ArchaeoBeer: Digging up Ancestral Brews

copyright L. Daniel Mouer 2007


L. Daniel Mouer, PhD (archaeologist) 

and his alter-ego, Dan Mouer (home brewer)

Archaeology and beer just seem to go together, and it’s not just because a cold brew helps wash the dust from your teeth after a long day on the digs. I’m an archaeologist by profession, and a home brewer by avocation. Lots of archaeologists brew their own, and those who don’t often have a passion for the finer, more exotic commercial brews. A few years ago I helped to organize a conference that would bring over 1000 archaeologists to my home town. When my colleagues and I spoke with the staff of the hotel where the conference was to be held, we repeatedly stressed that they should be certain to have LOTS of beer on hand in the restaurants and bars. And not just any beer, but the “good stuff:” microbrews and specialty imports. Despite our warnings, the beer ran out very early on the first night of the conference. The conferees were thirsty and surly; the organizers were angry; and the hotel staff members were chagrined. The next day the beer trucks were lined up around the block from the loading dock, and everyone was happy.

It is fortunate that more than a few brewers and scientists with skills allied to the brewer’s profession seem to like archaeology as well. The resulting interplay between the science of discovering the past and the art of making better brew has produced a handful of novel beers from home brewers and commercial breweries alike.. Now a creative interpretation of the oldest fermented beverage ever discovered is available in bottles, and awaiting the cloning skills of home brewers everywhere. But why the love between archaeologists and brewers? Well, let’s dig into a little history—or, rather, prehistory—to get to the heart of the matter.

The Neolithic Revolution: Daily Bread or “Party Time?”

Long before radiocarbon dating similar techniques, the first serious archaeologists divided Old World prehistory into the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. The Stone Age was further divided into the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age). The Neolithic period was characterized by newer forms of stone tool technology; specifically, by the presence of ground, rather than chipped, stone tools. However, by the middle of the twentieth century, archaeologists understood that the Neolithic was about a whole lot more than tool-making technology. It was about a thorough revolution in the way human beings lived on this earth. After millions of years of depending on wild plants and animals, people settled down into permanent villages, and they supported themselves with herds of domestic animals and fields of cultivated crops.  This process led, over a relatively short time in archaeological terms, to the rise of cities and all the complex trappings of civilization.

Of course, there was not just a single Neolithic Revolution; we now know that this process of domesticating plants and animals happened repeatedly, often independently, throughout the Old and New Worlds. The process continues today in some areas. The key ingredient that seems to anchor the switch from hunting and gathering to gardening, herding and farming, is the domestication of starchy staple foods. The first of these were the grains—particularly wheat and barley—domesticated in the Near East and Asia Minor beginning around 12,000-10,000 years ago. Wheat and rice were largely responsible for fueling similar cultural evolution in Asia. Likewise, sorghum and yams were domesticated in Africa; as were maize, potatoes and cassava in the Americas.

Domesticated starchy staples revolutionized life because they provided huge amounts of energy and, especially, because they could be stored to feed folks even through lean seasons. As I noted, wheat and barley were among the very first domesticated plant foods. And what do we do with wheat and barley? Well, we make beer, of course, and for that reason some archaeologists have argued that beer was the reason that people settled down and began to farm in the first place. In this view, beer itself might have led to civilization. Certainly, no reader of BYO would doubt that life without beer could scarcely be called civilized!

Others have argued, using archaeological evidence in the form of pictures on pottery and the like, that bread was the primary product of early grain domestication. Back in the 1950s and 60s there was a Great Debate in archaeology over whether it was beer or bread that most likely fueled the Neolithic Revolution. Of course, these earliest domesticated grains—wheat and barley–can also be used to make gruel or porridge. Over the years, archaeologists have posited that beer was brewed by soaking bread in water, or by diluting porridge, to make a mash. But the big question was whether or not it was specifically the quest for beer that led to the enormous social, technological and economic changes we call The Neolithic Revolution.

In 1994, anthropologist Thomas W. Kavenaugh again took up the debate. Was his in-depth academic study published in some august anthropology journal? Nope, it appeared in Brewing Techniques, that beloved but now-defunct craft brewing magazine. After a thorough review of the arguments that had been laid out by archaeologists, Kavenaugh concluded that one key bit of technology was probably essential to the development of brewing. That technology was ceramic pottery, and as all archaeologists know, pottery was a product of The Neolithic Revolution. In other words, the Revolution had arrived before beer brewing became widely established. For those who are interested in the details of the Great Debate, you can read Dr. Kavenaugh’s entire article online at

Of Microbes and Molecules

Any attempt to store starchy staple foods has to deal with microbes. The world is filled with little buggers that are looking for a free meal, and nothing turns dried starch into food quicker than a little water and a little warmth. Warm water interacts with enzymes to convert starch to sugar and the microbes come to lunch. What happens next depends upon the microbes. If they are friendly yeasts, they will either make dough rise or they will turn grains—now converted to malt by the water and warmth—into beer. If they are other sorts of yeasts, or bacteria or molds, they may do something less useful. That’s called spoiling the food! Most successful forms of early storable foods rely to some degree on controlling the work of microbes to make useful, pleasant, and non-toxic products. Think about sauerkraut, cheese, yogurt, bread, wine, mead, and, of course, beer.

