A guy walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender says, “Anything special?” The guy replies, “What have you got?” The bartender smiles and says, “Well, we have some old ales.” “Sure,” says the guy, “give me one of those.” “Fine,” responds the bartender. “Do you want one from 4,000 years ago, 3,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, 1,500 years ago, or something more current, say, one from 1554 or 1825?”
Now you’re waiting for the punch line. Sorry, there isn’t one.
Beers from these time periods have actually been brewed in the last two decades. A few are even commercially produced and are for sale in bottled or cask form. The thing is, brewers and scientists with curious minds and palates have resurrected old–even ancient–beers. Why? For the sheer joy of the intellectual pursuit, in most cases. How? By analyzing ancient bits of matter left in jars, pots and bottles, by translating forgotten texts, by listening to old tales, and by hunting for dusty old books and documents.
Here are the stories of several of these recreations.
Fraoch Heather Ale–2000 BC
“Beware of old men telling tales of ancient brew. They may change your life forever.” That should be the motto above the door of Heather Ale Ltd., a Scottish microbrewery run by brothers Bruce and Scot Williams. Forty years ago, their father opened a homebrew shop in Glasgow, which Bruce eventually took over. One day in 1986, an old fellow walked into the store and told him about an old style of ale from “up north” brewed with heather. Intrigued, Bruce began to investigate the old man’s story.
In the Glasgow public library, Bruce discovered much about his country’s brewing past. The earliest record of heather ale dates to approximately 2000 BC. On the Isle of Rhum, archaeologists discovered a Neolithic shard containing traces of a fermented beverage made with heather flowers. Scottish stories and legends throughout the following centuries continued to refer to a brew made with heather. But after Scotland’s unification with England in the 1700s, heather ale was outlawed by an act of Parliament that prevented brewers from using any ingredients other than hops and malt. A law passed in London, however, didn’t hold sway over every nook and cranny of Scotland, and Williams learned that in the Highlands and Western Isles of the country the brewing of heather ale continued through the 1800s.
The Williams’ task at this point was to try to recreate heather ale from the sketch of a recipe given to Bruce by the old man who first put him onto his quest. Scot Williams explained that, during that first season, his brother journeyed out into the fields and picked fresh heather, bog myrtle and several other herbs that he had read about in old texts. He experimented with recipe after recipe, perfecting his heather ale. “The experiments,” said Scot, “consisted of running hot, unfermented ale through a bed of heather to try to pick up as many floral notes as possible until we were happy with it.”
Finally satisfied with their recipe, the Williams brothers brewed their first commercial batch of heather ale at a friend’s small commercial brewery in Argyll. At the West Highland Brewery, they brewed 20,000 pints of heather ale that were eventually sold to local pubs. “We just wanted to see the reaction to it,” explained Scot. “We were just playing about, really.” The reaction to heather ale was positive, but by the time they decided to step up production the heather was no longer in flower. They had missed the August to October season.
After several years, the Williamses moved heather ale production to a larger facility, the Thistle Brewery, in Alloa. They also began picking large quantities of heather, immediately putting it into refrigerated trucks and freezing it as soon as possible. “We now have pallet loads of heather in a big commercial freezer,” said Scot.
Today, the brothers own a brewery in which they brew a cask version of heather ale and they are part owners of a second brewery that has a bottling line. The brewing process hasn’t changed too much from the early experiments. Malted barley, sweet gale and flowering heather are mashed together, boiled, cooled slightly and then poured onto a bed of fresh heather flowers for a one-hour infusion.
The brothers have continued their old Scottish ale experiments. They also produce Ebulum, a strong black ale brewed with roasted barley, oats, wheat herbs, hops, bog myrtle and elderberry; Grozet, brewed with lager malt, wheat, bog myrtle, hops and meadowsweet, then secondary fermented with ripe Scottish gooseberries; Alba, a strong brown ale brewed with fresh spruce shoots and Scots pine; and Kelpie, an ale brewed with organic malts and hops and a seaweed known as bladderwrack.
