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Savoring Ancient Brews

Did beers from bygone eras actually taste delicious?  Probably not.

Did beers from bygone eras actually taste delicious? Probably not.

Certain things are lost to antiquity.  We can never know how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, or Julius Caesar actually talked.  Or the sound of the genuine rhythm and tone of extinct languages like Cuman, Karankawa, or Apalachee.  

Or, for the purposes of our fascinating discussion, what ancient beers really tasted like.

We can get some idea about the flavors of food from prior eras. The types of food in eighteenth century England, for example, are well documented, and recipes weren’t very complex. Boiled oatmeal with a little butter. Cold meats. Pea soup.  The famous British author Jane Austen had some of her family recipes recorded by a live-in friend and published in The Jane Austen Cookbook. A 12th century manuscript found in England, but written in Latin, reveals the basic recipes of the day.

But of beer?

The purpose of a recipe is consistency.  Someone writes it all down so that the food item tastes the same whenever it’s made and whoever makes it. If we glance over a medieval cookbook, it was basically a list of ingredients, some minimal seasoning (proportions added to taste), and a summary of the preparation.  A winter hen dish amounted to boiling a hen in water heated with garlic, pepper, and sage.

Recipes are ever more important now because of the almost infinite range and variety of ingredients available. You could specify basil in a recipe. You could also specific Thai hoary basil, dark opal basil, lemon basil, holy basil, sweet dani basil, Genovese basil, Egyptian basil, Pistou basil, licorice basil, etc.  That’s not even close to an exhaustive list. Hundreds of years ago, cooks could only obtain local ingredients.  You didn’t need to mention which specifics or be concerned that multiple brands and types and qualities of flour existed. There was only one you were going to be able to procure.  Today, there are specialty markets in major cities all over the world.  We can buy almost anything. 

For most of beer’s history, beer didn’t need a recipe because there was no consistency.  Up until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, brewers had a plan, a general idea how to brew one brew type to distinguish it from another, but consistency was a bonus. Most of the beer sold up till then was low quality, sour, flavorless, and never tasted the same from batch to batch. As late as 1881, you actually had breweries wondering how to get sturdy long-lived head on a beer.

Anheuser Busch, the makers of Budweiser, is nowadays renowned for its scale over quality.  Believe it or not, in 1878 the brewery won a gold prize in Paris for its St Louis Lager against over one hundred competitors from the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Britain, and France. It wasn’t that their beer’s taste was so amazing. It was consistent. The brewery invested in fine malt and yeast, in labs, in chemists to achieve this consistency. 

If beers before the 1870’s didn’t enjoy that luxury, ancient beers certainly didn’t, and generally, archaeological clues about historical beers aren’t so forthcoming. Ditches were excavated in Southwestern Germany that were used to make high-quality barley malt. The grains were dried by fires lit on both ends of the ditch, which darkened the malts and gave them a smoky flavor. We know hops wasn’t utilized that far back. Medieval brewers used other spices, stuff like mugwort, henbane, carrot seeds.   The taste of this more than 2,500 year old brew is all supposition. A modern brewer has to fill in the blanks, and all that filling in, based on modern brewing knowledge, creates what would be more like a modern beer modified with a few ancient ingredients or techniques. It’s like taking Mexican tacos and adding kimchi as a garnish. It’s still the taco you know and love – sort of.  If it were changed too much, most fans of the original would cease to enjoy it.

In 1996, the Courage Brewery of England brewed, they insisted, a replica of ancient Egyptian beer. Their ingredient gimmick was using emmer wheat instead of standard grains. Of course, the rest of the brewing was done with the same modern hygienic equipment and techniques Courage practices with all its other beers.

Birra del Borgo out of Italy claims they have offer an ancient-like brew, too. Theirs is called Enkir. Like Courage, Birra del Borgo substituted an unorthodox cereal grain, this time Einkorn wheat. 

Japanese craft brewery Hitachino Nest tries to make their own mark of ancient distinction with their Japanese Classic Ale. Hitachino Nest says it’s trying to brew the type of beer that was available in Japan during the Edo Period.   This sounds a lot more ancient than it really is. Although the Edo Period spanned from 1603 to 1868, Japan didn’t start brewing its own beer until 1876 and only started importing beers from the mid 1850’s, many of them cask-aged ales Britain was already exporting all over Asia.  The Japanese Classic Ale is more like a modern IPA but cask-aged to give it a unique historical story. 

The biggest practitioner of the ancient beers mantra is the Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware.  Starting in 1999, the brewery began working with Dr. Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaelogy Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.  McGovern allegedly needs a double-sided business card just to list his job.

Dogfish has about a half dozen ancients.”  Their initial brew, Midas Touch, is made with honey, barley malt, white muscat grapes, and saffron. Chateau Jiahu has hawthorn fruit, sake rice, barley, and honey.  Theobromma contains Askinosie cocoa, honey, chilies, and annatto.  The ingredients are pieced together from lists or molecular evidence or just assumed based on the locale and the types of herbs and fruits traditionally consumed in the area. Did these cultures produce beverages from some of these ingredients? Indubitably? Did the resultant beverages taste anything remotely like the modern breweries’ artful craft creations?  Most certainly not.

We can’t help but romanticize the past.  It looks cool to see a hybrid hieroglyphic creature downing a pint.  What good does it do us to imagine this cold pint tastes terrible?  Ancient beers were the origins of today’s grain-based beverage, but an entirely different beverage and not one we’d regularly pay $7-10 a pint for.  

But a modern ancient beer? That’s something anyone can raise a pint glass to.

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