We archaeologists could learn a lot about the dawn of brewing if we could track down and identify the work of these microbes. Fortunately, chemistry has found ways to identify specific molecules that relate to byproducts of distinctive fermentations: good stable molecules that can sometimes be found under exceptional archaeological conditions. It has been the curiosity of archaeologists and the chemists who work with them that has led to the discovery and recreation of historic and prehistoric beers.

The Ninkasi Experiment

Ninkasi…You are the one who handles the dough,

[and] with a big shovel, Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics…

You are the one who bakes the bappir

in the big oven…

Puts in order the piles of hulled grains…

You are the one who waters the malt

set on the ground…

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar

The waves rise, the waves fall…

You are the one who spreads the cooked

mash on large reed mats,

Coolness overcomes…

You are the one who holds with both hands

the great sweet wort,

Brewing [it] with honey and wine…

The filtering vat, which makes

a pleasant sound,

You place appropriately on [top of]

a large collector vat…

Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the

filtered beer of the collector vat,

It is [like] the onrush of

Tigris and Euphrates.

Excerpts from The Hymn to Ninkasi, translated by Miguel Civil

Ninkasi was the Sumerian Goddess of Beer, and the Hymn to Ninkasi has come down to us on cuneiform tablets from the Sumerians of 4,000 years ago. Home brewers should have little trouble recognizing the brewing steps described here. While the hymn was written at least 4-5,000 years after beer brewing had become well established in the Near East and elsewhere, there is at least one line here that might tell us something unexpected about those earlier brews. That is: “You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort, Brewing [it] with honey and wine.” We’ll return to that idea a little later in this article.

In 1989, Fritz Maytag, who salvaged the archetype of California Common Beer when he purchased Anchor Steam Brewing Company, became fascinated by archaeology’s focus on early brewing after reading an article on the bread-beer debate written by Dr. Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania. Katz had mentioned the existence of Sumerian tablets with pictures of brewing and beer-drinking, as well as cuneiform texts related to brewing. Maytag contacted Katz and got him to visit Anchor. Maytag also managed to get Professor Miguel Civil, who had translated Ninkasi’s Hymn, to help work out some of the details of the recipe it contained. The result was a multi-disciplinary attempt to reconstruct an early beer from archaeological evidence.

Anchor produced Ninkasi Beer just one time. Barley was the only grain used in Ninkasi, although honey was also added. Ninkasi didn’t make a huge splash except as a novel idea. Perhaps Anchor’s interpretation of the ancient recipe was too realistic? Or, more likely, the beer-drinking public was not yet ready for a sweet-sour brew flavored with dates and no hops.

King Midas’s Funeral was a Beer Blast!

Sometime in the 8th century BCE, a Phrygian King was buried under a suitably grand mound. With him in the tomb were hundreds of drinking vessels and dishes from the king’s funerary feast. This leader is thought to have been the inspiration for the legend of King Midas, whose gifted touch turned anything to gold. About ten years ago, chemical residues in the drinking vessels were analyzed by Dr. Patrick McGovern, an archeological chemist on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA). Among the ancient residues was clear evidence for a fermented beverage comprised of barley, wine grapes, and honey. What isn’t completely clear from just the chemical evidence is whether the beverage was a mixture of wine, beer and mead, or a single beverage with all of these ingredients fermented together.

Greg Glaser, writing in Modern Brewery Age, wrote that shortly after completing his analysis, McGovern attended a dinner at U. Penn at which the honored guest/speaker was none other than beer wonk, Michael Jackson. The next morning, Jackson visited McGovern’s archaeochemistry lab, along with Tess and Mark Szamatulski, homebrewers and authors of Clone Brews and Beer Captured. (Did I mention that archaeologists and beer go together?) Even though direct evidence hadn’t been discovered among the vessel residues, all the beer people agreed that some sort of spice had probably been added to help balance the sweet brew. The Szamatulskis produced homebrew versions of King Midas’s beer using thyme honey, varying three sub-batches by flavoring with Turkish figs, anise or saffron.

At the Michael Jackson dinner, McGovern had also spoken with “extreme brewer,” Sam Caglione of Dogfish Head in Milton, Deleware. According to Glaser,

Caligione made a 93-gallon experimental batch using malted barley, Italian thyme honey and white Muscat grapes, seasoning the brew with Indian saffron and fermenting it with mead yeast..