Ninkasi Beer–1800 BC
Which came first? Beer or bread? A fascination with this question led to the recreation of a 2,700-year-old Sumerian beer, a project undertaken by Fritz Maytag, owner of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, and Dr. Solomon Katz, a bioanthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Maytag had read a story in Expeditions, U Penn’s museum publication, of the beer versus bread debate first posed in the 1950s. Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago had written that there was a cause-effect relationship between bread making and the domestication of cereal grains. Jonathan D. Sauer, a botanist from the University of Wisconsin, countered by suggesting that the first uses of domesticated cereals may have been for beer rather than for bread. Braidwood decided to hold a symposium on the subject for the journal American Anthropologist titled, “Did man once live by beer alone?”
Intrigued by the debate, Maytag invited Katz, who had studied and written about ancient beer making, to visit his brewery and discuss the issue. What Katz didn’t know at the time was that Maytag also had in mind the idea of recreating an ancient beer. He was thinking ahead for an idea with which to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Anchor’s new brew house and the 1988 meeting of the American Association of Micro Brewers, being held in San Francisco.
As it turns out, in 1987 Katz was lecturing in California at a wine and health symposium run by the Mondavi wine company. “My son was with me,” said Katz, “and I remembered the several invitations from Anchor. I thought this would be fun and also something my son would enjoy.”
At the brewery, Katz said he and his son were given the red carpet treatment. “Fritz and I hit it off immediately, and we began talking about the history and origins of beer and bread. I had earlier proposed that beer had almost certainly preceded bread, but it was like the chicken and egg debate–in order to make ancient beer, you almost certainly had to make some bread with it.”
Maytag and Katz began corresponding on the topic, faxes flying between San Francisco and Philadelphia, with Maytag wanting to support Katz’s research on beer and the origins of brewing. “At the time, I had put forward the idea that Mesopotamian beer was older than Egyptian beer, something I’m not so sure of today,” remembered Katz. “I knew that beer making played an important role in Sumerian society and that Mesopotamia was close to the region of the earliest cereal domestication.”
A key element in deciding on this region and time was an ancient text from Sumeria dated about 1800 BC and translated in 1964 by Miguel Civil of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This text, from stone tablets found at Nippur, Suppar and Larsa, was known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” The text sings the praises of Ninkasi, a minor goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, whose name translates as “you who fill my mouth so full.”
“This hymn,” said Katz, “was basically a recipe for brewing beer. Fritz and I both gleaned as much information as we could on to how to make this beer, based on the hymn.”
The more Maytag and Katz studied the recipe, however, the more they didn’t think it would successfully brew beer. “Certain aspects of the recipe seemed wrong,” said Katz, “based on what we know of modern brewing techniques. So we located Miguel Civil and had him retranslate a portion of the text.”
As it turns out, Civil had translated the Ninkasi text at the beginning of his career, and now, as the world authority on Sumerian cuneiform writing, he had greatly perfected his translation techniques. Sure enough, his retranslation turned up changes that resolved the brewing process problems with which Maytag and Katz had been concerned. “Finally,” said Katz, “we could successfully recreate the Sumerian beer.”
Back in San Francisco, the Anchor brewers used a honey and barley flour mixture to make a bread called “bappir” in the Ninkasi text. They guessed that the Sumerians may have added dates to the bappir in order to sweeten and flavor it, but they decided to add the dates only to the final mixture of the bread when it was being put into the mashing vat. The combination of unmalted, malted and roasted barley for the flour didn’t dry out, however, so the bread was baked a second time, much like present-day Italian biscotti.
The next step was to add one-third bappir and two-thirds barley malt in the mashing vessel. After the boil, they allowed the unfermented beer to cool naturally and then fermented it with a standard brewing yeast.
The Ninkasi text didn’t specify a bittering or preservative for the beer, such as hops offers to modern brewers, so the beer was flash-pasteurized to assure preservation. The beer finished its fermentation with just over 4 percent alcohol by volume.
“I was worried about whether we could actually serve this to people,” remembered Katz. “I was really concerned. I couldn’t be there the night it was first served, but everyone enjoyed it and nobody got sick, so that’s all good.”
The Sumerian Ninkasi beer debuted, as Maytag had planned, at the brewers’ association meeting. It was consumed in proper Sumerian fashion, sipped from large jugs using long drinking straws fashioned to resemble the gold and lapis lazuli straws found in the mid-third-millennium tomb of Lady Pu-abi at Ur. The beer had a dry flavor, not at all bitter, and tasted similar to a hard apple cider with a pronounced fragrance of dates.