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Beer Archaeologists Are Reviving Ancient Ales — With Some Strange Results

Beer archaeologist Travis Rupp inspects his latest "Ale of Antiquity," George Washington Porter, surrounded by the oak barrels it fermented in at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo.
Dustin Hall
The Brewtography Project
Beer archaeologist Travis Rupp inspects his latest "Ale of Antiquity," George Washington Porter, surrounded by the oak barrels it fermented in at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo.

The closest that Travis Rupp came to getting fired from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., he says, was the time he tried to make chicha. The recipe for the Peruvian corn-based beer, cobbled together from bits of pre-Incan archaeological evidence, called for chewed corn partially fermented in spit. So, Rupp's first task had been to persuade his colleagues to gather round a bucket and offer up their chompers for the cause.

Once he got to brewing, the corn-quinoa-spit mixture gelatinized in a stainless steel tank, creating a dense blob equivalent in volume and texture to about seven bathtubs of polenta. Oops.

In another go, Rupp managed to avoid the brew's gelatinous fate, but encountered a new problem when it came time to drain the tank. "It literally turned into cement in the pipes because the corn was so finely ground," says Rupp. "People were a little cranky."

These are the kinds of sticky situations that come with trying to bring ancient flavors into modern times.

A self-proclaimed beer archaeologist, Rupp has traveled the world in search of clues as to how ancient civilizations made and consumed beer. With Avery Brewing Co., he has concocted eight of them in a series called "Ales of Antiquity." The brews are served in Avery's restaurant and tasting room.

"The one thing that we've been really quite surprised by is not a single one of them is undrinkable," he says. "Every one of them has gotten done and we're like, 'That is so weird. That is just so cool.' "

There's the Viking-inspired beer based on information gleaned from sagas and the debris of ancient shipwrecks. It's made with juniper branches and baker's yeast, which gives it a slight but surprising whiff of banana. (Rupp regrets that he had to ferment it in regular brewing equipment rather than a more historically accurate trough made from a freshly cut and hollowed out juniper tree.)

Another, calledBeersheba, is based on references and artifacts primarily from Israel. It involves three types of grain and pomegranate juice, in the style of King Zimri-Lim, who, Rupp read, was known to send slaves into the mountains to get snow for his icehouse so that his beer could be served cold. It's one of Rupp's personal favorites, despite smelling a little like baby spit-up and tasting like a funky fruit rollup.

A beer called Benedictus came about when Rupp teamed up with a couple of Italian monks to re-create a monastic recipe calling for wormwood and lavender and dating to A.D. 825.It smells like a spicy men's shampoo and tastes like drinking an herb garden. The Peruvian chicha, on the other hand, is sour and summery.

The brewery's latest is a porter meant to show what George Washington would have been swigging at Mount Vernon during his retirement years.

"It's also maybe a little too drinkable, as I would attest on the first night that this got released," says Rupp.

Rupp is not alone in the world of beer archaeology. Patrick McGovern is scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The author of Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-Created, he is known as the "Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales."

McGovern took a swing at ancient chicha, too, with the brewery Dogfish Head in Delaware. "We chewed the red Peruvian corn for eight hours. The insides of our mouths were pretty cut up and our jaws were aching and so on, but it worked," he says. The final product involved peppercorns and wild strawberries. Dogfish Head has been making chicha ever since, both serving it to customers at the brewery and shipping it out.

The trouble with re-creating ancient brews is that it's actually an impossible task, even for McGovern, who uses techniques like mass spectrometry and gas chromatography to figure out what an ancient vessel once contained.

"You don't have 100% certainty by any means," says McGovern. "The basic ingredients I think we can be pretty sure of. What we don't know about is likely microorganisms, the bittering agents, or other additives that we might have missed."

In a way, we will never truly be able to taste what King Midas was drinking, or the brews of Machu Picchu. Or even something much more recent, like George Washington's favorite porter.

"I can't re-create what was on the individual's clothes the day that they were producing that beer that could have fallen into it. I can't re-create the yeast that's in the air, the yeast that's in some guy's beard as he's, you know, working over a brewing vat or something like that. I'll never be able to do that," says Rupp. "But I can get as close as I can. I will do my damnedest to get as close as I can."

Rupp is now gearing up to tackle a controversial question among brewers: What did the original India pale ale really taste like? He is also planning trips to investigate the brewing traditions of Kazakhstan and Uruguay and exploring whether it might be possible to resurrect a beer that sank aboard a Swedish ship almost 400 years ago.

