Drink Like a Sumerian

We sample the world's oldest beer

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By David Hammond

This past summer, Oak Park was the scene of two major beer events, one hosted by Green Home Experts, and the other by the Micro Brew & Food Review.

Funny to think that the first drinkers of beer were probably many thousands of miles away from our Village, in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley, in Sumer, what was later called Mesopotamia, then Babylon, Persia and in the modern age, Iraq. Beer seems to have begun in Sumer.

I've written about Sumerian beer before. I even did an NPR piece about it in 2008.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is home to some of most amazing artifacts from ancient Sumerian sites, including a good quantity of beer-making gear and pictures.

Using what information has come down to us about Sumerian beer making, archaeologists from the University of Chicago teamed up with Great Lakes Brewing Company and Glunz Beers to replicate ancient these ancient techniques for brewing beer. Then they held an event to celebrate the brews at Fountainhead on the north side of Chicago.

To complement the beers, Cleetus Friedman, chef at Fountainhead, did some research and came up with a menu that, for the most part, used ingredients that would have been available to ancient Sumerian chefs.

It was a fantastic eating, drinking and learning experience.

For dinner, Friedman prepared barley cakes with duck (yes, duck was available to Sumerians; remember, Sumer was on two rivers), as well as a salad with cucumbers (yes, cucumbers were available, too) and a desert with date sauce, which also made its way into the beer.

What Sumerian brewmeisters did not have was hops, the bittering agent originally added to preserve beer and that is now so much a part of the beer-drinking experience. The additives to Sumerian beer seem to have been, usually, fruits such as dates and honey.

Sumerian beer, like the beers of present day Belgium, sometimes relied upon "wild fermentation," which means the solution of boiled grain was exposed to the air to rely upon random yeasts floating about in the atmosphere. This fermentation is wild in that the yeasts are wild, but it's also wild in that the fermentation process is sometimes somewhat uncontrolled: the stuff sometimes just keeps on fermenting, which means the resulting beer can be somewhat sour…but in a good way.

 The Great Lakes folks served up three Sumerian beers:

 * Beer with wild fermentation that actually used ancient clay casks to hold the brew duing fermentation

* Beer with wild fermentation in clay casks with date syrup added for sweetness

* Beer using the same basic production techniques as the first two but with fermentation in modern stainless steel vats

The first selection – the wild fermentation without date syrup – was the clear favorite among the beer-drinking amateur Sumerologists assembled at Fountainhead, and it followed what was probably the oldest recipe. It was way different than the other selections– much murkier, thicker and sour – than any other beer served at the place. It was probably just that distinctiveness that made it such a favorite.

I have to believe that the beer makers of ancient Sumer, who were making the beverage several millennia before Christ, would be pleased to know that their humble brew stood out among others that night at Fountainhead, and that after thousands of years of beer making, such an elemental brew will still be a favorite in the twenty-first century.







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joe from south oak park   

Posted: September 2nd, 2013 8:50 PM

that is pretty darn cool.

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