Ale Through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing

October 7th 2009 marked the second season of Discovery Worlds exploration and indulgence into the ancient tradition of brewing beer, during an adult program called “Ale through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing”. An enthusiastic group of adults were on hand to witness and partake in the brewing exercise, while enjoying a variety of beers generously donated by Lakefront Brewery Inc.

The newest experimental ale resurrected from the depths of brewing history, is a German style rye-based ale we call a Rhineland Roggenbier. While beer production has been a human innovation for at least 10,000 years in parts of eastern and western Asia, central Europe and Germany in particular were late comers in comparison. For example, a burial excavated in 1935 near the village of Kasendorf, in northern Bavaria contained a male individual from the Celtic Hallstatt period, ca. 800 BCE. Among the artifacts buried with him was an amphora-shaped vessel with the remnants of a black wheat beer inside of it. Thus far, this marks the earliest archaeological evidence of beer consumption in Germany.

Hallstatt Period grave goods from Kasendorf Germany ca. 800 BCE

Hallstatt Period grave goods from Kasendorf Germany ca. 800 BCE

The use of rye (Secale cereale) in beer production certainly predates the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) of 1516 that declared “… in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water…” Rye was omitted because it was deemed a vital food source, so as not to be depleted for excessive beer production. Prior to the early 16th century quality control measure, the use of rye in brewing beer was a commonality throughout northern Europe, because it is very tolerant of cooler climates and can grow in more acidic soils than wheat or barley. The plant itself was likely first domesticated in eastern Turkey and northwestern Iran during the Neolithic Period ca. 5000 BCE, but doesn’t begin to show up in central Europe in its domesticated form until the late Bronze Age ca.1800-1500 BCE (Zohary & Hopf 2000:75). In Europe, it likely grew as a weed in the crop fields of early farmers, until its largest grains were isolated and selected for continued cultivation, i.e. domestication.

Rhineland Roggenbier Recipe

Therefore, this roggenbier is inspired by references to rye ales that were being brewed in southern Germany during the Roman and Early Medieval periods. Indeed, the Roman author Publius Cornelius Tacitus wrote in the year 98 that “the Germanii serve an extract of barley and rye as a beverage that is somehow adulterated to resemble wine” (De origine et situ germanorum). Moreover, in 1256 the author Aldorbrandino of Siena Italy wrote that ale made from “rye or rye bread with mint and wild celery as additives was the best kind of beer” (Li Livres dou Santé).

Specific Gravity 1.044

Specific Gravity 1.044

Prior to pitching the European ale yeast on the morning following the brewing session of Wednesday October 7th, a specific gravity reading was taken. The hydrometer settled on the 1.044 line, ca. 6% maximum ABV, though it will likely bottom out at around 5%. Much like a dunkelweizen, this roggenbier is expected to be amber colored with malty notes, mildly hopped and a crisp minty rye finish. Due to a large amount of sediment from the all-grain mash, it will undergo secondary fermentation in one week, followed by a bottling session here at Discovery World on October 21st.

Grain mash undergoing vermicomposting in our biology lab by hundreds of red wiggler worms (Eisenia foetida)

Grain mash undergoing vermicomposting in our Biology Laboratory by hundreds of red wiggler worms (Eisenia foetida)

The final stage in this transformation of the all grain mash was recycling, in this case back to soil with the aid of hundreds of red wiggler worms. Currently they are devouring the mash in two large pails. The entire mash was mixed with equal parts soil/mulch obtained from Growing Power Inc. It is important to monitor the soil temperature for optimal decomposition and worm comfort. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to break down the grains into usable soil. Updates to follow!


6 responses to “Ale Through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing

  1. Pingback: The Best of American Beer & Food » ale through the ages at Discovery World and SPLASH! October 26, 5-8 pm

  2. Hi Kevin

    You may be interested in our ancient brewing experiments in Ireland – instructions on our blog here:
    Came across your blog via @archaeology on twitter – great stuff.

    • Declan,
      I’m very aware of your experimental archaeology and hypothesis that brewing was the primary use of the Irish fulacht fiadh’s. In fact I use your experiment as one of my examples in the brewing series…people love the youtube video of the experiment! Great to know such important and publicly engaging research is taking place on both sides of the Atlantic! In fact, I’ll be heading back to Ireland (was born and raised in Dublin/Galway) in mid November for two weeks of travel. Any recommendations on where to visit a good example of a fulacht? Keep up the good work! Oh and you might be interested in reading Patrick McGovern’s new book “Uncorking the Past” (2009).

  3. There’s a mock-up of a fulacht at the Craggaunowen centre in Limerick - – if that’s on your itinerary. Otherwise, if you’re in Galway give us a call and we’ll happily show you one, although they’re not exactly the most mind-blowing of sites… and we might have a pint afterwards as well. Just got Pat’s book and we were delighted to see that we’ve been indexed and that the theory receives the attention…

    • We (my wife and I) will be in Co. Galway for a couple of days around 22nd and 24th of November. There may be an opportunity to take you up on a pint anyway perhaps on the 24th? We’ll see where our driving schedule takes us with our ambitious treck around the entire island. Hope to have a mobile phone when we’re over so if it works out I’ll give your Moore Group number a ring!

  4. Pingback: Brewing with Rye | knowledge and praxis

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