Why you should care

Because who doesn’t want to drink beer from King Midas’ tomb?

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For one of its specialty beers, Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland skips the state-of-the-art equipment for an elaborate system of clay vessels. It doesn’t bottle the milky blond beers, either. Instead, the brewers haul the vessels to tasting events, where beer-heads huddle together and suck the sour, lemony ale through dried daylily stems, from below a thin layer of yeast and barley husks.

The scene looks like a stone relief brought to life — because it is. Great Lakes Brewing Company and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have teamed up to recreate beer as it was made in Sumer — an ancient civilization located in present-day Iraq — some 5,000 years ago. They’re part of a growing movement of archaeologists, brewers and winemakers seeking to reconstitute ancient booze using ingredients identified from analyses of drinking vessels and other artifacts. The practice helps archaeologists shed light on ancient fermentation processes, and makers of beer and wine gain a deeper, historical appreciation of their craft.

“They’re liquid time capsules.”

Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head Brewery

This budding fascination with the libations of yore ties into the fashionable obsession with food origins and buying local — most ancient beers are made from organic ingredients and sold at small breweries and wineries. Ancient beers, in particular, represent an outgrowth of the recent craft beer revolution, led by brewers thirsty for out-there flavors. (The craft beer industry grew 79 percent last year.) “Beer consumers are walking away from the monolithic, light lager style that has dominated for decades and getting more experimental,” says Sam Calagione, owner of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, which produces an ancient ale line.

But while beer enthusiasts are interested in ancient beverages, the trend will likely remain a niche market for a few years yet. It’s hardly a lucrative enterprise, considering the laborious manufacturing process and the fact that most consumers balk at shelling out more than 25 bucks for a strange brew they’ve never heard of. And microbreweries, which produce the majority of ancient booze, make up only 10.2 percent of the U.S. beer market. There’s also the question of taste, which can be inconsistent. It’s harder to scrub residue from earthenware than from stainless steel, so every batch carries remnants of the previous one.

And yet, ancient alcohol seizes the imagination. “They’re liquid time capsules,” Calagione said. “They allow today’s beer and history lover to step back in time to drink like our ancestors did.”

Medieval monks added herbs and fruit to wine for medicinal purposes.

Archaeologists first pieced together the ingredients and manufacturing processes based on artifacts from their digs. But since original texts typically don’t include measurements or directions, archaeologists turned to beer makers and winemakers to devise the perfect blend.

Sipping resurrected Sumerian beer from a clay vessel

Sipping resurrected Sumerian beer from a clay vessel.

Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, starts by boiling drinking vessel shards to extract residues trapped inside. Next he analyzes them for specific chemical fingerprints — tartaric acid indicates Middle Eastern grapes, for example — and yeast strains. Tate Paulette, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, relies on manuscripts in the form of cuneiform tablets — in effect, brewery delivery lists and odes to Sumerian beer goddess Ninkasi. Great Lakes Brewing Company then brews the beer in replicas of excavated equipment. The process isn’t without hiccups. For instance, when Paulette’s group identified brittle bappir bread as an ingredient, the brewers didn’t know when to add it, so it was back to the manuscripts for clues. “It’s this cyclical process,” Paulette said.

Beyond the scholarly rewards, swilling the same booze enjoyed by ancient Egyptians and Etruscans is just fun. Modern-day bartenders may brag about their salted-caramel-tini, but alcohol back in the day boasted a broader palate of flavors. Medieval monks, for example, added exotic herbs and fruit to wine for medicinal purposes. Michael Fuller, an archaeology professor emeritus at St. Louis Community College, recreated a Phoenician wine containing quince, a pear-like fruit thought to aid digestion. Available at Bushwhacker Bend Winery in Missouri, he likens it to “chardonnay, with a SweeTart dissolved in it.” A Dogfish Head ale based on residues from a 3,500-year-old Danish drinking vessel contains lingonberries, yarrow and birch syrup. Not everyone likes them, possibly because our palates are culturally conditioned. Why did these ancient, complex flavors fall out of favor? Calagione blames the 16th century Bavarian Beer Purity Law, which required beer to be made with only barley, hops and water.

In 2000, Dogfish Head won a microbrewery competition for the best blend based on ingredients identified by McGovern from drinking vessels inside King Midas’ tomb. The result? Midas Touch, described on the brewery’s website as “somewhere between beer, wine and mead.” Others quickly followed suit. Some looked to more recent history — like Finnish brewery Stallhagen, which recreated beer from a 172-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Finland.

“It will only grow,” said McGovern of ancient beer and wine making. “People want to have new tastes and sensations, especially if there’s a story connected to it.” Cheers to that.

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