Ar­chae­ol­o­gists com­ing to brew­ers’ aid

An ale, a bit sour, is pro­duced from an an­cient hymn.


CLEVE­LAND — The beer was full of bac­te­ria, warm and sour. By con­tem­po­rary stan­dards, it would have been a spoiled batch here at Great Lakes Brew­ing Com­pany, a craft beer maker based in Ohio, where ma­chin­ery churns out bot­tle af­ter bot­tle of dark porters and pale ales.

But lately, Great Lakes has been try­ing to im­i­tate a by­gone era. En­list­ing the help of ar­chae­ol­o­gists at the Univer­sity of Chicago, the com­pany has been try­ing for more than a year to repli­cate a 5,000-year-old Sume­rian beer us­ing only clay ves­sels and a wooden spoon.

“How can you be in this busi­ness and not want to know from where your fore­fa­thers came with their for­mu­las and their tech­nol­ogy?” said Pat Con­way, a co-owner of the com­pany.

As in­ter­est in ar­ti­san beer has ex­panded, so have col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween schol­ars and in­de­pen­dent brew­ers.

“It in­volves a huge amount of de­tec­tive work and inference and pulling in in­for­ma­tion from other sources to try and fig­ure it out,” said Gil Stein, the di­rec­tor of the Ori­en­tal In­sti­tute of the Univer­sity of Chicago. “We rec­og­nize that to get at re­ally un­der­stand­ing th­ese dif­fer­ent as­pects of the past, you have to work with peo­ple who know things that we don’t.”

By about 3200 B.C., around the time the Sume­ri­ans in­vented writ­ing, beer had al­ready held a sig­nif­i­cant role in the re­gion’s cus­toms. It is also be­lieved to have been a source of drink­able wa­ter and nu­tri­ents, brewed in palaces and in aver­age homes.

But for all the notes that Sume­ri­ans took about the in­gre­di­ents and the dis­tri­bu­tion of their li­ba­tions, no pre­cise recipes have sur­vived. Left be­hind were only cu­nei­form texts that hint at the brew­ing, per­haps none more po­et­i­cally than the Hymn to Ninkasi, the god­dess of beer.

A brew based on the hymn was made in the early 1990s by the An­chor Brew­ing Com­pany in San Fran­cisco and the Univer­sity of Chicago.

Re­pro­duc­ing an­cient al­co­holic drinks has since grown in pop­u­lar­ity, largely through a part­ner­ship be­tween the Dog­fish Head Craft Brew­ery in Delaware and Pa­trick E. McGovern, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal chemist at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Mu­seum. They recre­ated beers from pre­his­toric China and an­cient Egypt and from ev­i­dence in the pre­sumed tomb of King Mi­das.

“Of dif­fer­ent peo­ple who do fer­mented bev­er­ages, mi­cro­brew­ers are the most will­ing to ex­per­i­ment,” Dr. McGovern said. “They’re ready to try any­thing.”

Great Lakes has no plan to sell its brew, also based on the Hymn to Ninkasi.

The team malted its own bar­ley on the roof of the brew house. A Cleve­land baker helped make a brick­like “beer bread” for use as a source of ac­tive yeast.

“We keep go­ing back to the ev­i­dence and find­ing new hints that can help us choose be­tween dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions,” said Tate Paulette, a doc­toral stu­dent and a lead re­searcher on the pro­ject. “We are im­mersed in study­ing Me­sopotamia, and this is a fun­da­men­tal thing that we don’t un­der­stand well enough.”

Nate Gib­bon, a brewer, said he had re­cently pro­duced a batch, spiced it with car­damom and co­rian­der, and fer­mented it for two days. It was still too sour for the mod­ern tongue, he said.

Me­sopotamian im­bibers might have been more fa­mil­iar with the fla­vor, which ar­chae­ol­o­gists say stemmed from a lack of chem­i­cals to kill bac­te­ria that pro­duce vine­gar . But, Mr. Paulette said, “we’re work­ing with ques­tions that are not go­ing to have a fi­nal an­swer.”


Pat Con­way, sec­ond from left, with his team that is work­ing to repli­cate a 5,000-year-old Sume­rian beer us­ing only clay ves­sels and a wooden spoon.

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