If you enjoyed my first post about the archaeology of beer and wine you may be interested to know that the Field Museum, Chicago’s natural history museum, recently announced that they are teaming up with Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. out of Iowa to create a beer that celebrates Sue, their famous Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. You can read the article from the Chicago Tribune here. The new beer, “Pseudo Sue” will be a single hop pale ale and available at the museum starting in January. This is a unique blend of paleontology and anthropology – using the human invention of fermentation to promote paleontological education. People have long been fascinated with prehistoric predators and “Sue” is the most complete (about 90%) and best preserved fossil of her species found to date.
Within the last few years, my hometown has seen a fortunate increase in both microbreweries and local distilleries. At one of my new favorite places to purchase craft beers I came across a beer that inspired this blog post. The Scottish brewed Fraoch Heather Ale boasts right on the bottle that the recipe originated in Scotland, 4000 years ago. “Leann Fraoch”, Gaelic for heather ale, is a light amber ale made from malted wheat, barley and hops (the usual suspects for beer) with bog myrtle (an herb native to Scotland) and heather, the purple shrub so indicative of the British Isles. While the heather ale brewed in Scotland today by Williams Bros Brewing Company is no doubt a reconstruction (using modern ingredients for a modern palette with modern fermentation processes), there is in fact evidence of a fermented drink containing heather dating back to 2ooo B.C. in Scotland. Analysis of Neolithic pot sherds from the Isle of Rhum revealed the residue of mashed cereal straw, cereal-type pollen, meadowsweet, heather, and royal fern that researchers have interpreted as an ancient brew of Northern Europe (Gregory et al. 2005; Nelson, 2005).
This investigation into the Neolithic origins of modern Scottish beer sparked other questions for me concerning drinking in the past. When in the past did we begin exploiting the process of fermentation? What lines of evidence contribute to our understanding of past fermentation practices and the recreation of these recipes? And finally, is it possible to identify an alcoholic from skeletal remains of such an individual? Throughout this post, I will explore these questions as I delve into the archaeological, historical, and biochemical literature concerning fermentation.