May 15, 2013
There are plenty of examples of structures built from recycled materials—even Buddhist temples have been made from them. In Sima Valley, California, an entire village known as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village was constructed from reused glass. But this is no new concept—back in 1960, executives at the Heineken brewery drew up a plan for a “brick that holds beer,” a rectangular beer bottle that could also be used to build homes.
Gerard Adriaan Heineken acquired the “Haystack” brewery in 1864 in Amsterdam, marking the formal beginning of the eponymous brand that is now one of the most successful international breweries. Since the first beer consignment was delivered to the United States upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it has been a top seller in the United States. The distinctive, bright green of a Heineken beer bottle can be found in more than 70 countries today. The founder’s grandson, Alfred Heineken, began his career with the company in 1942 and was later elected Chairman of the Executive Board at Heineken International. Alfred, better known as “Freddy,”oversaw the design of the classic red-starred label released in 1964. He had a good eye for marketing and design.”Had I not been a beer brewer I would have become an advertising man,” he once said. When Freddy’s beer took off in the international market, he made it a point to visit the plants the company had opened as a part of its globalization strategy.
In 1960, Freddy took a trip to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and discovered that he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on a littered Heineken bottle. He was alarmed by two things: First, the incredible amount of waste that his product was creating due to the region’s lack of infrastructure to collect the bottles for reuse. (Back then, bottles were commonly returned for refilling, lasting about 30 trips back and forth to the breweries). Second, the dearth of proper building materials available to those living in the impoverished communities he visited. So he thought up an idea that might solve both of these problems: A brick that holds beer.
The rectangular, Heineken World Bottle or WOBO, designed with the help of architect John Habraken, would serve as a drinking vessel as well as a brick once the contents were consumed. The long side of the bottle would have interlocking grooved surfaces so that the glass bricks, once laid on their side, could be stacked easily with mortar or cement. A 10-foot-by-10-foot shack would take approximately 1,000 bottles (and a lot of beer consumption) to build. Yu Ren Guang explains in Packaging Prototypes 3: Thinking Green:
“On returning to Holland [from Curacao], Alfred set about conceiving the first ever bottle designed specifically for secondary use as a building component, thereby turning the function of packaging on its head. By this philosophy, Alfred Heineken saw his beer as a useful product to fill a brick with while being shipped overseas. It became more a case of redesigning the brick than the bottle.”
A handful of designers have accepted Alfred’s WOBO as one of the first eco-conscious consumer designs out there. Martin Pawley, for example, writes in Garbage Housing, that the bottle was “the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component.”
There were many variations of the original prototype—all of which were ultimately rejected as many components were considered unworkable. For example, a usable beer bottle needs a neck from which to pour the beer and a protruding neck makes it harder to stack the product once the beer’s run out—problematic for brick laying. The finalized design came in two sizes—350 and 500 milimeters (35 and 50 centimeters)—the smaller of which acted as half-bricks to even out rows during construction. In 1963, the company made 50,000 WOBOs for commercial use.
Both designs (one of the wooden prototypes is pictured in Nigel Whiteley’s Design for Society), were ultimately rejected by the Heineken company. The first prototype for example, was described by the Heineken marketing team as too “effeminate” as the bottle lacked ‘approprate’ connotations of masculinity. A puzzling description, Cabinet writes, “considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft.”
For the second model, Habraken and Heineken had to thicken the glass because it was meant to be laid horizontally—a costly decision for an already progressive concept. The established cylindrical designs were more cost effective and could be produced faster than the proposed brick design. But what most likely worked against Habraken’s design was that customers simply liked the easy-to-hold, cylindrical bottle.
Though the brick bottles never saw the market, in 1965 a prototype glass house was built near Alfred Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, outside Amsterdam. Even the plastic shipping pallets intended for the product were reused as sheet roofing. The two buildings still stand at the company’s former brewery-turned-museum, The Heineken Experience.
Where Heineken failed in creating a reusable brick bottle, the company EM1UM succeeded. The bottles, which were easier to manufacture for most automatic bottling machines than Heineken’s design, were made to attach lengthways or sideways by pushing the knobs of one into the depressions of another. EM1UM was mostly successful in Argentina and collected awards for bottle designs including prisms, cubes and cylinders.
In 2008, French design company, Petit Romain, made plans to make its own take on Alfred Heineken’s WOBO design, the Heineken Cube. It’s similar to the original concept in that it’s stackable, packable and altogether better for travel than the usual, clinky, cylindrical bottles. The major difference is that the cube is meant to save space, not to build homes. Like Freddy’s WOBO, the Cube is still in the prototype stage.
