Feat of clay

Katie Mather gets her Greek on


A popular quote in the beer world is: “There’s nothing new in brewing”. You’d think that’d stifle those hardworking inventors, but no. This is what creates innovation and drives the industry forward. Taking this dryly cynical phrase literally, it makes sense that much of the most sought-after beers being created at the moment take inspiration from the distant past as well as the future.

This is great news for brewers. It means they get to play around with unusual equipment inspired by brewers of the past in the name of beer invention. One of the greatest things about brewing is acquiring new equipment. It’s the way of the brewer. Always tinkering. Always collecting.

To the average drinker even just a few years ago, the weird and wonderful tech behind the making of a delicious beer might have seemed inconsequential, but more than ever before, we’re getting nerdy about how beer is made. That’s why we’re now more accustomed to finding special mentions on can and bottle labels saluting the coolship or Pedro Ximenez barrels that helped make the beer inside a reality.

One special guest you may have seen mentioned by some breweries, including Yonder, Mikkeller, Harbour, Beavertown and Cantillon is the “amphora.” But what on earth is one of those? A clay vase with a stopper in, right? A vase from the olden, olden, olden days used to make wine? What does that do? And why are brewers interested in them?

Ancient amphorae

In the times when cats were revered as gods and the Aegean sea was riddled with the thrashing limbs of banished monsters, the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Roman Empire (not in that order) used amphorae to transport their wine. They were terracotta vessels with pointed or deeply-domed bottoms, with slim necks that could be stoppered, and handles so they were portable. (Amphora comes from the Greek amphi - on both sides, and phero - carry). They’re so useful that they haven’t really changed for thousands of years.

For the Ancient Egyptians, amphora vessels were convenient methods of storage that just happened to look cool. Think of them like very, very, very old Kilner jars. Unlike similar “qvevri”, used in Georgia as an essential part of a complex skin-contact wine-making process for more than 1000 years, amphora have generally always been used to store liquids. This is the main difference between the two — qvevri don’t have handles. You ain’t supposed to move them.

Susasn Boyle, a beer writer and researcher who’s worked with the British Museum among many other institutions, says as well as being good at storing things, amphorae have a unique temperature-controlling effect, which would have been exceptionally useful in ancient times.

“The type of clay used to make amphora pots is quite porous,” she explains, “giving the liquid inside a chance to breathe, and this wicking enables a cooling effect of up to two degrees.”

“When I was working on an ancient beer-brewing project with the British Museum, we found that the beer inside our specially-made amphora was at least two degrees celsius cooler that the outside air temperature!”

“Even the Greeks and Romans had false pretensions when they used them"

It’s not all Greek

So why the name? Were amphorae the inspired invention of the mysterious and classy ancient Greeks? Dr. Marchella Ward, an archivist for Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics says this is a common misconception.

“It’s funny to me that people think of these things as “Greek”,” she says. “Sure, if you want a mythical history, it gives them some kind of special mythical value. But very similar things were just as common in ancient China, ancient North Africa and many more places all over the ancient world. They’re not that special. They’re just old!”

Don’t worry if you were drawn in by the marketing though. So were the ancients.

“Even the Greeks and Romans had false pretensions when they used them!” Dr. Ward says. “There’s one that was found with the inscription ‘I am a prize from the goddess Athena’ as if Athena herself had inscribed the pot!”

What does terracotta taste like?

Amphora aren’t just storage jars anymore. Beer makers are starting to wonder whether there’s something special about fermenting in terracotta.

In an article for SevenFifty Daily, Peter Weltman lays out why amphorae may be more than just a pretty jug.

“Beyond the romanticism involved in borrowing ancient techniques,” he says, “Terra-cotta pots offer unique interactive properties with wine—they pull out acidity, allow oxygen exchange, and provide superior insulation, among other benefits—that are different from those of stainless steel, wood barrels, or concrete.”

They impart different flavours depending on their linings too. Many of the amphorae found around the world are treated with resin or beeswax to inhibit wicking, change the aroma of their contents.

“There is a microcosm of microbes in the pores of the clay,” says Susan Boyle. “And there’s a definite terracotta flavour profile compared to stainless steel.”

Someone who knows very well what a terracotta amphora can do for their beer is Jonathan Hamilton, former leader of Beavertown’s Tempus Project. In 2017, two amphorae were delivered to the brewery and soon he was working on the project’s first amphora-aged beer.

“It started off as a joke,” Jonathan says. “Brewers like Birra del Borgo near Milan have been using amphorae inspired by natural wine makers who are doing the same, and I started looking up how to get hold of them. I found a company called Terra Nova in Italy who manufacture them — and they weren’t that crazy expensive.”

“We chose to have them lined with beeswax because the general consensus is that using unlined amphora means they are much more intensely flavoured. In October 2017, they arrived.”

The Tempus Project’s first brew committed to amphora was for the 2017 Rainbow Project, a collaboration with Jester King. A mixed-ferm Sour Red ale made with ancient Teff grains, aged hops, it was aged on Pinot Noir grape skins in red wine barrels before it headed to the Terracotta Amphora for 8 months.

After this, Entomb followed; a lacto-soured gose-style beer with spelt, which thanks to three months in the amphora had a unique mineral quality.

“That was super interesting,” says Jonathan. “It came out really clear because it had essentially been lagered for months, and it had a big honey character from the beeswax. The second batch we aged for a lot longer, increased the acidity and left it for about 10-12 months in the amphora. That was pretty intense, we started getting a sea-salty, minerally-kinda vibe”

Practically purposeful

One of the main questions around amphora is whether they actually have much to offer a brewer. Do the benefits they bring to a brewery outweigh the difficulties of working with a vessel you can’t easily clean, or move or store without a lot of faffing around?

We’ve already talked about flavour, and that’s what many brewers are keen to experiment with. An amphora might not give your session pale much of an oomph, but if you’re in the habit of creating stranger styles — mixed fermentation perhaps, or even crossovers with cider or wine lees — the subtle effects of the porous clay can enhance and bring another level of complexity.

There are other plusses too. Darren Smith for Imbibe magazine talks about a naturally-occurring convection current formed by Co2 being forced around the vessel’s unique shape. This kinetic quality means no battonage (stirring, basically) is necessary. Nice of the beer to do some of the work for you.

Despite all this, it does seem that brewers are talking about amphorae much more than actually using them. So is it a passing trend? Jonathan says he’d like to see more people trying them for themselves.

“The interest in natural wine in brewers, and the fact we learn things from each other — you’re gonna get people experimenting with amphorae. The beers I’ve tried made this way have been really great, I hope it’s not just a gimmick.”

Share this article