Here's What 9,000-Year-Old Beers Taste Like

Sam Calagione cheers to science

Ever wonder what the first beers tasted like?

We got a chance to taste some re-created ancient brews at The Bell House thanks to the World Science Festival. The event “Cheers to science! A drinkable feast of Beer, biotechnology, and archaeology” was held Thursday, May 30.

Sam Calagione, brewmaster of Dogfish Head brewery teamed up with Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Bio-molecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. 

They recreate ancient beers based on molecular analysis of containers found at archaeological sites. By studying the chemicals in ancient pitchers, they can determine what went into brewing the fermented ales.

They also supplied cheeses matched with the ancient beers, from Murray’s Cheese Shop, another Brooklyn staple.

The event was held at the Bell House, a great venue in Goawnus Brooklyn.

Dogfishhead's brewmaster Sam Calagione and biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern took the stage together.

Everyone was given four cheeses to taste with the beers, which were brought out one at a time.

Here's the first beer, the Midas Touch, recreated from ingredients found in a 2,700-year-old tomb — buried away in 750 BC.

The tomb was located in the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion in central Turkey, they think the it belonged to King Midas.

It's made with honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron, they explained. It actually won the Best Specialty Honey Beer category at the Great American Brew Fest this year.

To me, the beer tastes kind of wheaty, with an alcoholic aftertaste. It's somewhere between a wine and mead. The beer was paired with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, a cow cheese from Vermont.

The next beer, the Chateau Jiahu, was created based on tombs and settlements in ancient Jiahu, in Henan province, Northern China. The tombs were about 9,000 years old, from the time the first villages were being settled.

The original brew is a mix of fermented rice, honey, and fruit, including wild grapes. They recreated it using orange blossom honey, muscat grape juice, barley malt, and hawthorn fruit. The mix is then fermented for about a month with sake yeast.

It tastes very sweet, like it has lots of honey. Truthfully, it was too sweet for me but other people must like it — it won the Gold Medal at the Great American Brew Fest in Colorado in 2009.

The beer was paired with Murray's Cavemaster Reserve Hudson Flower, a pasteurized sheep's cheese, which is coated with herbs.

The next beer is Birra Etrusca, recreated from drinking vessels found in a 2,800-year-old Etruscan tomb in ancient Italy.

It's made with two-row malted barley and an heirloom Italian wheat. Ingredients include hazelnut flour, pomegranates, and specialty honeys. It's fermented with bronze.

It also includes myrrh resin, which has medicinal purposes, was included in this ancient brew. It gives the beer mind-altering effects (from the alcohol), medicinal effects (from the resin), and flavour.

The beer is lighter than the last one — kind of hoppy, and sweet but not sickly sweet, you can really taste the pomegranate. The beer was paired with Appenzeller, a raw cow cheese from Switzerland.

From the molecules found in a 3,500-year-old Scandinavian drinking vessel, they could tell that the beer tasted sour because of bacteria and wild yeast. They recreated this effect but but really only used one yeast strain — though they had to go searching for just the right one.

The beer was named after the first human in Nordic saga — who gets killed by dwarves and was made of spit. In the saga, people mix his blood with honey and make a beverage that gives wisdom if you drink it.

I have to warn you, it really does taste sour, but in a fruity and kind of yogurty way. It was paired with Consider Bardwell Dorset, a raw cow's cheese.

This beer will be commercially available in the US this fall — pick it up and give it a try!

After the talk, Calagione and McGovern joined the crowd for a brew at the bar. Cheers! To science!

Beer wasn't the only thing that ancient people did differently.

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