Researchers Brew Biblical Beer Using Yeast From Ancient Pottery
A multidisciplinary team in Israel believe that they have brewed ancient beers similar to those once drunk by Biblical characters such as David and Goliath . They were able to extract yeast, a key ingredient in the brewing of beer, that is up to 5000 years old. They believe this has allowed them to make the alcoholic beverages that were once drunk by ancient Hebrews, Philistines, and Egyptians.
The project involved archaeologists from the Antiquities Authority and microbiologists from three leading Israeli universities. It was the brainchild of Dr. Ronen Hazan and Michael Klustein, two senior microbiologists. They began working on an idea to reproduce ancient beer with a master brewer Itai Gutman. Some graduate students’ help was also enlisted by the interdisciplinary team. The project was quite complex and time-consuming, but also good fun.
Extracting yeasts from ancient pottery
The Times of Israel reports that the multidiscipline team ‘isolated six yeast strains from 21 sherds of beer or wine vessels excavated from four ancient Holy Land sites.’ The oldest of the sites date back to the Canaanites (3000 BC). The other sites were once inhabited by Philistines, Egyptians and early Hebrews. The group was able to extract living yeast ‘that survived for thousands of years inside pores in the clay of ancient pottery used to make and store beer’ according to Haaretz. This required the most up-to-date techniques and equipment. The process is described in a report published on mBio.
Beer cruse from Tel Tzafit/Gath archaeological digs, from which Philistine beer was produced. Image: Yaniv Berman, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
According to the Times of Israel , “in a melding of science and craft brewing , the isolated yeasts were separately brewed.” Each of the yeasts from the sites was used to brew different beers. The master brewer Itai Guttman used a modern recipe to produce the alcoholic drink . Previously he helped to brew a beer from yeast that was almost 10,000 years old. During this process, the scientists monitored the gases produced to understand the nature of the brew that would have been produced in ancient times.
The taste of the ancient beer
When the beer had been fermented and brewed, it was decided that it had to be tasted. There was some trepidation among the team about tasting a beverage that was made from ingredients that are thousands of years old. But they all sat around a table and drank the beers.
The brave team tasting the biblical-style beer produced from ancient yeast strains dormant for thousands of years. Yaniv Berman/ Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Aren Maeir, an archaeologist with Bar-Ilan University, was quoted by the BBC as saying, “when we first brought out the beer we sat around the table and drank... and I said either we'll be good or we'll all be dead in five minutes. We lived to tell the story.”
The team and some certified beer tasters all tasted the brews from all six strains of yeast, and they declared them to be ‘drinkable’ according to the Times of Israel.
After more tasting, many believe that the ancient beer is similar to beers brewed in parts of Africa. There is some confidence among the team that the beverage produced is similar to that made in ancient times. This means that it was similar to the beverage that was drunk by the many different peoples who lived in the area in the Bronze and Iron Age . However, it does not seem likely that the team is able to reproduce the very same beer that was consumed by Goliath and others. Furthermore, it also does not have the residues that would have been in every brew produced by brewers before the modern era.
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The experiment may have been fun and enjoyable, but it also had a serious goal. It was important to reproduce the beer of ancient societies to better understand them. Beer was a staple in the ancient world because the water was often contaminated and dangerous to drink. It was also very important in ceremonies and forging social relationships.
The study may help to create more opportunities for experimental archaeologists, in the future. It can also help scientists to understand how ancient societies were able to domesticate microbes for food and drink production. The team responsible for brewing the beer believe that it could be brought to market and believe that there are many who would like to taste ancient beers that are similar to that, once drunk by Philistines such as Goliath or maybe even an Egyptian pharaoh. They hope to secure some funding that would allow them to commercialize their discovery.
Top image: Ancient beer from biblical times and beyond has been brewed in Israel. Source: 9parusnikov / Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan