Ancient Ales: Breweries Find New Fans with Old Recipes

Feature by | Jul 2017 | Issue #126
Illustrations by Ola Volo

Talk to Travis Rupp at Avery Brewing Company or Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewery about brewing ancient beers, and they’ll share many insights, including this bit of news: mouthfeel can take on a whole new meaning. For example, the traditional method for making chicha, an ancient Peruvian fermented beverage, can involve a fair amount of chewing and spitting maize in a process known as known as salivation. Even small batches require hours of munching. Many brewers in modern day Central and South America, lacking mash tuns, still employ the method to convert complex starches into fermentable sugars.

“There’s a component in human saliva called α-Amylase that converts the starches from maize into fermentable sugars,” says Rupp, Avery’s research and development manager and resident beer archaeologist.

These days the protein enzyme α-Amylase can be purchased (which Rupp now does after trying the chewing method in an experimental batch). But for brewers looking to recreate a 2,000 year-old recipe, getting a brew as authentic as possible often means a bit of the unconventional. Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head, says that if it means chewing up and spitting out Peruvian yellow and purple maize every few years to brew a batch of chicha—a practice he and his brew team have tried—it’s worth it.

“Ancient beers are part of the mystique for modern beer lovers,” Calagione says. For millennia, beer was defined by what grew locally in any part of the world. When we drink ancient beers, we feel closer to the gods and our ancestor-brewers.”

Avery and Dogfish Head’s versions of chicha or corn beer, are examples of a drink made by common people (as opposed to royalty) in Latin America and dates back to 1,000 AD. Avery’s bright yellow Pachamama, one of four ancient beers Rupp has recently brewed in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, comes in at 5.2 percent ABV and tastes something like a modern sour beer. It’s spontaneously fermented and further flavored with ingredients that indigenous people would have had on hand, such as herbs, fruits, or nuts.

“One of the reasons I like to brew ancient beers is because I’m interested in drinking beers made of ingredients from what the local people would have had available to them,” he says. Rupp, who is both a brewer and an adjunct professor of classics at the University of Colorado, brings a unique perspective to the growing interest in ancient beers. So while many brewers are currently chasing experimental hop strains, sequencing yeast, and using technology to dial in new recipes, a handful of others are looking to the past for inspiration, perhaps hoping that an ancient ingredient or a forgotten flavor will excite new generations of drinkers.

Preparing the corn for the 2014 chicha brew, top, and brewing chicha in 2009. | Photos courtesy of Dogfish Head

Dogfish’s Chicha was first released in 2009, and then again in 2010 and 2014. In addition to yellow and purple maize, Calagione says Peruvian pink peppercorns, strawberries (in 2009 and 2010), tropical Soursop fruit (in 2014), and local tree nuts were also used. The result is a cloudy, unfiltered purple-pink beer that weighs in at 5.7 ABV. It finishes “dry, fruity, complex, and refreshing” according to the Dogfish website.

Calagione has been brewing ancient recipes since 1997 and found success with a series of beers based on archeological evidence found in Honduras, Egypt, Italy, Denmark, Africa, and Finland. The Turkish Midas Touch, a hybrid of mead, beer, and wine was first, followed by the Egyptian Ta Henket, made with chamomile, palm fruit, and Middle Eastern herbs, the Aztecan Theobroma, which included honey, chilies, annatto, and chocolate, and the Scandinavian Kvasir, made with wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, honey, birch syrup, yarrow, and myrica gale. For a brewery founded on the idea that Germany’s Reinheitsgebot purity law is a form of art censorship, ancient beers with their unconventional ingredients were a natural extension for Dogfish Head.

While Avery and Dogfish are among two of the biggest brewers to breathe new life into very old beers, smaller breweries are also working to revive forgotten recipes. At Off Color Brewing in Chicago, ancient ales fit the bill nicely for the two owners.

“We don’t want to be the 500th Pale Ale on the market,” says co-founder John Laffler. “We didn’t open a brewery to make ancient beers, but it fits into our goal to make beers that are interesting, different… and make waves. We consider beer an art form.”

In February, Off Color released QingMing, a Chinese brew dating back to 1200 BC, and its third collaboration with the Chicago Field Museum (following Tooth & Claw, a beer inspired by SUE, the museum’s T-Rex skeleton, and Wari, South American, chicha de molle). Laffler says the recipe is complicated, involving one or more types of mold and co-fermentation of rice that can only be cooked by steaming.

“If the rice gets too wet, it liquefies in brewing, and it’s just a mess,” he explains. “This is the most time I’ve put into making a beer.”

This speaks to a point that all three brewers made: much of recreating ancient beer recipes involves educated guesses based on residue discovered on pottery at archeological sites and knowledge about the ingredients available at the time.

“I make no claims that our ancient beers are super accurate,” Laffler adds. “We do our best based on what the evidence tells us. But it is keeping with our eclectic [brewing] philosophy.”

Off Color Brewing co-founder John Laffler, left, with Gary Feinman, the MacArthur Curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian Anthropology at The Field Museum. | Photos © The Field Museum

Dr. Max Nelson, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Windsor, in Ontario, Canada and author of The Barbarian’s Beverage, A History of Beer in Ancient Europe, confirms that ancient interpretation is both a challenge and an opportunity.

