Archaeologists around the world have teamed up with brewers to take craft beers to the next level by recreating ancient recipes. Throughout history, beer hasn't been as well documented as other alcohols (looking at you, wine), and these studies reveal more than just what libations our ancestors imbibed. By diving deep into the science of ancient beverages, archaeologists are able to uncover information about agriculture practices, trade routes, gender roles and medicine from yesteryear.
Humans have been making and drinking beer for thousands of years for a variety of reasons - social, nutritional, religious and medicinal to name a few. Drinking beer offered a way for our ancestors to stay hydrated (and slightly buzzed) as the brews typically contained just enough alcohol to kill pathogens found in water. In almost every ancient culture there is evidence of an affinity for beer and beer-like concoctions - from the Ancient Sumerians who worshipped and wrote hymns for Ninkasi the goddess of beer, to the Egyptians who included depictions of brewing beer on the walls of their tombs. They also used beer as payment for laborers who built the structures.
Beer relies on the process of fermentation, where yeast cells consume sugar to create alcohol - something that occurs naturally in nature. Humans captured the process through distillation and brewing, but we were getting slammed off of natural fermentation way before that - and we’re not the only creatures to do so. For example, elephants have been known to binge on fermented fruits and go on trampling sprees. Some scientists theorize that humans' first experiences with getting buzzed were a result of this natural fermentation, and likely happened by chance or happy accident. By the time our species evolved into modern humans we knew which fruits fermented and in which season to pick them, so we could capture and maintain a buzz.
Studying ancient beverages is a relatively new practice and is bringing together scientists and beer enthusiasts from all walks of life. The study begins with the artifacts themselves and determining if they may have been used to consume alcohol. From there, bimolecular archaeologists use a variety of methods to extract residue, examine it and identify markers which confirm its use.
Once they determine what ingredients the brew contained, they set out to recreate the brews themselves - a task that's far from easy, as scientists and brewers strive to capture the authentic taste. From harvesting ancient strains of yeast, to scouring markets in far-flung corners of the globe for ingredients our ancient counterparts added to their creations, the teams have their work cut out for them. Our ancestors were creative in crafting different flavors and included ingredients like thyme, olive oil, cheese, carrot, chamomile, oregano and even hallucinogens like poppy and hemp.
Curious to have a taste of these ancestral brews? If you happen to be US-based, you can check out Dogfish Head's three creations with Dr. Patrick McGovern: Midas Touch, Chataeu Jihau and Theobroma or Avery Brewing Co's 1800 CE Egyptian inspired Khonsu Im-Heb and Peruvian beer dating around 1000 CE, Pachamama.
Image by Sal Gh