Back in the Day

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Thanks to a couple of ancient history and archeology classes I took as an undergraduate, I knew that 5,000 or more years ago Middle Eastern and Egyptian people knew how to brew beer. It was, so they say, safer to drink than water.  That doesn’t say much for the water at that time!

            I figured by today’s brewing standards, that ancient beer would be pretty nasty tasting stuff.  However,a recent article in the British magazine Science Focus, July 2019 has changed my mind. The article, “Unbeerlievable: Ancient Egyptian ale recreated from 5,000 year-old yeast,” describes how microbiologist Dr. Ronen Hazan at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, co-leader of the study, made the beer. 

            Researchers from the university were examining shards from pottery jugs found in the middle east that were at least 5,000 years old. In the cracks and pits of the jars were bits of yeast, also 5,000 years old.  As any beer drinker knows, yeast is a necessary ingredient in beer. 

            They must have said, “Hmmm, do you suppose we can grow this yeast and make some beer?”  So these scientists sequenced the genomes of the yeast strains.  They found a match with the yeast currently used to brew traditional African beers and a “still popular Ethiopian honey wine ‘tej’ as well as ‘modern beer.’ ”

            The beer these scientists produced from the ancient yeast created an “aromatic and flavorful” drink with six percent alcohol content.

            After brewing the beer from the ancient yeast, the scientists tasted it.  Dr. Hazan commented, “By the way, the beer isn’t bad.”

            Interesting I thought.  I’ve been on a few archeological digs in Winnebago County, Wisconsin,but we never uncovered pottery shards with yeast granules. Shucks! 

            I knew beer was around for centuries.  Certainly Europeans from theRoman era onward made beer.  That was ahousewife’s job.  And everyone drank it, from the youngest kid to the oldest adult except for the upper, upper classes.  They drank wine.  Remember, water wasn’t safe to drink.  Having read Wolfgang Schivelbush’s book, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, I learned the importance of beer for Europeans in the Middle Ages.  He writes: “Prior to the introduction of the potato, beer was second only to bread as the main source of nourishment for most central and north Europeans.”  Again, no drinking water!  I can understand that in medieval Europe, as all waste products tended to find their way intorivers and lakes.  Want to get sick?  Drink the water.  Even our Puritan and Pilgrim ancestors made and drank beer (even the kids) and avoided fresh water.

            For all you experimental chefs out there, here’s the breakfast dish Schivelbush included in his book:  Breakfast was not Cheerios with a sliced banana, but rather beer soup made by heating beer, adding a chunk of butter, stirring in some cold beer and scrambled eggs. Pour that hot mixture over bread and Presto! Breakfast.   

            All this leads me to wonder what did it taste like? Marv’s comment: “I’d bet it tasted better than Budweiser.”  He’s such a beer snob!

P.S. This morning I read an article in the New York Timesabout some archeologists and scientists who discovered 5000-year-old yeast used to make bread.  You guessed it!  They took that and baked a loaf of rye bread and said it tasted great.  Who knew?

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About Author

Frankie Mengeling

Frankie Mengeling taught English at Oshkosh North High School and Lourdes High School and was co-director of the Fox Valley Writing Project at UWO. She lives on the Oshkosh’s only hill, with her husband Marvin, son Tom and cat Katrina. The blog www.ridingthebeertrail.wordpress.com began in the summer of 2009 after the three couple beer trail began.

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