It's one thing to appreciate a 20-year-old fine wine. It is something else to brew up a 2,500-year-old alcoholic beverage.
While sifting through the remains of an Iron Age burial plot dating from 400 to 450 B.C. in what is today Germany, Bettina Arnold, an archaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and others uncovered a cauldron that contained remnants of an alcohol brewed and buried with the deceased.
"We actually were able, ultimately, to derive at least some sense of what the contents were in a bronze cauldron," says Arnold.
So she decided to team up with Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewery to re-create the ancient brew, using a recipe inspired by evidence collected from the archaeological remains.
Arnold says the cauldron actually contained about 14 liters of fairly high-quality liquid. A paleobotanist then analyzed the contents and shared a basic idea of the recipe. "The honey, which is definitely present ... and then as a bittering and preservative agent — not hops ... but meadowsweet," Arnold explains. Mint was also uncovered in the brew.
The alcohol in the vessel is believed to be a braggot. As Chad Sheridan, a cellarmaster at Lakefront Brewery, explains, "a braggot is a blend of barley and honey as the two sugar ingredients to create the beverage."
Sheridan was pulled into the project because of his background in home brewing meads and braggots. Besides yeast, the brew really only contains four ingredients: barley, honey, mint and meadowsweet. It took seven hours to make the brew and another two weeks to let it ferment.
I got to sip the final product. The result was smooth and pleasant — almost like a dry port, but with a minty, herbal tinge to it. It also packed an alcoholic kick.
Alas, you won't find this ancient recipe on beer store shelves any time soon. While it's certainly drinkable and "very cool to taste ... I don't think people would be interested in purchasing it to drink," says Lakefront Brewery's Chris Ranson.
"But it sure was a fun experiment," Ranson adds.
Arnold says it's actually quite fortuitous that they were able to re-create this recipe. "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."
For thousands of years, alcohol has played a vital role in cultures around the world. During the Iron Age, as it is today, alcohol was used as a social lubricant and it was also used to mark special events, like inaugurations, weddings 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," says Joshua Driscoll. He's an anthropology Ph.D. student at UWM specializing in the history and archaeology of fermented beverages.
"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," Driscoll says.
This re-created brew is hopefully the first attempt of many, Arnold says. UWM's College of Letters and Science is developing a program on the culture and science of fermentation. Eventually, she says, she will be developing a course where they will brew up different beverages based upon archaeological evidence.
This story first aired on Lake Effect, a program on member station WUWM in Milwaukee.