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Sumerian beer dinner dishes up a taste of ancient history

Northeast Ohio beer lovers recently had an opportunity to participate in an interactive event that will go down in history.

For the past year, Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s brewers and archaeologists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have painstakingly attempted to create an authentic version of ancient Sumerian ale. The Sumerian beer made its debut on Aug. 14 in the brewery’s Tasting Room. Great Lakes Brewing Co. (GLBC) co-owner and Sumerian beer collaborator Pat Conway noted that tickets to the event “sold out in a New York minute.”

The tasting started with a family-style Sumerian feast, prepared by the brewpub’s chefs using ancient recipes. Only ingredients that would have been available to the people of Southern Mesopotamia were used. According to Conway, barley would have been readily available. Flat bread was a staple of every meal. The people subsisted largely on cured meats and dried fruits along with white cheese, probably made with goat milk. Over time through archaeological digs, about 20 recipes for food have been salvaged from Mesopotamia.

Dinner started with platters of dried dates and apples, goat cheese, double-smoked bacon and cottage ham. Duck leg confit with fig and honey reduction was served with barley porridge, honey-roasted fennel, chives and leeks. Turnips were stewed in beef blood with arugula and garlic. Flatbread made with duck fat, leeks, onions and barley flour was provided by Zoss the Swiss Baker. Dessert was a dish called mersu, fashioned from ground dates and pistachios.

Tate Paulette, with the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, served up a little history to accompany the meal. He explained that Sumerian was the language of the people of Southern Mesopotamia, which was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where Syria, Iraq and Iran now converge. In 3200 B.C., the area would have been irrigated, farmed landscape. At that time, hierarchy began to emerge and cities grew up around palaces and temples, and writing and simple mathematics were introduced.

Paulette said economic records from breweries maintained by these ancient palaces were the closest they could get to determine the actual ingredients that went into the first beer recipe. He noted that, since porridge was a diet staple at that time, the Sumerian people could easily have stumbled across beer, since it is in its simplest form a porridge that is fermented. GLBC brewers developed a version of the liquid referenced in the earliest known beer recipe: the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” which was carved into clay tablets by the Sumerians in 1800 B.C.

GLBC brewer Luke Purcell and Michael Williams talked about the brewing process, completed with rudimentary tools like ceramic pottery and wooden sticks. They introduced three versions of the beer. The ancient recipe, served from the custom ceramic vessel in which it was brewed, had a vinegary aroma, very tart taste and was milky in appearance. A second, less sour version was tempered by the addition of date syrup. A third, “modern” version of the recipe brewed in the brewpub’s stainless steel brewhouse, looked and tasted similar to a light beer. (Today’s beers are brewed with hops, unavailable to ancient brewers.)

Paulette said that beer was the beverage of choice in the ancient Sumerian culture, produced on a massive scale across a broad social spectrum. No matter how much the world has changed since then, a good beer is still prized.

 

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