Vancouver Island University professor Marie Hopwood and anthropology undergraduate student Melissa Ayling have turned to ancient brews to whet students’ appetites for what can be a dry subject.
Hopwood, an anthropological archaeologist specializing in Mesopotamiawants to show her students the birthplace of early civilizations aren’t just collections of static artifacts, but were homelands to people who traded, created, worshipped, sang, raised children, worked, fought, farmed and enjoyed a good brew.
“My whole thing with my career is to try to put faces onto the past … if we can’t imagine the past as people with faces, as archaeologists, ethically, we should stop digging because excavation is always destructive,” Hopwood said. “Once you dig it out you can’t put it back in … We have copious amounts of detail in terms of architecture and organized religion and warfare and empire … but they were also making beer and they were sharing it and they were using it in feasting. They were making food and they were doing all these things. So to understand the lives of all these people … beer and food is how I access that.”
There has been no shortage of beer-drinking songs, but likely none go back as far as a hymn to Ninkasi, Sumerian goddess of beer, from 5,000 years ago. Its verses detail a beer recipe and brewing instructions people likely sang in praise of her as they made it.
Women, it turns out, were the primary brewers of ancients beers, which were often crafted for nutrition and promoting good health, Hopwood said, and for thousands of years until the Industrial Revolution they were made “in every single household this is part of what it is to be a good woman in these societies. They were making their own beer.”
Ancient brews differed greatly from beers today. Ninkasi’s was made from mash fermented for a few days in clay pots that people drank with straws to avoid getting mouthfuls of mash floating on its surface.
Ayling, whose interest in archaeology was rekindled by one of Hopwood’s courses, wanted to know how ancient beers taste.
“As I did more research into ancient alcohols, it’s not a cut-and-dried beer made with barley and hops,” Ayling said. “It’s a beer that has honey in it or maybe some berries that were around, or there’s even hibiscus beers that sound delicious … that’s where I got really interested with putting faces on the past. I like to see the tastes of the past.”
The women’s common interests, coupled with inspiration from archaeologist Patrick McGovern’s book Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Recreated, sparked the idea to embark on an ethno-archaeological research project examining the influence brewing had on ancient communities by recreating two ancient beer recipes from Mesopotamia and Scandinavia. They enlisted help from Dave Paul, owner Qualicum Beach nano-brewery Love Shack Libations, whom Hopwood met when Paul gave a presentation on the history of craft beer brewing.
“It was right up my alley and I’m always interested in trying new things, so away we went,” Paul said.
Paul stipulated the beers had to be drinkable and saleable, so they weren’t produced exactly as the originals, but were modelled on the ancient recipes.
The brews are called Midas Touch, based on a Mesopotamian recipe, and Odin’s Eye, a dark ale based on an ancient Viking grog flavoured with honey, birch bark and cranberries and other ingredients including lingonberries. An Incan Chicha brew made from Peruvian purple corn is also in the works.
“Half the fun is trying to track these things down … and trying to figure out, if you can’t get your hands on something, what would they have used back then or what’s the closest we can get nowadays,” Paul said.
The beers were unveiled at a recent tasting event at VIU and Hopwood and Ayling present their work at the Society of Archaeology conference in Albuquerque, N.M., this week.
Hopwood is fine-tuning her program for the fall, which will include researching and creating ancient foods and beer and is planning another tasting event in the spring.
“The plan is to do it again next year and maybe have this as an annual event, but have more beers and have it open to more of the public, but also have it as a knowledge-sharing event where we get to talk about ancient beer … put faces on the past … as we’re sharing these ancient beers and these ancient flavours,” Hopwood said.