Myths of the recent future

Throughout history, brewers have used the latest technology and most sophisticated processes at their disposal to make beer that satisfied and intoxicated as happily and deliciously as possible.


Last year, I brewed a recreation of a Victorian IPA with Manchester-based brewery Beer Nouveau. Beer Nouveau focuses on historic beer styles, and when I’d accidently inspired owner and brewer Steve Dunkley with an IPA crossover idea, the temptation to make it happen was real. The crossover was this: we wanted to create a truly Victorian IPA, something thick and nourishing that would have been drunk by the gallon by thirsty Victorian weightlifters, with a modern twist. Not content with the idea of bunging some modern-age hops in at the end, we wanted to splice a traditional, heritage IPA recipe with a punchy modern edge. And we wanted it to be murk bomb to live up to its name: Victorian Protein Shake.

“A lot of heritage brewing is finding original recipes and then working out why they were like that,” Steve assured me when we started out on our adventure. “A lot of modern brewing is brewing to taste and marketing. So we’ll combine the two.”

Steve spent a month or more researching relevant recipes that would give us the flavours and aromas we wanted, and when I showed up on brew day, we had a perfect early-1800s beer to craft.

Except it wasn’t, because we used several ingredients a Victorian would have never been able to source, and used equipment they’d never have used, and added twists that weren’t in the script…

…. But how do we know that’s not what people tasted in those days?

You’ve heard the story; we all have. The creaking barrels of the English IPAs of yore were packed with dry hops as an aromatic preservative. By the time they arrived ashore in exotic lands, they’d mellowed and become balanced, and were enjoyed as a far subtler drink than their recipes would suggest.

Except that’s not all, is it? Because ingredients were treated and stored ever so slightly different then. Brewery hygiene hasn’t always been as stringent as it is now. Maybe the hops were used for flavour as well as storage. That’s why for brewers like Steve, for a beer to be authentically “old”, every single aspect of the process must be looked at with a critical eye. A little creativity needs to be worked into the mash too – for Victorian Protein Shake, we added brettanomyces yeast to add dryness and a little funkiness to the beer’s character. We justified this by noting the presence of wild yeasts inside wooden beer barrels that would have been used in the 1800s.

And that’s the thing about brewing historic beers. You can follow the recipes you’ve found but at some point you will have to make an estimate on which modern day ingredients you’ll substitute for extinct or rare varieties, and use your better judgement to decide whether being faithful is your goal, or whether you’re just in it to make an interesting, delicious beer. We were kinda doing both.

I’m excited by the idea of bringing history back to life. Drinking a historic brew – whether it’s a wine or mead, a gruit or a heritage ale – I feel like I’m stepping over some sort of mystical line between now and then. Drinking heritage beer is not so much time travelling as time-subverting. Screw you, time. I’m not limited to your puny linear form!

That’s why seeing a story about a beer made from yeasts found in beer bottles dredged from a 133 year old shipwreck off Fire Island caught my eye. Saint James Brewery in New York worked with the State University of New York on the project, and the pale ale they produced was popped open earlier this year. I wanted to grab Steve Dunkley’s take on how using an old yeast might affect a brew, and whether I was getting excited for nothing. He told me:

“The idea certainly is exciting. The problem with most of these recreations though, is that the people researching them don't usually understand them.”

“I've found the differences between a lot of the ale yeasts to be so minimal that you can hardly notice unless you're looking for it. There are far more differences in how they behave during brewing.”

“To be honest, an American brewer recreating an English style with a rescued yeast is far more likely to get things such as malt or kilning wrong, than the difference a yeast would make to the end taste.”

“Plus, that beer will most likely have been secondary fermented with an additional strain such as Brett.”

There’s that Brettanomyces cropping up again. While we often think of funky, bretted beers as something presented to us through the Craft Beer Revolution, that dry, farmyard flavour has been enhancing beers since forever ago. It often used to become part of a style simply because there was no way of getting rid of it once it took hold.

Brewing an English IPA means having at least some idea of what it might taste like to compare your brew to. But what if you’re brewing beer that’s so old you can’t really imagine what it might have tasted like? Susan Boyle, a beer writer and researcher from Kildare, Ireland, who also brews a mean beer with her sister Judith, is fascinated with the history of beer, and how human tastes have evolved to enjoy bitterness and derive pleasure from eating and drinking delicious things. Speaking to her always culminates in extreme hunger and thirst. Susan’s research has led her to work on a highly exciting brewing project with the British Museum, where she and brewer Michaela Charles, food historian Tasha Marks, and a group of eager archaeologists and Egyptologists devised a truly ancient beer. Now this I gotta try.

“The thing with historic brewing,” she explained, “is that you have to make the most accurate guess most of the time. Initially we were developing a recipe from archaeologists’ views, and they hadn’t come at it from a brewer’s perspective. What we thought we knew to begin with was that ancient Egyptian beer must have been thick like porridge, with floaty bits in, and it would have been a little bit sour. Mmmm, delicious!”

“What the archaeologists didn’t know is that they were looking at leftovers.”

Susan and her fellow team of intrepid flavour adventurers took another look at the records left by those ancient brewers and started making judgements based on what a brewer would do, and it led to some interesting results.

“If one thing’s true of the human race, it’s this,” she said. “We find a path of least resistance and use the easy way. Brewing beer is a lot of effort to go to to end up with something manky. Essentially, we didn’t believe that the Egyptians would have wanted to drink something that wasn’t delicious.”

“We don’t know what it might have tasted like, but we know they drank a lot of it. It had a value that was worth labour – people were paid in beer, we know this from hieroglyphs and papyrus – and there were serious penalties for not brewing right. If you made bad beer, you could be drowned in it.”

“The fact that there are so many written records about beer is, in itself, evidence that it was important to them.”

So, the team didn’t have a clue what the beer might have tasted like, but they were willing to bet that it wasn’t going to be gross. They started to develop their beer from scratch, and Susan explained the detail they went to, to ensure they were working as closely as possible to the original records.

“We had a terracotta pot thrown at the same temperature as the ones you can see in the British Museum. Because of the way it was made, it couldn’t be heated too high as it would crack.”

The team incorporated a step-mash technique into the brewing process, meaning that the liquor was never heated above 62 degrees celsius. The team also decided to add dates and dukkah – a spice mix including rose petals, sesame, cumin, corriander and pistachios – inspired by the ingredients used in Egyptian embalming to make a royal brew.

This all sounds great Susan, but what did it taste like?

“It was genuinely delicious!” she said, excitedly. “Crisp and refreshing.”

Is it exactly what they’d have tasted? Of course there’s no way to know that for sure, and the recipe the British Museum team developed was definitely a lot fancier than your average Egyptian stonemason’s brew. But there was something excitingly realistic about the Ancient Egyptian beer that they found.

“When it came to drinking the beer, the terracotta pot kept the beer inside 10 degrees celsius cooler than the ambient temperature,” said Susan. “This proves the Ancient Egyptians would have been drinking cold beer!”

So whether you’re tasting the flavours of the past or not, every time you enjoy a cold beer, you now know that you’re sharing that simple pleasure with millions of drinkers throughout history.

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