Unlike Anchor’s experiment a decade earlier, Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch Golden Elixir became a regular offering. In the November 2002 edition, BYO’s own Replicator, Steve Bader, produced a recipe for home brewers. Like the commercial version, it includes saffron and just a light touch of Willamette hops. I asked Sam Caglione if he had tried the Replicator’s version. He said that he had been given a bottle that he had not yet opened, but that his brewer friends claimed it’s very close to the bottled version. Michael Jackson described Midas Touch as “A wonderfully complex beer, a wonderfully delicate beer, a dangerous thing…”

The World’s Oldest Beer

The headline for the National Geographic News for July 18, 2005 read: 9,000-Year-Old Beer Re-Created From Chinese Recipe. The Neolithic village site known as Jiahu, in Henan Province, China, produced numerous ceramic jars. Once again, MASCA’s McGovern plied his analytical magic and reported finding evidence for rice, wildflower honey, Muscat grapes, barley malt, hawthorn fruit and chrysanthemum flowers. He was convinced that this, too, was the oldest evidence yet of an ancient fermented beverage. Having found the earlier collaboration a success, McGovern called, once again, on Sam Caglione.

To make his brew, which he calls Chateau Jiahu, Caglione and the Dogfish Head brew staff mash rice flakes with barley malt. Then the sweet wort is augmented by the honey, grapes, hawthorn fruit, and chrysanthemums and boiled. The wort is fermented with shoji sake yeast, yielding a brew of 8% alcohol by weight. The commercial release of Chateau Jiahu was imminent as I was writing up this article, but there was not yet a drop for me to try! So I had to whet my imagination by tracking down Sam Caglione, who kindly agreed to talk with me about his archaeobeers.

DM: In creating Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu, were you aiming at historical accuracy, or at producing exciting, marketable brews inspired by history?

SC: I’d say both. My intention was to stay accurate to the archaeological findings while appealing to modern, sophisticated tastes in beer. Fritz Maytag’s Ninkasa was faithful to the historical information, but it was awkward. I wanted to make beverages that were both romantic and historical. Of course there’s a lot of room for interpretation—things we really don’t know, or some liberties we can take. Those early beers probably lost their carbonation quickly, while ours are fully carbonated. We don’t know what the colors were of the ancient brews. We filter our beers; theirs were probably cloudy and maybe even chunky. We don’t know what alcohol levels they attained, and while we know what the main ingredients were, we don’t know what proportions they used. We don’t even know for sure if grains, honey and grapes were fermented together, or these were blends of beer, wine and mead.

DM: Why did you choose to ferment Jiahu with shoji sake yeast? Is that due to associations of shoji with the Far East in general? Or were you trying to capture particular flavor characteristics?

SC: This was basically a nod to tradition, and Patrick McGovern thought it a better match with the yeasts that would have been available to ancient brewers. The Jiahu is the more exotic of the two brews, with characteristics of sake and cider.

DM: One thing the Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu have in common is that, despite the separation of their archaeological contexts by thousands of miles and even more thousands of years, they each contain fermentables from grains, honey, and wine grapes. Do you believe such combo brews were common in the ancient world? Or is this really a new kind of product springing from your creative brewing imagination?

SC: I think the evidence is starting to suggest this was a common thing.

DM: Do you want to give homebrewers any hints about how to come close to replicating Chateau Jiahu?

S.M. I’ll get together with the brewery staff and we’ll work up a recipe for homebrewers. Promise! Please tell homebrewers how much we appreciate their support. They’re the real beer champions. I still think of Dogfish Head as a 100-barrel home brew kit!

So what was ancient beer really like?

Using a detailed handwritten and archaeological evidence from the kitchen/brewhouse of the housewife/alewife who penned it, I found many challenges in trying to recreate beer just 300 years ago. (See Colonial Beer in the January 2003 BYO). I concluded that we can not avoid the need for interpreting, for reading between the lines of history. Nonetheless, by paying attention to details, from inscriptions on clay tablets to molecules recovered from inside clay jars, we can learn things we otherwise wouldn’t know about the past.

The hymn to Ninkasi reveals that Sumerians, living in Iraq 4000 years ago, made a sweet wort from loaves of bread and malted grains, and this, in turn, was brewed with honey and wine. The Phrygians, living 2800 years ago in the Anatolian Highlands of Turkey, buried a king with drinking vessels containing evidence of a beverage made of grain malt, wine grapes and honey. Early Neolithic stone-age farmers living in the cradle of Chinese civilization 9000 years ago used rice, honey, and wine grapes for their daily brew. Could it be that the ancient brewers simply used anything an everything they could find to provide sugars for those hungry beer-making microbes? 


When Fritz Maytag experimented with Ninkasi, the North American microbrewery and homebrew renaissance was still in its youth. Today, devoted brewers and tipplers are familiar with, and hungry for, wine-like beers flavored with fruits or spices, even modified by “bad” microbes that might have been very common in ancient brews (e.g., Brettanomyces and Lactobacilli). And who doesn’t like a little honey in the brewpot? Perhaps what is old is new again. Perhaps our Homebrew Revolution is just the Neolithic Revolution, version 2.0.

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