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One morning in May 2019, a crowd of journalists gathered around the Biratenu bar in Jerusalem, snapping photos as a bartender poured golden, frothy beer into plastic cups. The story of the beer was both new and very old: The yeast that fermented it came from a 3,000-year-old jug found at a nearby archaeological site.
“It’s actually a pretty good beer,” says Aren Maeir, an archaeology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the director of excavations at the site of Tell es-Safi. Scholarly, but determined that archaeology should be fun, Maeir, upon first tasting the beer, joked that as long as no one died from it, it would be a successful project.
Maeir and his colleagues found the jug at the Tell es-Safi site. Three millennia ago, the Philistines, a Mediterranean seafaring people, lived in the area and created and used such ceramic ware.
Archaeologists had assumed the jug was for beer because it had a strainer component, consisting of small holes between the container’s main compartment and its spout. This feature could have filtered out bits of grain left over from the fermentation process.
To investigate further, Maeir joined a team of biologists, other archaeologists, and a brewer who isolated yeasts from several ancient yeast colonies discovered within jugs from Tell es-Safi and three other sites in Israel that ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians had inhabited or controlled. They then used these microorganisms to make different types of beer and mead, a few of which they unveiled during a press conference at the Biratenu bar. The scientific team concurred that the one made with the yeast colony from the Philistine jug was the best tasting. In fact, that species of yeast is still used in commercial beer today.
These beverages were the first brews crafted from an ancient yeast colony. This feat demonstrated that the microorganisms driving fermentation had managed to reproduce and survive for thousands of years. It also settled any debate over the vessels’ purpose—confirming that the jugs with strainers once stored beer for the Philistines some three millennia ago.
But this re-creation is just one among many recent archaeological projects dedicated to the study of beer. Boosted heavily by the current popularity of craft beer in many countries, the archaeology of beer is now generating surprising insights into the past all over the world.
These investigations have led to many creative collaborations. Half a world away from Maeir and his team in Israel, archaeologist Marie Hopwood, of Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, Canada, collaborates with Love Shack Libations brewery to re-create ancient beers based on archaeological evidence. “Beer is telling us about everything from gender roles to agriculture,” Hopwood says.
Indeed, multiple breweries are now making beer inspired by ancient beverages, often in cooperation with archaeologists who want to learn more about how people used various ingredients centuries ago. In the process, these efforts may illuminate big questions about shifts in human societies and cultures.
Communities have been drinking beer for thousands of years for nutritional, social, medicinal, and religious reasons. During many periods of history, beer, like other alcoholic beverages, offered a safe means for staying hydrated—with just enough alcohol to kill pathogens that could be found in water.
Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Sumerian people of southern Mesopotamia wrote the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” the goddess of beer. Around the same time (about 1800 B.C.), and perhaps even 300 years before that, Egyptians painted depictions of brewing on the walls of their tombs.
But beer has been somewhat hidden in the archaeological record—particularly in comparison with wine. “There are a lot of gaps in beer history,” says Travis Rupp, a former bartender who teaches classics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and directs research and development at the local Avery Brewing Co.
Beer has a relatively short shelf life compared with wine, so people did not trade or transport it as often, nor did they write about it as much. Beer also leaves less obvious physical traces than wine. “Studying it often means relying on the development of science to analyze residues, something that has only become more refined in recent years,” Rupp says.
For that reason, many early investigations into ancient beer raised questions that scientists could only answer decades later. For example, in 1929, a researcher named Johannes Grüss microscopically examined the residue on an Egyptian amphora from about 2000 B.C. held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images that had been uncovered by archaeologists suggested that the society created beer by letting bread sit in water and ferment.
But Grüss’s analysis, based on studying the microscopic structure of the starch granules in the amphora, indicated that the Egyptians first sprouted grains, one of the steps in the malting process, before using them for beer. In other words, the Egyptian process was more complicated than previously thought. Grüss published his results in an obscure German brewing trade magazine, and the research went largely unnoticed.