Walk Like An Egyptian, Drink Like A Viking

The self-proclaimed beer archaeologist of Avery Brewing Co., Travis Rupp, regrets that due to modern health codes, his Viking-inspired ‘Ragnarsdrápa’ beer cannot be fermented in a historically accurate trough made from a hollowed-out juniper tree. Brewers based in Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada have all teamed up with archaeologists to bring beer recipes from the past to life. The interest in ancient beer expands beyond professional breweries – the American Homebrewers Association has more than 40 different ‘historical beer’ recipes for their members to recreate at home. Beer is as much a part of the human experience as bread; the earliest archaeological evidence of beer is from Israel and dates back more than 11,000 years.

group of 7 beer glasses raised for a toast

Gathering for a beer toast could be a 11,000 year old tradition. Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash.

Using evidence from historical records, residue on brewing equipment, brewery sites, and plant remains, archaeologists can recreate how alcoholic beverages were made in the past. Residue on pots doesn’t include alcohol directly – which evaporates very quickly – so instead archaeologist look for the fingerprints of brewing left behind. Archaeologists identify brewing by-products using infrared spectrometry and liquid chromatography. Residue on pottery of starches indicate the breakdown of sugars from grains, calcium oxalate or ‘beer stone’ is indicative of barley, tartaric acid indicates the presence of grapes, and beeswax hydrocarbons indicate honey was used.

In collaboration with Dr Pat McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, Dogfish Head (Delaware, USA) created a line of Ancient Ales – craft beers that recreate archaeological brews from China, Turkey, Honduras, Peru, Egypt, Italy, and Scandinavia. They have been persistent in their recreations; modifying brewing kettles to be heated with bricks to more accurately duplicate ancient technologies and harvesting wild yeast from petri-dishes left overnight at Egyptian date farms.  A team of archaeologists and biologists have taken their recreation of ancient beer a step further by using a 3,000-year-old strain of yeast cultured from jugs excavated from Tell es-Safi in central Israel. The Philistine jug had two indicators that it was used to produce beer (or other fermented beer-like beverages). The first was the structure of the jug itself – it had a built-in strainer in the spout which would filter grain leftover from the fermentation process. Secondly was the yeast itself, a clear indicator that the jugs were used to ferment beer. In the past, the yeast used in brewing was wild yeast introduced environmentally or by the ingredients such as honey or on the skins of grapes. The 3,000-year-old yeast strain that the team cultured is the same species of yeast still used in commercial brewing today.

Archaeologists are interested in ancient beers due to its link with agricultural development and social practices. Religious celebrations, burials, and everyday life past and present are all linked together by the presence of beer. Due to the limited nutritional benefits of beer, its production is not solely for sustenance and suggests the development of cultural elements beyond the simple need to survive. This is supported by the diverse and independent locations where fermented beverages were made and how often they were used as burial offerings – in China, Peru, and Turkey. Even in ancient history, gathering together to celebrate and honour the dead with a beer or two was not out of the ordinary. Want to try your hand at recreating the beer from King Midas’ funeral? Check out the recipe here.

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Maura Griffith

D&D enthusiast and skeletal bioarchaeologist at UCL. Specializing in measuring teeth and ranting about appropriate use of statistics.
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