“There is a lot of guesswork and creativity involved since so much is conjectural,” he says. “The analysis of ancient vessels shows us that honey or certain herbs were used in beer but not in which quantities. And the written sources that survive are usually just as vague.”

Nelson also notes that interest in ancient beers is part of a general trend of customers seeking out new tasting experiences. For drinkers who seem to always be looking for what’s next, these creations represent a new family to taste and talk about.

“This can be seen in the widening interest in sour beers, highly-hopped beers, barrel-aged and funky brews, among others,” he says. “A beer made without hops—now almost ubiquitous in brewing—or utilizing long-lost techniques, such as heating over firewood or with the use of hot stones, is attractive in being different and exotic.”

Calagione, Rupp, and Nelson all cite the work of Dr. Patrick McGovern in the popularization of ancient beers. McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, is widely recognized as the “Indiana Jones of ancient beverages” given his global travels to explore the place of fermented drinks in ancient cultures, a subject he details in his 2009 book Uncorking The Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer and Other Alcoholic Beverages. His latest book, Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created, appeared in June with a foreword by Calagione.

All this to say McGovern probably understands ancient brews better than just about anyone in the world. And he thinks modern brewers still have much to learn from their forebears.

“Beermaking is largely unchanged through the millennia, probably back to the Paleolithic. Equipment and scientific understanding may have improved, but we can gain a much larger perspective on the possibilities by rediscovering and recreating the myriad ingredients, microorganisms, and processes that our ancestors used,” McGovern says.

According to him, modern humans are pleasantly surprised that these recipes inspired by the past are not just weird concoctions, but actually smell and taste good. As a scientist, McGovern says their reactions are predictable.

“That’s to be expected, since human senses, physiologies, brain responses (the mind-altering effect), and genetic constitutions have probably changed little since Paleolithic times,” he says.

And for brewers, this fact translates to an important truth: Ancient beers can be a strong brand builder.

“As a brewery we love conceptualizing and reconstructing ancient ales,” Calagione says. “When we first made Midas Touch we thought we would only brew it once. But we’re still making it. It remains in our top five selling beers and has been featured in People Magazine and on The Today Show. It has generated a lot of excitement.”

Laffler at Off Color Brewing notes that his customers are clearly keen on ancient ales, too. “It’s what we get the most inquiries about,” he says.

Rupp at Avery, which entered the realm of historical beers just last fall, says the ancient ales are so popular in the Boulder taproom that he’s planning four new releases a year to join their existing line-up. These include: Nestor’s Cup (an ancient Greek-inspired brew); Pachamama (an ancient South American-inspired beer); Khonsu Im-Heb (an ancient Egyptian-inspired beer); and an ancient Viking-inspired beer called Ragnarsdrápa.

“Ancient ales distinguish us as a brewery,” he says. “It brings people into our taproom who want to experiment and try something different.”


Avery’s Viking-inspired Ragnarsdràpa (left) and the ancient Greek-inspired Nestor’s Cup, and Avery research and development manager Travis Rupp. | Photos by John W. Mitchell and courtesy of Dustin Hall

Modern Interpretations of Ancient Beers
Modern craft brewing has a long lineage. According to Dr. Patrick McGovern, archaeological evidence suggests the first ancient beers emerged as far back as 2,700 years ago in Turkey, China, and Scandinavia. Here are a few modern interpretations:

Midas Touch
Dogfish Head | 9.0% ABV
Dogfish Head in Delaware was the first US brewery to produce ancient beers. And Midas Touch, the first release, was a collaboration with Dr. Patrick McGovern based on archeological evidence found in Turkey. Originally released in 1999, Midas Touch is described as “somewhere between beer, wine, and mead” and derives its flavor from honey, saffron, and Muscat grapes.

Avery Brewing Co. | 7.1% ABV
Dating back 1,100 years this Viking ale pays tribute to a legendary king. According to legend, Ragnar, who carried on the family tradition of raiding and warring with factions across Europe, may have gone into battle against his own family members. This hazy, purple beer from Colorado’s Avery drinks very smoothly and features juniper berries and baker’s yeast.

Off Color Brewing | 4.0% ABV
Off Color’s chicha recipe is inspired by a site excavated by archeologists from the Field Museum in Chicago. In Southern Peru, scientists found evidence of brewing including a mill and boiling and fermenting vats. Wari, named for the culture that built the brewery, is made from Pilsner malt, honey malt, plus purple corn and molle berries from Peru.

Lucky Envelope Brewing | 10.0% ABV
A historical beer based on the findings at a 5,000-year-old site in northern China called Mijiaya. First introduced during Chinese New Year, Washington’s Lucky Envelope celebrated its second anniversary in May by re-releasing the beer. Brewed with lily flowers, yam, barley, millet, squash, and Job’s tears or coix seed, this ale has an ABV as massive as its country of origin.

Jester King Brewery | 6.6% ABV
This recipe from the past brewed by Jester King in Texas is another Viking-inspired beer made from smoked malt, juniper berries, myrica gale, rye, and Goldings hops. It’s unfiltered, unpasteurized, and naturally carbonated through re-fermentation in the bottle. The final touch is an additional fermentation with wild yeast and souring bacteria.