|An ongoing series of reports about
the beer world froma variety of
award winning writers.
Communities have been drinking beer for thousands of years for nutritional, social, medicinal, and religious
reasons. During many periods of history, beer, like other alcoholic beverages, offered a safe means for
staying hydrated—with just enough alcohol to kill pathogens that could be found in water.
Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Sumerian people of southern Mesopotamia wrote the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” the
goddess of beer. Around the same time (about 1800 B.C.), and perhaps even 300 years before that,
Egyptians painted depictions of brewing on the walls of their tombs.
But beer has been somewhat hidden in the archaeological record—particularly in comparison with wine.
There are a lot of gaps in beer history. ,Beer has a relatively short shelf life compared with wine, so people
did not trade or transport it as often, nor did they write about it as much. Beer also leaves less obvious
physical traces than wine. Studying it often means relying on the development of science to analyze residues,
something that has only become more refined in recent years, For that reason, many early investigations into
ancient beer raised questions that scientists could only answer decades later. For example, in 1929, a
researcher named Johannes Grüss microscopically examined the residue on an Egyptian amphora from
about 2000 B.C. held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images that had been uncovered by archaeologists
suggested that the society created beer by letting bread sit in water and ferment.
But Grüss’ analysis, based on studying the microscopic structure of the starch granules in the amphora,
indicated that the Egyptians first sprouted grains, one of the steps in the malting process, before using them
for beer. In other words, the Egyptian process was more complicated than previously thought. Grüss
published his results in an obscure German brewing trade magazine, and the research went largely unnoticed.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, with the advent of new technologies and methods for chemical analyses, that
researchers managed to more exactly identify the microstructure and chemical composition of residue on
vessels. These advances opened the door for re-creating ancient beer—and collaborating with brewers.
In 1996, Delwen Samuel, then an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, with partial sponsorship by
Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, published the results of her research on Egyptian beer-making methods
using scanning electron microscopy. Her findings confirmed Grüss’ earlier discovery that this society sprouted
grains for beer. The brewery then produced 1,000 bottles of Tutankhamun Ale based on the new findings.
Then, in the 1990s, Patrick McGovern, a chemist and an archaeologist at the Penn Museum and the
University of Pennsylvania, reanalyzed the samples from the Midas tomb. He concluded, based on recently
developed chemical analysis techniques, that the residue came from a drink made from barley, honey, and
grapes, and, possibly, saffron. McGovern then worked with Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Ales in 1999
to create a slightly sweet beer called Midas Touch.
In 2018, Stanford University researchers, led by archaeologist Li Liu, found what is so far the oldest direct
evidence of brewing beer. They identified traces of fermented grains on 13,000-year-old stone mortars found
in a cave on Israel’s northern coast, at a site identified as a Natufian cemetery.
The location suggests the Natufians—a hunter-gatherer group that lived along the eastern Mediterranean
from 15,000 to 11,000 years ago—used beer in honoring the dead. The beer’s age—between 13,700 and
11,700 years old—is a surprise. The beverage is roughly as old as the oldest Natufian bread, from between
14,600 and 11,600 years ago, discovered at a nearby site in Jordan.
Findings published last year from China suggest beer may have existed in some societies from the very first
efforts to domesticate local flora. Liu and her colleagues examined vessels and residue from archaeological
sites in the country’s Yellow River Valley, and concluded that people used a grain-based starter, called qu, for
making a beer-like drink as early as 8,000 years ago, during the early period of plant domestication in that
region. Like the Natufian discovery, these vessels also came from sites that included burials, suggesting beer
played a role in mourning or death rituals.
Ryan Williams, the head of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, believes that part of ancient beer’s
appeal is its connection to other cultures. “Recognizing that there was also a form of identity around beer
thousands of years ago is something both archaeologists and other people can relate so closely to,” he says.
Submitted By Conner Christopher
|BeerNexus does not validate
authorship of submitted articles