Vancouver Island University pair brew beer the ancient way

Long ago, before football on TV, propane barbecues and local pubs, there was beer. Now, two Vancouver Island University archeologists are renewing that ancient taste.

Prof. Marie Hopwood, of the VIU anthropology department, and Melissa Ayling, a fourth-year BA student, have come up with some ancient Mesopotamian ingredients for Love Shack Libations, a Qualicum Beach brewer, to recreate flavours from the past.

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“We want to use beer as a tool to bridge the gap of all these millennia and make ancient people more real to us today,” Hopwood said.

The result is two brews the historically minded beer lovers like to think can be linked to ancient times:

• Midas Touch is brewed from the ancient grains kamut and spelt, and flavoured with Middle Eastern/Near Asian spices coriander and saffron.

• Odin’s Eye is a dark ale flavoured with birch bark, lingonberries, bog berries (now known by the far more attractive name of cranberry) and two aromatic herbs known and used in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, meadowsweet and yarrow.

“We don’t try to recreate ancient beverages,” Ayling said. “We take the ingredients that would have been around back then and use them as a kind of baseline, a sort of grocery list to create these delicious beers.”

Hopwood said the research and creation of the two new beers builds on the work of American anthropologist Patrick McGovern. Known for his popular 2017 book Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Recreated, McGovern used bio-molecular analysis to glean ingredients from ancient drinking vessels and clay bottles, and recreated the beverages.

But Hopwood, a specialist in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, produced some interesting nuggets of her own about the ancient days of imbibing beer.

For a start, beer, even ancient beer, contained just enough alcohol, two to three per cent by volume, to kill off harmful bacteria that might inhabit fresh water. So for the ancients, beer was a healthy drink.

Unlike wine, beer required less than a week to brew, ferment and age. Its principal ingredients, grains, are easier to grow than grapes. So it likely predated wine.

Also, it was originally brewed mostly in the home, by women.

“Part of what it meant to be a good woman was to be a good brewer to provide your family with beer,” Hopwood said.

Modern beer is brewed with hops. The seed cones provide beer’s characteristic bitter flavour, but they also act as a preservative, allowing beer to be stored longer before being consumed.

Hopwood said ancient beer had no hops and would have been brewed in open vessels, over an open fire, fermented and consumed within a week, often all from the same vessel.

“You brewed it and you drank it,” she said.

The stereotype that makes beer the beverage of men is another modern creation, she said. In ancient days, women not only brewed the beer but they claimed its patron saint as one of their own.

Ninkasi was the ancient Sumerian goddess of beer. She was the deity behind the process of fermentation. Ninkasi was also the protector of women during childbirth.

“Now, we so often think of beer as a man’s drink,” Hopwood said. “But the mysterious process that transforms a pallid liquid into this awesome elixir has some very strong linkages to women.”

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