Ever since humans decided to give some slightly rotten fruit a try, fermented foods and beverages have become an important staple in cultures and civilizations around the world. Beer factors into an ancient Egyptian creation myth, and the Aztecs and Mayans once used a beer-like beverage in ceremonies. Now, an Israeli brewery has resurrected a 2,000-year-old beer using a wheat strain that would have been around when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth.
The Jerusalem-based Herzl brewery has long had a flair for experimentation. Herzl has made all sorts of quirky beers over the years, including one called “Embargo” that is flavored with Cuban cigar leaves, Rotem Maimon writes for Haaretz. So when Herzl’s owner, Itai Gutman, found out that geneticists at Tel Aviv University had identified a 2,000-year-old strain of wheat, he immediately thought of how he could incorporate it into a drink.
"I found this article about these guys at the Tel Aviv University that made the genome of the model of wheat, the same grain I used and just made a light bulb light up and I just contacted them and within a few days I had several kilograms of this material,” Gutman tells the Jerusalem Post. “We just started to process and eventually is this beer that we're drinking.”
Soon enough, Gutman had brewed up a batch of beer that might taste like the boozy beverages that were around in biblical times. As Reuters’ Dan Williams reports, the end result tasted a bit like honey and berries, although it was flat and cloudier than most modern beers.
Those hoping for a sip of the ancient beer are sadly out of luck. Gutman only made a single five-gallon batch of the brew, which was promptly drank by the brewers.
"We were curious about being able to come up with the first 'biblical' beer," Gutman tells Williams. "It's really not the kind of flavor that has a market."
Herzl isn’t the only craft brewery to look to the past for inspiration. Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery has a special line of “Ancient Ales” that it brews following instructions derived from archaeological finds and traditional recipes. One beer, called “Midas Touch,” was inspired by a chemical analysis of a beer discovered in King Midas’ tomb that dated back to 700 B.C. Another, called “Theobroma,” is made with cacao and based on an alcoholic beverage that the Aztecs served to sacrificial victims before ceremonial rituals. Another is based on a traditional Peruvian drink called “chicha,” that is made by chewing up raw corn and spitting it into the brew bucket before turning it into booze.
“It’s called experimental archaeology,” Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist who often works with Dogfish Head, told Abigail Tucker for Smithsonian Magazine in 2011.
Beer of all kinds has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, and if we’re lucky, it will probably stick around for a few more. It’s heartening to know that some of our ancestors had good taste in drinks as well.