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.