Recreation of ancient beer suggests it was really, really gross

A team of experts from Ohio’s Great Lakes Brewing Company, along with archaeologists from the University of Chicago, have replicated 5,500-year-old beer from Mesopotamia using clay vessels, a wooden spoon, and an ancient recipe. But the end result left much to be desired.

As reported in the New York Times, the ancient Sumerians didn’t exactly leave the best instructions. The recipe had to be gleaned from a song called “Hymn to Ninkasi” (Ninkasi being the goddess of beer) that dates back to 1800 BC.

To ensure authenticity, the team used a ceramic vessel modeled after artifacts excavated in Iraq during the 1930s, they malted their own barley on the roof of a brew house, and they recruited a Cleveland baker to make a brick-like “beer bread” for use as a source of yeast — which they described as the most difficult step in the process. They even warmed up the concoction over a fire fueled by manure.

Recreation of ancient beer suggests it was really, really gross

And when all was said and done, the final product was, well, not great. Steven Yaccino writes:

The batch, spiced with cardamom and coriander, fermented for two days, but it was ultimately too sour for the modern tongue, [Nate] Gibbon said. Next time, he will sweeten it with honey or dates.

Without sophisticated cleaning systems to rid the vessels of natural bacteria, Mesopotamian imbibers might have been more familiar with the brew’s unwanted vinegar flavor, archaeologists said. Yet even with the most educated guesswork, they said, the Sumerian palate might never be fully uncovered.“We’re working with questions that are not going to have a final answer,” Mr. Paulette said. “It’s just back and forth, trying to move toward a better understanding. We’re pretty comfortable with that.”

Which is interesting. For all we know, the ancient Sumerians may have actually liked it. It may be impossible to ever know.

Image: Michael F. McElroy for The New York Times.