When Modern Brewing Meets Ancient Ales, Strange Things Happen

Feb 28, 2019

The closest that Travis Rupp came to getting fired, he says, was the time he tried to make chicha. The recipe for the Peruvian corn-based beer, cobbled together from bits of pre-Incan archaeological evidence, called for chewed corn partially fermented in spit. So, Rupp’s first task had been to convince his colleagues to gather round a bucket and offer up their chompers for the cause.

Once he got to brewing, the corn-quinoa-spit mixture gelatinized in a stainless steel tank, creating a dense blob equivalent in volume and texture to about seven bathtubs of polenta. In another go, Rupp managed to avoid the brew’s gelatinous fate, but encountered a new problem when it came time to drain the tank.

“It literally turned into cement in the pipes because the corn was so finely ground,” says Rupp. “People were a little cranky.”

These are the kinds of sticky situations that come with trying to bring ancient flavors into modern times.

A self-proclaimed beer archaeologist, Rupp has traveled the world in search of clues to how ancient civilizations made and consumed beer. With Avery Brewing Company, he’s concocted eight of them in a series called Ales of Antiquity.

“The one thing that we've been really quite surprised by is not a single one of them is undrinkable,” he says. “Every one of them has gotten done and we're like, ‘That is so weird. That is just so cool.’”

There’s the Viking-inspired beer based on information gleaned from sagas and the debris of ancient shipwrecks. It’s made with juniper branches and baker’s yeast, which gives it a slight but surprising whiff of banana. (Rupp regrets that he had to ferment it in regular brewing equipment rather than a more historically accurate trough made from a freshly cut and hollowed out juniper tree).

There’s Beersheba, a beer based on references and artifacts primarily from Israel. It involves three types of grain and pomegranate juice, in the style of King Zimri-Lim, who, Rupp read, was known to send slaves into the mountains to get snow for his icehouse so that his beer could be served cold. It’s one of Rupp’s personal favorites, despite smelling a little like baby spit-up and tasting like a funky fruit roll-up.

For an Egyptian beer, Rupp drew on artifacts like this model brewery found in a hidden chamber of the tomb of Meketre, dating to about 2,000 B.C.E.
Credit Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

A beer called ‘Benedictus’ came about when Rupp teamed up with a couple of Italian monks to recreate a monastic recipe calling for wormwood and lavender and dating to 825 C.E. It smells like a spicy men’s shampoo and feels like drinking an herb garden. The Peruvian chicha, on the other hand is a sour, summery fare.

The brewery just released its latest, a porter meant to show what George Washington would have been cracking open at Mount Vernon in his retirement years.

Rupp is the first to admit that perfectly resurrecting old brews is an impossible task.

“I can't recreate what was on the individual's clothes the day that they were producing that beer that could have fallen into it. I can't recreate the yeast that’s in the air, the yeast that’s in some guy's beard as he's, you know, working over a brewing vat or something like that. I'll never be able to do that,” says Rupp. “But I can get as close as I can. I will do my damndest to get as close as I can.”

Rupp is now gearing up to tackle a controversial question among brewers: What did the original India Pale Ale really taste like? He’s also planning trips to investigate the brewing traditions of Kazakhstan and Uruguay, and exploring whether it might be possible to resurrect a beer that sunk aboard a Swedish ship almost 400 years ago.

Some day, just for fun and if technology would allow it, he’d love to resurrect ancient yeast from Antarctic ice cores and brew something with it.

“It’d be awesome to do,” he says. “You know, to try to see what Saccharomyces strains were there.”

Travis Rupp brews at Colonial Williamsburg as part of his research on a historic beer.
Credit Courtesy of Travis Rupp

All of this started in 2010, when Rupp finished graduate school in classical history and started lecturing part-time at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Of course, that's not going to cut it paying the bills, so I was looking for other work,” he says. Eventually, he wound up as a bartender at Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado, where he now oversees research and development and the wood barrel aging program, all the while continuing to teach classes at the University of Colorado Boulder on topics like Pompeii and ancient sports.

Through his escapades into beer history, Rupp has come to conclude that we have beer history all wrong. First off, he says, “There's a perception that ancient or historic beers were just undrinkable and crap and thick and just bleh.”

But Rupp maintains that the ancients wouldn’t settle for “mundane gruel” any more than we would.

“We know the Egyptians didn't do that. They actually record putting fruits and things into their beer to sweeten it and to literally varietize the beer,” he says. And the Romans were quick to trash Egyptian brews.

“They really stomp all over Egyptian beer. It was the cheap stuff that if you couldn't afford anything else, that's what you drank,” says Rupp. “This idea of literally value-izing beer based on quality? They were doing that!”

Then, there’s another assumption: that if a culture’s records and art don’t frequently and obviously reference beer, then they probably didn’t make or drink it.

But, Rupp asks, “How many books have you read on milk? Do you know the history of the paperclip? No.”

In some seemingly beer-less societies, he says, it’s possible the drink was so common it didn’t seem worth writing about. Or at least, didn’t seem worth writing about to the high-falutin’ sliver of the population that could actually write.

The latest Ale of Antiquity, inspired by George Washington's preference for porters. Rupp says one historic account mentioned the president "drank porter and three glasses of wine and became quite boisterous by the end of the dinner."
Credit Courtesy of Travis Rupp

The ancient Greeks, for example, aren’t widely considered to have been beer drinkers because it doesn’t come up in their written records — not the way wine and olives do.

Scholars studying ancient Greece concluded, Rupp says, “that they didn't necessarily know what it was because they talk about it in a very strange way or that it was relegated to ‘the barbarians.’”

But after a two-year scavenger hunt through records and across archaeological sites, Rupp has come to believe that the Greeks were, indeed, brewers — at least during the Bronze Age. For example, decades-old excavation reports written by archaeologists working at the prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri mention vases containing “imperfectly ground flour,” including bits of seed husks.

“Yet they were finding it right next to vases that had perfectly ground flower,” says Rupp. “Well, I know what that is because I work with it every day and that’s spent grain.”

Combined with recent finds, it stands to reason then that the ancient Greeks might have been downing beer just like the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Scandinavians, Romans and Babylonians.

And how about us? A thousand years from now, if beer archaeologists look back on our time, what beer might they assume current Americans loved the most?

“The craft beer industry is such a small blip on the historical radar right now,” says Rupp. “They're going to look at those most regularly and largely produced and it's going to be lagers, would be my guess.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.