Though Freddy’s brick design never took off, it didn’t stop Heineken International from maintaining the lead in the global brew market. By ’68, Heineken merged with its biggest competitor, Amstel. By ’75 Freddy was one of the richest men in Europe.
A fun, slightly-related fact: Alfred Heineken and his chauffeur were kidnapped in 1983 and held at a 10 million dollar ransom in a warehouse for three weeks. Lucky for Freddy, one of the kidnappers gave away their location mistakenly while calling for some Chinese takeout. According to the Guardian, after the incident, Heineken required at least two bodyguards to travel with him at all times.
Alfred played a large role in the company’s expansion, championing a series of successful acquisitions, right up until his death in 2002. While his plans for translucent, green bottle homes never came to fruition commercially, the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple, constructed from a mix of one million bottles from Heineken and the local Chang beer remains proof of the design’s artfulness. For some designers, it seems, there is no such thing as garbage.
March 13, 2013
Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day across 100 countries. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number hops to 13 million. When Arthur Guinness set up shop in Dublin back in 1759, he never would’ve guessed that his stout would become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the go-to beverage to shout to the bartender come March 17 (besides Jameson). Even Obama honored his Irish lineage with a highly-publicized Guinness at a pub in Ireland last year. But the classic brew isn’t for everyone. For the hardline vegetarians and vegans out celebrating this St. Paddy’s Day: there could be traces of fish bladder in your Guinness.
Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.
The word isinglass most likely comes from the corruption of the Dutch word huisenblas which translates directly to “sturgeon’s bladder,” but its history goes back a little further. Its archaic, Latin root, ichthyocolla, comes from the Greek words ikhthus (fish) and kolla (glue)—defining the mucous-like substance as “fish glue.”
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume IX, originally published in Edinburgh in 1797, the method of using isinglass as a clarification agent was long a secret in the hands of the Russians who were known for their exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue. The entry, which draws heavily from Humphrey Jackson’s 63rd volume of the Philosophical Transactions, cites the principal research of Pomet on the process of making isinglass:
“As to the manner of making the isinglass, the sinewy parts of the fish are boiled in water till all of them be dissolved that will disolve; then the gluey liqur is strained and set to cool. Being cold, the fat is carefully taken off, and the liquor itself boiled to a just consistency, then cut to pieces and made into a twist, bent in form of a crescent, as commonly fold: then hung upon a firing and carefully dried.”
Pomet’s experiments with the sounds of fish and its chemical properties lead him to discover the fish membrane’s ability to clarify beer. Adding an ounce and a half of “good isinglass” to a gallon of stale beer to steep for a few days, he found that the bad beer “was converted into good fining, of a remarkably thick consistence.” When he tried this with the same quantity of glue, the experiment yielded only “mucilaginous liquor, resembling diluted gum water which instead of clarifying beer, increased both its tenacity and turbidness.”
Combining the insinglass with malt liquor, he found that a “vast number of curdly masses became presently formed”, became attracted to the “feculencies of beer,” and, with the “well known laws of gravitation,” the unwanted particles combined with the isinglass and fell to the bottom of the barrel.
The process is simple: Remove the membranous parts of fresh-caught fish, scrape off the mucosity with a knife, roll, twist and dry in open air. The thicker the sounds are, the better the isinglass. The air-bladders of fresh water fish are preferred because they are more flexible and delicate. Swim bladders from sturgeon—especially that from the Beluga sturgeon which yielded the greatest quantity of sounds—were used to make isinglass until the 1795 invention of a cheap cod substitute by William Murdoch. Summer is the best time to collect, as frost interferes with the fish’s gelatinous principles. After the drying process, “good” isinglass, once held up to a light, exhibits prismatic colors.
Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. A young fermentation scholar by the name of Forbes Watson, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor, was a pioneer in the experimentation and examination of the mineral constituents of Guinness beer. Within six weeks of being hired at the brewery, Watson discovered a way to recover beer at the bottom of the vat saving Guinness 6,000 pounds a year. Very early in his career, he toyed with pasteurization and introduced new methods of breaking down isinglass finings that would increase the lifetime of the stout. In 1909, Watson was killed in an accident with a machine he had helped create at age 37. After he died, little scientific ground was broken for the company until the 1930s.
