Beer is the most consumed beverages in the world with a long history. What does the ancient art of brewing tell us about culture and tastes?
Beer is the most consumed alcoholic beverage in the world; it is also the most popular drink after water and tea. In the modern world, however, little consideration is typically given to how beer developed with respect to taste. Even less is given to why beer is thought of in the way that it is.
But today, Canada is in the middle of a beer renaissance. A relative explosion of craft breweries has led to a renewed interest in different methods of brewing and in different types of beer recipes.
In turn, this has driven interest into historical methods of brewing. It is a rather romantic idea: That very old brewing processes are somehow superior to those of the modern world. While almost all of the beer on the market today is quantitatively and qualitatively better than that produced in the ancient world, attempts made by both historians and breweries recently have had some good results.
For example, the collaboration between University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Patrick McGovern and Dogfish Head Brewery that resulted in their “Midas Touch”, based on the sediment found in vessels discovered in the Tomb of Midas in central Turkey, and the Sleepy Giant Brewing Company’s ancient beers created as part of Lakehead University’s Research and Innovation Week.
Why re-create ancient beer and mead?
From an academic point of view, researchers have realized eating and drinking are important social, economic and even political activities. In the ancient world, food, drink and their consumption were important indicators of culture, ethnicity and class. Romans were set apart from non-Romans in several ways: Those living in cities versus those who didn’t, those who farmed in one place versus those who moved around, and so on.
One of the other ways in which this distinction was made was in the different foods people ate and in the liquids they drank. This is clear in the ancient Graeco-Roman debate surrounding those who drank wine and those who drank beer.
Although the saying “you are what you eat” is a fact in terms of physiology, the Romans also believed that “you are what you drink.” So Romans drank wine, non-Romans drank beer.
These indicators (real or not) even exist today: The English drink tea, Americans drink coffee; Canadians drink rye, the Scottish drink scotch.
So the re-creation of ancient beer and mead (an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey and other liquids) allows us to examine many things. Among them are these cultural and ethnic considerations, but there are other important and interesting questions that can be answered. How has the brewing process transformed? How have our palates changed?
The “Roman” recipes and their recreation
The Romans left us a variety of different recipes for food and drink. Two of them form the basis of an ongoing research project between the co-owners of Barn Hammer Brewing Company — Tyler Birch and Brian Westcott — and myself that attempts to answer some of these questions.
The first is a recipe for beer that dates to the fourth century Common Era (CE). It appears in the work of Zosimus, an alchemist, who lived in Panopolis, Egypt, when it was part of the Roman empire. The second is a recipe for a mead probably from Italy and dating to the first century CE, written by a Roman senator called Columella.
Both recipes are quite clear concerning ingredients, with the exception of yeast. Yeast, or more appropriately a yeast culture, was often made from dough saved from a day’s baking. Alternatively, one could simply leave mixtures out in the open. But the processes and measurements in them are more difficult to recreate.
The brewing of the beer, for instance, required the use of barley bread made with a sourdough culture: Basically a lump of sourdough bread left uncovered. To keep the culture alive while being baked required a long, slow baking process at a low temperature for 18 hours.
Zosimus never specified how much water or bread was needed for a single batch; this was left open to the brewers’ interpretation. A mix of three parts water to one part bread was brewed and left to ferment for nearly three weeks.
The brewing of the mead was a much easier process. Closely following Columella’s recipe, we mixed honey and wine must. The recipe in this case provided some measurements, and from there we were able to extrapolate a workable mix of roughly three parts must to one part honey.
We then added wine yeast and sealed the containers. These were placed in Barn Hammer’s furnace room for 31 days in an attempt to imitate the conditions of a Roman loft.
What did we learn?
First of all, it’s worth noting that the principles of brewing have not changed significantly; fundamentally, the process of brewing both beer and mead is arguably the same now as it was 2,000 years ago. But as true as that may be, even now the production of Zosimus’ beer — particularly the baking of the bread — was labour-intensive.
Second, we recreated beer and mead from the Roman Empire as faithfully as we were able. The data all suggest that the beer is a beer, and the mead is a mead, right down to the pH level: The beer, for instance, stands at pH 4.3 which is what one would expect from a beer after fermentation.
Third, as the photos here make clear, the mead looked like red wine, the beer was quite pale but cloudy. Neither case was particularly surprising, but what was interesting was the difference between the first tasting of the beer and the second 10 days later.
In the former, the beer looked liked a sourdough milkshake; in the latter, the beer looked like a pale craft ale, and one that would not be out of place in the modern craft beer market.
Fourth, with respect to taste, the beer was sour but quite smooth, and had a relatively low ABV – Alcohol By Volume: the measurement that tells you what percentage of beer or mead is alcohol — around three to four per cent. The sour taste resulted in diverse opinions: Some people liked it; others hated it. The mead was incredibly sweet; it smelled like a fortified wine due to presence of Fusel alcohols, and had an ABV upwards of 12 per cent.
While general tastes may have changed, there are modern palates that appreciate ancient beer and mead. Is this a physiological question? Perhaps, but what seems clear is that ancient indicators based on what people drank are likely more indicative not only of the Romans’ beliefs and opinions about non-Romans, but also their prejudices against them.
Ultimately, what the project suggests so far is that while the brewing process may not have changed that much, in some ways neither have we.