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New Contributor II

Sumerian Beer

The archaeology of beer and other inebriants is fascinating stuff!!  I hope you will post more about your research into the Sumerian beer and ancient brewing techniques.

I too have heard the theory about grains being cultivated for beer rather than bread, but it always seemed to me that "all grain" brewing was a tough way to generate sugar for fermentation by ancient civilizations struggling to survive. Mead usually lays claim to being the oldest fermented beverage due the ready made fermentables in honey, but the Sumerian beer would seem to predate most Mead origin stories.

This was another interesting re-creation of ancient 'extreme' brewing techinque and a graphic illustration of the importance of the 'hot side' for sanitization as well as extraction and another example of early enzymologists!

Peruvian Chicha

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19 Replies
New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

OOPS.. the post above was addressed as a reply to Kent Hilliard from his post in the original thread. I changed the topic title and it spawned a new thread.

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New Contributor

Re: Sumerian Beer

That's fine: I would prefer to see different threads for different topics rather than one long thread that spans multiple subjects anyway.

Thanks for the link!  It was an interesting read.  I don't know if I'd go to that length to brew a batch!

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New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

I'll be happy to post on Sumerian beer and the like. There's an old debate in anthropology about whether beer or bread was the impetus for grain cultivation. Hard to say, except that more recent evidence for the consumption (not purposeful cultivation) of cereal grains predates the Neolithic by millennia, as part of a varied diet of plants, meat, fish, etc. It's hard to imagine brewing beer at a time when no ceramic vessels were available, although animal skins were likely used to carry liquids. It may be that wine was the earliest alcoholic beverage. Grapes (and other fruit) can carry strains of Saccharomyces (and other organisms) that can allow the must from crushed fruit to ferment without external inoculation, so I can imagine the hypothetical situation where some stone ager gathering grapes and placing them in a skin bag may have found a spritzy, tangy liquid at the bottom when most of the grapes had been eaten, being the juice of broken grapes that had fermented or begun to ferment from the yeast they were carrying. Genetic evidence has suggested that grape domestication may have occurred in the transcaucasus region during the early Neolithic (maybe as much as 10000 years ago). The earliest chemical evidence for wine comes from a site in the Zagros foothills between Iran and Iraq that dates from about 7400 years ago. Ceramic jars found there had been stained on the insides with whatever the contents had been, and when this residue was analyzed (by Patrick McGovern, the guy with the glasses and beard chewing on maize in the picture from the link you posted) it was found to contain the calcium salt of tartaric acid (the latter which occurs in grapes) and terebinth resin (used, perhaps, as a preservative and possibly a flavoring agent--think of Greek retsina wine). Both FTIR and HPLC were used, but it was the UV signatures and retention times of the peaks for these that gave good confirmation. Calcium tartrate (the tartaric acid would have decomposed to the calcium salt, it was assumed, under conditions of diagenesis--the environment of the jars' underground resting place) and terebinth resin were run also as references (the terebinth resin coming from a jar sample recovered from a 3400 year old shipwreck off the coast of Turkey at a place called Uluburun), as was a sample from an identified wine jar (ID'ed by the hieroglyphic marking on the vessel) from an Egyptian tomb of the same age as the shipwreck. The Egyptian wine sample also contained calcium tartrate and terebinth resin, according to the UV signatures and retention times in the chromatogram.

Chemical evidence for beer comes from the same general area, and dates from about 5500 years ago. The marker compound used to determine this was calcium oxalate, and everyone who brews all grain knows about beerstone. The vessel shapes were approximately like those of pictograms in early Sumerian texts that seem to indicate beer, and there were a few other hints as to what the jars might have contained, so it seems likely that it was beer.

It may be that long ago some barley porridge cooked at the right temps (say, slow to heat up to allow some hydrolysis of the starches) that had been perked up with fruit that happened to carry yeast, and that had been left out for a while began to ferment. Beer may have been a serendipitous accident. Who knows?

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New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

Fascinating stuff.  In my next life, I think I would like to be Patrick McGovern!!!

Came across this additional archaeochemicozymurgical exploration:

Chateau Jiahu

The Mead community takes the evidence of honey in the brew as a nod toward Mead as the most ancient beverage, but this seemed to be more of a fruity sake.  The description of the Dogfish Head 'clone brew' seems to include malted barley as well, so it may have been more of a braggot.

