the possibility that perhaps other microorganisms survived as well, and you can identify foods such as cheese, wine, pickles."
That means that in the future, we can have a replicated repast of the past, so long as we stick beer, wine, cheese, and pickles.