Beer Before Wine: Research Shows that Spain was a Beer Country First
A Colorado State University professor says he wants to write a book on caelia—an ancient Spanish beer that was replaced by wine after the Roman Empire invaded Iberia. He also may collaborate with a brewery or the university’s prominent fermentation program to produce a batch of the old brew, which he calls “beer juice.”
But if you’re curious and you’re visiting Spain, some Spanish breweries have already resurrected the beverage, the origins of which date back at least 5,000 years.
Jonathan Carlyon, professor of languages and culture, has been studying the prehistoric Spanish beverage. His specialty at the university is early Hispanic literary culture. He knows a lot about Spanish history and its people’s reliance on caelia and beer until the Romans began making incursions in Hispania beginning around 218 BC and introduced wine, says a press release from Colorado State.
Some Spanish brewers already make caelia, but Professor Carlyon is considering asking a Fort Smith, Colorado, brewery or the university’s fermentation program to brew up a batch too. Apart from writing a paper or a book about the beverage, he expressed his interest in perhaps providing a class on the drink for the university’s fermentation students.
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“Now beer is worthy of serious academic scholarship,” he is quoted in the press release. “We’re always trying to recruit students to take our courses and get our minor. The Languages, Literatures and Cultures lens can be used in almost any field.”
Colorado State University Professor Jonathan Carlyon with a bottle of caelia from a Spanish microbrewery (CSU photo)
“The name Caelia, derived from the Latin verb for heating, ‘calefacere,’ was inspired by the heat used in the brewing process,” the release stated. “Carlyon has tracked the consumption of Caelia back about 5,000 years, to a time in Spain when women brewed the lightly carbonated drink as part of their daily routine, using a fermentation process similar to the one they used to make bread. ‘It was like a beer juice, compared to the beer made today,’ he says.”
The Roman Empire’s military was unable to conquer the ancient Spanish city of Numancia, between Madrid and Barcelona. Carlyon says before every battle the soldiers of Numancia got drunk on caelia
“contributing to the Romans’ view of them as fierce, wild fighters who successfully held off the invaders until the Romans wearied of the losses and reverted to building a wall around the fortified city in a siege. Finally, the Romans stopped fighting, closed them in and starved them, but it took two years.”
A pitcher from ancient Numancia. ( Ecelan/CC BY SA 4.0 )
The Romans replaced the native beer culture with viniculture, but what goes around comes around. In 1550, when the Spanish began their incursions into the Americas they listed grapevines as a valuable commodity, not hops or barley, CSU says.
“The fact that they chose that reflected the culture of the time. In 1550, it had been more than 1,000 years since beer had been prevalent,” Carlyon said.
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Proto-cuneiform recording the allocation of beer, probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, about 3100-3000 BC ( Takomabibelot/ CC BY 2.0 )
Other academics have been resurrecting ancient libations.
An archaeologist working with a brewery is recreating ancient beers from around the world, including Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Denmark, Honduras and China, Ancient Origins reported in 2015. Alcohol archaeologist Patrick McGovern thinks he may even be able to recreate a drink from Egypt that is 16,000 years old.
Professor McGovern, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, has been working with Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. The professor is using modern technology to detect traces of ingredients. In addition, Dogfish Head Brewery has produced beer using African, South American, and Finnish recipes from centuries ago. For a list of the brews, see dogfish.com/ancientales.
It’s not just beer that archaeologists are trying to recreate. Ancient-Origins.net reported in 2013 that Italian archaeologists planted a vineyard near Catania in Sicily with the aim of making wine using techniques from classical Rome described in ancient texts. The team expected its first vintage within four years.
These attempts at drinking the spirits of ancestors go back quite a few years. There is a reference at thekeep.org about a 1996 attempt by Newcastle Breweries in Melbourne to brew an ancient Egyptian beer too.
“The Herald-Sun reported that 'Tutankhamon Ale' will be based on sediment from jars found in a brewery housed in the Sun Temple of Nefertiti, and the team involved has gathered enough of the correct raw materials to produce just 1000 bottles of the ale,” Caroline Seawright wrote at thekeep.org. That beer was 5 to 6 percent alcohol and was sold at Harrods for £50 (about $100) a bottle. The profit was to go toward further research into Egyptian beer making.
Featured image: A glass of beer atop old barrels ( public domain ).
By Mark Miller