Thursday, August 15, 2013
Extreme Beer-drinkers Quaff 5,000-year-old Sumerian Brew
Sumerian beer smells like vinegar and ginger, looks cloudy and brown, and tastes sourer and tarter than any beer you’ve ever had.
So dozens of extreme-beer drinkers discovered last night as Great Lakes Brewing Co. poured the results of its much-anticipated Sumerian beer experiment, an attempt to mimic brewing from 5,000 years ago.
“It’s going to be cloudy, flat, and very different than you’re used to in the year 2013,” warned Great Lakes Brewing co-owner Pat Conway.
Cleveland brewers and Chicago archeologists collaborated for more than a year to manufacture beer as ancient Mesopotamians did in the Bronze Age.
Tate Paulette of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute gave last night’s sold-out crowd a quick tutorial on ancient Sumer’s cities, palaces, kings, and beer. The Sumerians built the world’s first cities, states, and empires between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But brewing was one of their earliest achievements.
“When we get writing in 3200 BC, beer is already there,” he said.
Paulette quoted a celebration of drunkenness from the Epic of Gilgamesh. He showed the audience a massive ledger of brewing ingredients and supplies, in cuneiform. He quoted the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” the goddess of beer -- a song that became a sort of recipe.
Based on the hymn, the ledger, and other clues the Orientalists and brewers did their best to brew just like they did in Iraq in 3000 BC. They left grain Great Lakes Brewing’s roof for malting and raked it a few times a day. Instead of steel kettles, they made ceramic cooking vessels and heated them by burning charcoal, wood and animal dung.
It took trial, error, and educated guesses to fill in the gaps and brew something drinkable. The nouveau-ancient brewers puzzled over the role of bappir, the “beer-bread” of ancient Sumer. Finally guessing that Sumerians used the bread to introduce yeast to the brew, the brewery commissioned Zoss Bakery in Cleveland Heights to bake the bread at below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so the yeast would live.
They figured out the perfect time to taste the beer — two to three days after fermentation.
Last night, after a family-style dinner of foods common in Mesopotamia in 3000 BC, including duck, dates and barley, the Great Lakes hosts served three beers.
The first, a recent batch, took courage to try. It was a milky brew with an off-putting odor, warm and flat. It tasted better than it smelled, but was even more sour than a Belgian sour ale. “I like it!” exclaimed an adventurous drinker at one table. “It tastes like a margarita!” Others detected a tangerine-like tang.
Next, waitresses served beer from the same batch, but with date syrup added to cut the sourness. Very much unfiltered, it had little solids floating in it. It was sweeter, softer, more balanced, less of a shock.
Finally, the staff served a clear blond beer made with the same ingredients in modern brew kettles. It was smooth and hop-free, much like a Belgian saison ale, or farmhouse ale.
In a climactic moment, drinkers gathered around a clay vessel to drink the sour beer through long straws, as seen in ancient carvings.
Brewmaster Luke Purcell said the brewery may offer a hybrid of the second and third beers as a pub-only special on tap.
The evening’s sweep through early civilization and its beer left Conway in a philosophical mood. “Did man stop being nomadic for bread or for beer?” he mused.