Some of the enthusiasm for historical brewing comes from the misplaced assumption that what people drank in the days before quality control or geographic competition did not taste like fermented cardboard tinged with nightshade. Some of it did, especially brews made in remote habitations where people had little choice over what to ferment and how. In many other cases modern brewers can only recover a fraction of a long-lost recipe, the written part, and they lose the fine details honed through hundreds of years of continuous experimentation. Naturally in brewing the magic (or the undrinkable medicinal backwash flavor that seemed to come from nowhere) lives in the details. For example absinthe (.PDF, and the host may or may not have scanned it legally). Chicha may or may not fall under that category; the ethnobotanist admitted that he may have made a mistake. To be fair though the stuff that Peruvians enjoy today can itself be a pretty caustic brew. As with anything taste-related your mileage may vary.
Once in a while a brewer rebuilds a recipe that keeps the original magic and goes down easy on a modern palate – Dogfish Head, who make perfectly-good-to-superlative ales when they’re not brewing history, rebuilt an enjoyable ale from pottery scrapings taken from the Phryngian tomb of King Midas himself, dated 700 BC. Thanks to Dogfish head’s hard work you can take a sensual tour of history’s biblical era, or you can just have a pleasant lightish ale with honey notes and a champagne effervescence to go with a pizza. We will see whether Dogfish Head’s next project, an excursion to the very dawn of civilization itself, holds up as well.
It always pleases me to find another member of the exclusive club of historical brewers, particularly someone who approaches it with the enthusiasm and professional spirit of archaeologist Merryn Dineley of Manchester. Wikipedia’s entry on Scottish ales provides a brief but intriguing glimpse into what Dr. Dineley does:
Brewing in Scotland goes back at least 5,000 years. Archeologist Merryn Dinsley, of Manchester University, has suggested that one of the buildings uncovered at Skara Brae could have been a brewery, producing ale from malted spelt, flavoured with meadowsweet in the manner of a Kvass or Gruit made by various North European tribes including the Celts and the Picts. By analysing remains found inside one of the Grooved ware pots, Merryn Dineley was able to reconstruct this beer which she named Grooved Ware Beer.
Grooved Ware Beer (extremely palatable!, according to this writer) gets its name from the unique pottery made by the neolithic inhabitants of the oldest known settlement in the Orkney Isles, a collection of stone huts dating to 3,215 BC and likely built on the foundations of an even earlier settlement.
All but one of the stone huts followed a consistent pattern, with a stone hearth at the center for cooking and heating and cupboards along the wall. The unusual hut which caught Dineley’s eye had a different layout and a number of rocks which had been deformed by repeatedly heating in a fire and then dunking in water, suggesting that the building may have served as some sort of workshop. In fact the heat-treated rocks may not have been the point of a workshop but a byproduct of something else – heating a rock and dropping it in a tub of water seems like an excellent way to boil water if one does not have access to metalware. Dineley analyzed the ‘grunge’ from a drain and found all of the necessary components for a brew made from malted spelt and meadowsweet in the place of hops, an approach for bittering and preserving beer that has persisted in Scotland until modern times.
It tastes like what? Real ale fans in Orkney will take authenticity to its furthest extreme today by supping “stone-age” beer flavoured with dung.
The neolithic ale has been scientifically recreated, complete with original farmyard flavours, after historians discovered what they claim is a 5000-year-old pub and brewery on the islands.
..Merryn Dineley, a historian from Manchester University and chief brewer of the ancient liquor, insists that the dung is an essential component of the original flavour. “It’s quite delicious, actually,” she claims, hoping that visitors to this weekend’s Orkney Science Fair will agree. There’s no escaping the dung [derived from the ancient way of firing pottery], but she has at least removed the deadly nightshade, henbane and hemlock found in the original recipe.
“There’s no doubt these neolithic people were fermenting alcohol from grain,” she said. “In fact I think they were making barley malt for brewing before they thought about grinding up grain for bread.”
The science of history only gains so much from people who read the texts, digest what they find and put their reactions into a book or paper that somebody else will read, digest and respond in writing. Important in their own way are the folks like Merryn Dineley who lay out the stone slabs and re-brew the old recipes in order to find out not only where and when we lived, but how.