Researchers excavating a burial plot from the Iron age in Germany, dating back to between 400 and 450 BCE, unearthed a cauldron containing remnants of an alcoholic beverage that had been brewed and then buried with the deceased. So archaeologist and anthropologist Bettina Arnold from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) decided to partner with the Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee to re-create the 2,500-year-old brew, using a recipe that was created using evidence collected from the site.
“We actually were able, ultimately, to derive at least some sense of what the contents were in a bronze cauldron,” Arnold told NPR.
When the cauldron was discovered it actually contained approximately 14 liters of reasonably high-quality liquid. The contents were taken to a paleobotanist for analysis to determine the ingredients, which is how the recipe was recreated. The ingredients included a bitter preservation agent called Meadowsweet, which is similar to hops.
Lakefront Brewery cellarmaster Chad Sheridan explained to NPR that the alcoholic mixture appears to be a braggot, a beverage which uses a blend of honey and barley as the sugar ingredients needed to create the brew. Sheridan was asked to join the project due to his background home brewing braggots and meads. Other than yeast, the beverage consists of only four ingredients: honey, barley, meadowsweet and mint. The brewing process took seven hours, and then it was left to ferment for two weeks.
The result is described as being similar to a dry port, with a minty tinge and an alcoholic kick.
Arnold told NPR that it’s remarkable the recipe could be recreated, adding: “Luckily for us, they didn’t just send people off to the afterlife with [swords and spears] — they also sent them off with the actual beverage. It’s a BYOB afterlife, you know? You have to be able to sort of throw a party when you get there.”
Alcohol has had a vital role in cultures all around the world for thousands of years. In the Iron Age, like today, alcohol was used socially and it also marked special events such as weddings, inaugurations, and, in this case, burials.
“Alcohol’s a really important part of ritual. It helps us kind of pay attention to a specific moment in time,” Joshua Driscoll, from UWM, who specializes in the archeology and history of fermented beverages, told NPR, adding: “So if you take the example of a toast — everyone raises their glasses, they drink a little bit of the alcoholic beverage and it makes everyone pay attention to that specific moment, which helps them remember it in the future,”.
This re-created brew may be just the first of many such attempts. UWM’s College of Letters and Science is currently developing a program on the science and culture of fermentation, which will hopefully include a course where different beverages will be brewed using archaeological evidence.
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