Nine Thousand Years of Beer Culture

Jackson photo 3In spite of—or perhaps because of—a ludicrous regulation that forces drinkers to buy package beer by the case or pay through the nose for six-packs from a bar, Philadelphia has developed one of the richest beer cultures in the nation. You can experience it at great beer bars such as Monk’s Café and Memphis Taproom; you can taste it in the beers of Victory and Yards; and you can celebrate it during one of the longest-running and most successful Beer Weeks in the nation. Maybe Philly’s greatest beer treasures, though, are anthropologists Solomon Katz and Patrick McGovern of U-Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Much of what we know about the genesis of brewing was pieced together by these guys.

Philly Beer Week grew out of a 10-day festival known as “The Book and the Cook,” which despite its emphasis on food and wine, maintained its popularity through beer-oriented events such as an annual tutored beer tasting hosted by Michael Jackson at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—an event I first attended in March 1992. Jackson photo 4Flanked by mummies, sarchophagi, and a sphinx, Jackson compared classic Old World beers like Guinness Stout and Pilsner Urquel with such New World alternatives as Anchor Liberty Ale and Stoudt’s Doppelbock. The Beer Hunter was at his most compelling best as his insights and observations echoed off the antiquities of the Lower Egyptian Gallery. And yet the most profound and groundbreaking remarks uttered that day came from two guys I’d never heard of.

Dr. Solomon H. Katz, a homebrewer, had famously hypothesized that early humans who abandoned hunting and gathering to farm barley and wheat were motivated by a desire to brew beer rather than to bake bread. Both brewing and baking are multistage operations: To make bread, grains must be ground into flour, mixed with water, and heated by fire—all requiring human participation and specialized tools; but two critical aspects of brewing—sprouting grain to make malt and fermenting malt to produce alcohol—can occur spontaneously. Katz argued that mankind’s first beer was produced accidentally when a bowl of gruel containing sprouted barley or wheat was exposed to wild yeasts. Fermented gruel not only tasted better (it was sweeter), but was more nutritious, with a higher percentage of B-vitamins and amino acids—a “super food,” Katz called it. The combination of mood-altering and nutritional properties, he concluded, would have been incentive enough to cause hunter-gatherers to settle down and begin cultivating grains full time.

Katz later collaborated with Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing to re-create an ancient beer based on a 4,000-year old text known as the Hymn to Ninkasi, a minor beer goddess in Sumerian mythology. ninkasi-tabletMore of a drinking song than a recipe, the Hymn, nevertheless, provided a key insight: Sumerian brewers added loaves of twice-baked bread, or bappir, to amp up the fermentables in the mash. I had the opportunity to taste this concoction at the 1989 Microbrewers Conference in San Francisco, sipping the porridge-like beverage through an azure-colored paper straw that resembled the lapis lazuli–encrusted reeds found in the tombs of Egyptian royalty. It tasted more like spoiled oatmeal than beer, but at 3.5% ABV, it was as buzz-worthy as light beer and twice as filling.

McGovernUnlike Katz’s scholarly speculation about the origins of beer, archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern offered hard facts. He had just returned from the Zagros Mountains in Iran where he discovered chemical evidence of the earliest wine, dating back to 5400 BC—3½ centuries before the Hymn to Ninkasi was etched onto a stone tablet. In 2003, he would recount his archaeological adventures in Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viticulture, earning him the sobriquet of the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages.” But his best work was yet to come.

uncorkIn 2004, McGovern analyzed a 9,000-year-old ceramic jar unearthed Jiahu, China, containing the chemical residue of the oldest alcoholic beverage yet discovered. He found evidence of fermented rice, grapes, hawthorn berries, and honey—a mixture of beer, wine, and mead, he dubbed “Neolithic grog.” Since then, several ancient sites along the Silk Road connecting the Middle East and China have yielded evidence of similar mixed drinks, often spiked with cannabis, ephedra (ecstasy), artemisia (absinthe), ergot (LSD), or poppies. The earliest alcoholic beverage makers—most likely shamans—could ill afford to err on the side of moderation and apparently threw a bit of everything into the brew pot to guarantee a mind-altering religious experience. JiahuModern beverage-maker Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head has collaborated with McGovern on several historical recreations of Neolithic grog, and they’ll be serving up samples this May at the National Craft Brewers Conference in Philly. For devout beer geeks, a religious experience is guaranteed.

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