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New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

Thanks for the link, Robert. Yes, the Chinese find is interesting, even if I've always been a bit skeptical about the dates assigned to the jars. It certainly does appear to be the oldest known evidence for an alcoholic beverage, but this doesn't mean that it is the original alcohol. I still feel the evidence for the transcaucasus/Fertile Crescent region is better for the origin of wine and for beer as we sort of know it (as a barley beverage, that is). Time will, hopefully, provide a more accurate picture of the situation. Here is a link to a scholarly paper on the Jiahu drink: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539767/pdf/pnas-0407921102.pdf. It seems to have been a mixture of rice, honey, and fruit of some kind (hawthorn berries or grapes, perhaps), so again, I suspect it was the fruit that provided the means to ferment.

I never have had the Dogfish "clone" of the Jiahu bev and I've looked for it, so it doesn't seem to be available any longer. I have had Midas Touch, that was a Dogfish attempt to recreate the drink contained in large vessels in a ca. 2700 year old tomb at Gordion that may have belonged to the legendary Phrygian king Midas (there seems to have been a feast prepared, including a drink made of wine, barley, and honey). The Dogfish stuff is pretty good.

One thing to bear in mind with these recreations is that there are always many assumptions to be made about what the formulation might have been, there are constraints upon the brewer as to ingredients and techniques (they have to remain FDA compliant), and the drink should, ideally, be suitable for public consumption (i.e. modern tastes). Fritz Maytag mentioned some of these practical matters when I chatted with him some years ago, so in the process of brewing Ninkasi beer a number of compromises had to be made. He was hoping that the beer would sell well enough to become a regular Anchor product, and it was offered on tap in some San Francisco locations but never really hit it off with the public. I thought it was pretty good.

Have you ever tasted the Dogfish Jiahu drink? If so, what did you think?

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New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

Oops. The source of yeast for the Jiahu beverage could have included the honey as well as the fruit, of course.

Has anyone ever tried to make mead using just the wild yeast (etc.) contained in the honey?

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New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

Thanks for the full article on the Jiahu find. I was craving more information.

I have not tried the Dogfish product or any other of the Dogfish ancient recipes, but I am curious enough now to see if they still make any. I think they were very limited runs and probably not available.

Early Meads seem to have been made with wild yeasts usually by the expedient of adding various fruits that, like grapes had wild yeasts growing on them also,  meaderies may have been in close proximity to bakeries.

Here is one summary:

Red Hot Stones and Rainwater: A Historical Look at Fermentation Methods

Honey itself is so hygroscopic that it a natural antibiotic and few organisms can live it it, but when throwing in other parts of the comb/hive/pollen there may have been wild yeasts present. Also, once the honey was diluted, airborne yeasts could live in the solution.

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New Contributor

Re: Sumerian Beer

Dogfish Head's Midas' Touch is one of my favorites and is still currently listed as a year-round brew (4-pack 12oz bottles). Well worth seeking some out. Their website is quite helpful in finding where DFH is sold, beer specs, and recommended food pairings.

Jiahu is listed under "occasional rarities."

They also brew another ancient concoction called Theobroma. I also recommend seeking this one out.

From DFH website:

This beer is based on chemical analysis of pottery fragments found in Honduras which revealed the earliest known alcoholic chocolate drink used by early civilizations to toast special occasions.  The discovery of this beverage pushed back the earliest use of cocoa for human consumption more than 500 years to 1200 BC.  As per the analysis, Dogfish Head’s Theobroma (translated into 'food of the gods') is brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs (from our friends at Askinosie Chocolate), honey, chilies, and annatto (fragrant tree seeds). It's light in color - not what you expect with your typical chocolate beer. Not that you'd be surpised that we'd do something unexpected with this beer!

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New Contributor II

Re: Sumerian Beer

Thanks for the info! I just checked and my local GO TO liquor store for rare spirits has both Theobroma and Midas Touch in stock.

Will have to try them out!

Might inspire me to get back my Gruit experiments as well, though these would be positively MODERN compared to the Dogfish Ancient Ales!

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