It’s not every day you get to taste 3,000-year-old beer and mead, and today wasn’t one either. But it was pretty close — perhaps as close as you can get — and the brews were more than pretty tasty.
After spending decades wasting their time learning to 3D-print human hearts and turning skin cells into embryonic stem cells, Israeli scientists finally set themselves to a far higher task: figuring out if biblical hooch tasted any good. (Naturally, they claim the real point was to advance the understanding of how yeast and bacteria were domesticated over the past five millennia.)
So a motley crew of archaeologists, microbiologists, chemists, brewers from a variety of universities and institutions set to work, isolating yeast cells from ancient jugs and brewing pots and turning these ancient strains into potent potables.
The scientists were able to isolate six strains of the intoxicating single-celled fungus from 21 pieces of pottery from the biblical Tell es-Safi/Gath site west of Jerusalem (ca. 850 BCE), Jerusalem’s Ramat Rachel (ca. 8th to 4th century BCE), and the Bronze Age En-Besor site in the western Negev and an Egyptian brewery found on Tel Aviv’s Ha-Masger Street (both ca. 3100 BCE).
The results of their years of work was a fruity and funky “Philistine” wheat beer, a lip-smacking mead, a 21-page article in the American Society for Microbiology journal and tentative plans to make their strains available to the greater public.
On Wednesday morning, a group of journalists crammed into Jerusalem’s Biratenu — a bar-cum-beer supply shop — to taste the alcoholic products of their labor.
The Philistine beer
While the Israeli team was able to successfully isolate and brew with yeast strains from the 5,000-year-old En-Besor and Ha-Masger sites, the beer that was served on Wednesday was made with yeast from Gath, an ancient Philistine city.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of waxing poetic about the beer — “Behold: The same liquor Goliath drank!” — but that’s not what it was.
What this reporter tasted was not what beer tasted like thousands of years ago.
This was a 21st century brew — just one made with 8th century BCE yeast.
While an ancient beer would have been made with similar grains to today’s brews, the Egyptians and Philistines would have likely flavored theirs with things like cinnamon, cardamom and herbs, rather than the hops used in modern ales and lagers, according to archaeologist Yitzhak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority, who contributed to the project. For an added boost of sugar for the yeast to feed on, ancient brewers would have also likely added dates and pomegranates to their wort, he said.
(As it happens, an American brewery, Dogfish Head, makes something of an equal-but-opposite beer. Its Midas Touch uses an ancient recipe, but modern yeast, to mimic a 2,700-year-old beer, the residue of which was found in the tomb of King Midas who ruled Phrygia in the 8th century BCE.)
But that’s not how the brewmaster Itai Gutman made the Philistine beer. Save for the yeast, the ingredients and methods used were wholly modern.
This is no trivial matter. The yeast plays a huge role in the flavor of a beer. Three identical mixtures of malted grains, hops and water fermented with three different types of yeast will yield three dramatically different beverages.
Indeed, the Philistine beer doesn’t fall neatly into the standard categories that we use today: ales, lagers, stouts, etc.
Genetically, the yeast used in this beer is more closely related to the yeasts used in wine production today than in brewing, according to Ronen Hazan, one of the leaders of the study.
According to the researchers behind the project, there were compounds found in their Philistine beer that don’t exist anywhere else.
The flavor is slightly sweet, with a subtle tang. This reporter — no master sommelier — tasted banana and other fruits.
But Lion Schwartz, a co-owner of Biratenu, dismissed any comparisons to existing beers.
“Every beer tastes different. Okay, so you taste bananas. The real question is: Does it taste good?” he asked.
It did. I finished my first shotglass-sized taster of the beer — and then drank two more.
Though the Philistine beer was a modern-style beer brewed with ancient yeast, the mead that Biratenu’s other co-owner Shmuel Naky made for this project with 3,000-year-old yeast was more or less what honey wine from three millennia ago would have tasted like. And if that’s the case, our ancestors were mighty lucky.
Mead consists of three ingredients: honey, yeast and water.
Naky bills himself as a mead and honey aficionado and Schwatyz claims his partner probably knows more about brewing yeast than anyone else in Israel.
To make his mead, Naky used yeast from the Ramat Rachel site in Jerusalem and local honey that he pasteurized to ensure that no errant modern yeast or bacteria made its way into the final product.
According to Hazan, the yeast in Naky’s mead is genetically similar to the types of yeast currently used in Ethiopia to produce another honey-based alcohol known as Tej.
Naky fermented his mead under pressure, allowing carbon-dioxide into the liquid and making it bubbly — something the ancients probably didn’t or couldn’t do.
The result was a light, tart and refreshing drink that tasted like a cross between good champagne and a dry sparkling cider.
Naky hazarded that the specific yeast strain used in his brew was what accounts for the distinct apple taste in the finished product.
As Charlie Papazian notes in his definitive tome, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, “For more than five thousands years, Virgil, Plato, Plutarch, Zeus, Venus, Jupiter, Odysseus, Circe, the Argonaut, Beowulf, Aphrodite, Bacchus, Odin, Valhalla, the Sanskrit Rig-Veda, Thor, King Arthur, Queen Elizabeth I, the French, Greeks, Mayans, Africans, English, Irish, Swedes, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, present-day homebrewers, and even the Australian Aborigines all likened part of their enjoyment of life to mead.”
After tasting Naky’s mead, I can’t fathom how he left the ancient Hebrews off his list.