Someday, just for fun and if technology will allow it, Rupp would love to resurrect ancient yeast from Antarctic ice cores and brew something with it. To McGovern, on the other hand, "the holy grail for ancient fermented beverages would be to discover and re-create a Paleolithic alcohol beverage. There's 2 million years there — at least — in which humans are probably drinking fermented beverages, and we don't have any containers."

Rupp's path to beer archaeology started in 2010, when he finished graduate school in classical history and started lecturing part time at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"Of course, that's not going to cut it paying the bills, so I was looking for other work," he says. Eventually, he wound up as a bartender at Avery Brewing Co., where he now oversees research and development and the wood barrel aging program while continuing to teach classes at the university on topics such as Pompeii and ancient sports.

Through his escapades into beer history, Rupp has concluded that we have beer history all wrong. First off, he says, "There's a perception that ancient or historic beers were undrinkable and crap and thick and just bleh."

But Rupp maintains that the ancients wouldn't settle for "mundane gruel" any more than we would.

The latest "Ale of Antiquity" was inspired by George Washington's preference for porters. Rupp says one historic account mentioned the president "drank porter and three glasses of wine and became quite boisterous by the end of the dinner."
/ Courtesy of Travis Rupp
Courtesy of Travis Rupp
The latest "Ale of Antiquity" was inspired by George Washington's preference for porters. Rupp says one historic account mentioned the president "drank porter and three glasses of wine and became quite boisterous by the end of the dinner."

"We know the Egyptians didn't do that. They actually record putting fruits and things into their beer to sweeten it and to literally varietize the beer," he says. And the Romans were quick to trash Egyptian brews.

"They really stomp all over Egyptian beer. It was the cheap stuff that if you couldn't afford anything else, that's what you drank," says Rupp. "This idea of literally valuing beer based on quality? They were doing that!"

McGovern agrees. "We think that humans have been basically the same from the beginning, in that we have the same sensory organs, we have the same response to alcohol with our brains, and so we would know what we like," he says. Cultural and individual preferences aside, he says, there's likely a through line in what humans think makes a good drink.

Then, there's another assumption: If a culture's records and art don't frequently and obviously reference beer, they probably didn't make or drink it.

But, Rupp asks, "How many books have you read on milk? Do you know the history of the paper clip? No."

In some seemingly beerless societies, he says, it's possible the drink was so common that it didn't seem worth writing about. Or at least, didn't seem worth writing about to the highfalutin sliver of the population that could actually write.

The ancient Greeks, for example, aren't widely considered to have been beer drinkers because it doesn't come up in their written records — not the way wine and olives do.

Scholars studying ancient Greece concluded, Rupp says, "that they didn't necessarily know what it was because they talk about it in a very strange way or that it was relegated to 'the barbarians.' "

But after a two-year scavenger hunt through records and across archaeological sites, Rupp has come to believe that the Greeks were, indeed, brewers — at least during the Bronze Age. For example, decades-old excavation reports written by archaeologists working at the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri mention vases containing "imperfectly ground flour," including bits of seed husks.

"Yet they were finding it right next to vases that had perfectly ground flour," says Rupp. "Well, I know what that is because I work with it every day, and that's spent grain."

Combined with recent finds, it stands to reason, then, that the ancient Greeks might have been guzzling beer just like the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Scandinavians, Romans and Babylonians.

"I'm very open to the idea that the Greeks were making beer," says McGovern. "I think they were mixing it ... with other things, too."

McGovern's chemical analysis of remains from a tomb in central Turkey dating to about 700 B.C. showed that King Midas of Greek mythology was drinking a mixture of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead — something like a drink called Midas Touch that McGovern concocted with Dogfish Head Brewery. In The Iliad, he says, a mixed beverage called kykeon is given to soldiers injured in the battle of Troy. (As if the wine-beer-mead trio weren't enough, McGovern says there's good evidence the Greeks were topping off the mixed beverage with a sprinkling of grated cheese.)

And how about us? A thousand years from now, if beer archaeologists look back on our time, what beer might they assume Americans loved the most?

"The craft beer industry is such a small blip on the historical radar right now," says Rupp. "They're going to look at those most regularly and largely produced and it's going to be lagers, would be my guess."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration among Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.