An Iron Brew: 2,500-Year-Old Drink Recreated by Archaeologists and Brewers
In some of the latest news in archaeology, a bronze cauldron was discovered inside a burial plot from 400 or 450 BC in Germany. The walls of the vessel contained precious remnants of an old drink recipe. Now, researchers have managed to recreate the ancient brew.
According to ZME Science , Bettina Arnold, a researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examined a burial plot in Swabia, Germany dated back to the 5th century BC. The investigation of the grave was connected to the discovery of a tumulus, which looks like a mound of earth, and cut stones placed over a burial. The site was created between the 7th-5th centuries BC.
The bronze cauldron during excavations in Swabia, Germany. Source: Bettina Arnold
The bronze pot, or cauldron, which was discovered inside the tomb became Arnold’s focus of interest. She wondered why people brought it to the tomb and the reason they needed to drink the alcohol inside. Arnold believes that the cauldron once held about 14 liters (3.7 gallons) of an alcoholic beverage that could have been used by the spirit of the deceased to establish himself as an important person in front of his gods.
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‘Bacchus’ by Caravaggio. ( Public Domain ) Bacchus was the Roman god of wine.
The tomb where the researchers found the fascinating cauldron is located in the tumulus (it’s known as Tumulus 17, Grave 6). Although the researchers didn't find a skeleton, which was likely dissolved by the acidic soil, the grave goods suggest that the tomb belonged to a man. He was buried in a traditional oak chamber. An iron sword, a helmet, and two long iron spears buried inside the tumulus suggest that the man was also a warrior.
As Bettina Arnold wrote on her blog :
“A 55 cm long iron slashing sword with a bird’s head-shaped handle in a cow-hide sheath wrapped in textiles was placed at his right side and two long iron spears with ash shafts were laid along his left shoulder. Also to his left was an iron object used to attach a feather crest to a leather helmet. Based on the presence of both spears and a sword and helmet we can date the burial to about 450 BC. At his feet was the bronze cauldron, wrapped in textile, a very rare find in Iron Age burials in this area of Europe.”
Cauldron, iron spears, sword and helmet attachment found in the burial chamber. (Bettina Arnold )
Paleobotanical analysis of the vessel's contents allowed the researchers to discover the ingredients of the brew's recipe. They found that it was made up of yeast, barley, honey, meadowsweet, and mint.
Paleobotanist Manfred Rösch and conservator Tanja Kreß sample the ancient cauldron in Tübingen, Germany. ( Bettina Arnold )
Arnold’s research was continued in Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery, where the cellarmaster Chad Sheridan (an expert in homebrewed meads) helped re-create the process of preparing the ancient drink.
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His result was a smooth and pleasant drink which has been described as tasting like a dry port, but with a herbal minty tinge. Although the Lakefront Brewery claims that the product is tasty, it is unlikely that it will appear in bars anytime soon.
Arnold suggests that ''with an [alcohol by volume] of over 8 percent, this is not your grannie’s braggot, and although adding honey at this stage would probably make it more drinkable for [today’s] mead imbibers, we decided to leave it as is.''
Chad Sheridan and Mike Vergolina preparing the brew. ( Bettina Arnold )
Every time there is a chance to recover an ancient alcoholic drink recipe, researchers seem to take it - regardless if their brew turns out especially pleasant to the taste buds or not.
As Mark Miller reported for Ancient Origins on February 1, 2015: “An archaeologist working with a brewery is recreating ancient beers from around the world, including Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Denmark, Honduras and China. Alcohol archaeologist Patrick McGovern thinks he may even be able to recreate a drink from Egypt that is 16,000 years old […] 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.”
In that same article, Miller referenced another example from 2013, in which the Great Lakes Brewery in Ohio, “with the help of archaeologists in Chicago, tried to brew a Sumerian beer whose recipe dated back 5,000 years […] Great Lakes tried to replicate the Sumerian beer using only a wooden spoon and clay vessels modeled after artifacts excavated in Iraq. They successfully malted barley on the roof of the brew house and also used a bricklike “beer bread” for the active yeast.” Their results “yielded a beer full of bacteria, warm and slightly sour.”
Proto-cuneiform recording the allocation of beer, probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, about 3100-3000 BC. ( Takomabibelot/ CC BY 2.0 )
Top Image: A glass of beer atop old barrels ( public domain ).