hist-brewing: ancient brewing

kent hillard kgarryh at yahoo.com
Mon Feb 15 12:51:08 PST 2010

Even the relatively high-tech cultures of Mesopotamia could have problems with bad beer, as an Old Babylonian (ca. 1750 BC) letter indicates: "He told me,'I'll send you a woman who makes good beer,' and so he sent her and she brewed me beer that was sour as billu beer." So they their woes with Pediococcus (?) infection and the like. 

My sister has spent time in the mountains of Nepal, and they brew a beer called chang there. Its ingredients vary, but millet is commonly used, which is cooked into a mush, using a minimal amount of water, and then cooled. With the mixture still slightly warm, a yeast source is mixed into the mash. This yeast source contains a mixture of yeasts (Hansenula spp., Saccharomyces spp., say) and other fungi such as Aspergillus, as well as ginger root. It is made into cakes, called marcha in Nepal. These cakes give the brew a bit of flavoring (from the ginger) and provide both a yeast source to carry out fermentation and a source of enzymes (from Aspergillus) to break down starches into simpler sugars that the yeast can handle. The brewing conditions she observed in Dalphu village were not exactly sanitary, but the finished product was not too bad (as she descibes):

"Karma Lama's mother sat before a stack of silver-lined wooden bowls, wiping the inside of each one with a rag so blacked with use that I dared not look too closely. Then she filled and passed a bowl to each of us, and with a nod and a toothy grin signified that we should take a drink. Rod stoically avoided looking into the murky chang, tipped it up, and sipped. His bowl was immediately refilled. This was the chang ceremony, the welcoming touch of hospitality extended to all visitors....one never refuses what is offered, no matter how many little black things may be floating in it, or how strange it may look or smell. Actually, the taste of chang can be quite nice, a little like yogurt with a punch."

Darla and Rodney have consumed a lot of chang over the years, and I never recall hearing from either about a really awful, spoiled batch, but I'll inquire next time I talk or write, out of curiosity. 

I imagine to Neolithic peoples of the Isles a good brewer was considered an important member of the community. No doubt then, as now, there were individuals who simply had it down better than others. And even the best of them must have produced a bad batch now and then.


--- On Mon, 2/15/10, John P. Looney <valen at tuatha.org>

From: John P. Looney <valen at tuatha.org>
Subject: Re: hist-brewing: ancient brewing
To: merryn at dineley.com
Cc: hist-brewing at pbm.com
Date: Monday, February 15, 2010, 11:51 AM

Bah. That last message sent prematurely.

I was trying to explain how hard it is to heat water to the right
temperature. Once hot, how do you keep it there? Assuming 5000BCE tech, you
don't have much option other than a ground pit that is waterproofed with
well fitted stone. The loss of heat must have been considerable.

Not to mention the vagaries of wild yeasts, sterilization of fermentation
vessels etc.

So a question from the more professional brewers...care to guess how often a
brew would go bad? I can't help thinking "most of the time"!


On 12 Feb 2010 10:42, "Merryn
 Dineley" <merryn at dineley.com> wrote:

hello there,

Thought I would pass on this to the list, web page of my research:-

> http://independent.academia.edu/MerrynDineley

My publications have been in obscure conference proceedings, but I shall
now put it all on the web. I have been investigating ancient malting &
brewing for some time now - I am told by eminent archaeology professors
that this is controversial research, that it is somehow wrong and that
there is no evidence for malting or brewing in prehistory.

I think this is because few people today understand the malting,
mashing, fermentation process. So, what do you brewers think?

I reckon malting goes back to the earliest agriculturalists, ten
thousand years ago in the ancient near east, maybe five or six
 ago in the UK. Once you can make the wort/malt sugars, the beer
bit is easy!

If you have time, have a look at my site. I am happy to receive
criticism/comments via the list or off list.

very best wishes
Merryn Dineley.
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