With the presence of modern gelatin, isinglass is rarely used today with the exception of British “real ale” cask beers. Generally, British beers still use isinglass, gelatin, glycerin or casein. According to a recent statement made by Guinness:
“All Guinness brands are free from animal matter and from contact with animal matter. However, isinglass, which is a by-product of the fishing industry, is used as a fining agent for settling out suspended matter in the vat. The isinglass is retained in the floor of the vat but it is possible that minute quantities might be carried over into the beer.”
For many strict vegetarians and vegans even “minute quantities” of an animal product is enough to abstain from eating a particular food. Much like the honey debate (Does it hurt the bee? Or does it not count as an animal product? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs?) flexitarians and militant vegans may disagree on how to classify the potential traces of isinglass in beer.
For those who are on the anti-isinglass side of the spectrum, carrageenan, a type of red algae, also called Irish Moss, (an appropriate title for St. Paddy’s Day) also works as a fining agent in beer, but doesn’t yield the same results as isinglass. The k-carrageenan interacts with the proteins that create cloudy beer and form the molecular equivalent of marbles in syrup at the bottom of the batch. Vegan brands like Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon use carrageenan while others like Odell Brewing Co. use centrifugation for clarification.
Strict vegetarians and vegans often choose German or Belgium brews which abide by “purity laws” (first enacted in 1516) which require that breweries use only ingredients of water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast. The ruling was officially lifted in 1987 by the European Court, but the tradition of the law remains.
So, before you step out on the town in your green get-up and order an Irish stout this St. Patrick’s Day, remember: Pescetarians, rejoice—Guinness is still “good for you“. Vegans, stick to whiskey.
January 9, 2013
Dan Koester wants to assure you, there’s nothing to fear. Despite having names such as the Worthy Adversary, Alimony Ale and Nippletop Milk Stout, craft beers aren’t as intimidating as they appear, though just try ordering a Fulton Lonely Blonde without feeling like a crusty, old sailor. But Koester, craft enthusiast and author of The Definitive Guide to Buying Craft Beer: Discover Everything You Need to Know About Buying and Enjoying Craft Beer, says craft beer is for everyone.
“I think the group in general, the people who are enjoying craft beer, is just a very laid-back group,” says Koester, who sports a respectable mustache and hails from the brew-loving land of Wisconsin. During the day, he’s conscientious, Oak Creek Dental Care Dr. Koester, but in his free time, he’s a bit of a Renaissance man, restoring old cars, biking with his family and trying any craft beer he comes across.
After sampling craft beers his son was bringing home while working at a liquor store, Koester began exploring a world previously unknown to him. Now he travels the country, most recently to Oregon, to try as many varieties as possible.
His interest coincides with a national boom in the craft industry. After a serious slump post-Prohibition, large companies were the only survivors, acquiring smaller operations so that by the end of the 1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies in the country, according to the Brewers Association. Koester says homebrewing grew in popularity in response to industry consolidation. Craft breweries blossomed from basements and garages and, as regulations began recognizing the smaller breed of brewers, craft beer gained a foothold in the market. Over at the Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida sifted through the data to figure out why craft brewing seemed to boom in certain states. Interestingly, the state comparison revealed that income played less of a role than education level (the higher the level, the more breweries abound). Florida also found some interesting corollaries:
“…craft brewing is more closely associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being (0.47).”
“Curiously, there was a negative connection between craft breweries and two other unhealthy behaviors or “sins” — smoking (-0.28) and even more so with obesity (-0.54).”
Some states have even begun trying to attract craft brewers as a way to boost local economies. And, in true trendsetting fashion, American craft brewers are now feeding demand in Europe, according to PRI’s The World, who argue that the big shift came two years ago at Munich’s Oktoberfest when a Samuel Adams beer took home gold. The victory in the heart of European beer country was compared to the famous Judgement of Paris in 1976 when two California wines bested the competition in a blind tasting.
There are now 2,126 breweries in the country, according to the Brewers Association, with 2,075 considered craft breweries, meaning they produce 6 million barrels of beer per year or fewer.
Before you get overwhelmed by the choices, Koester offers his expertise on everything from food pairings to essential questions to ask before you buy a drink.
On food pairings:
Spicy Foods: “With spicier food, Mexican food, that sort of thing, I like the Scotch Ales, they go very well with spicy food,” says Koester, singling out Samuel Adams’ version of it in particular.
Best Bets: For a gold medal-winning brew, try Oskar Blues Brewing’s Old Chub Scottish ale, which placed first in its category at the U.S. Beer Championships. The beer is “brewed with bodacious amounts of malted barley and specialty grains, and a dash of beechwood-smoked malt,” creating a flavor profile “of cocoa and coffee, and a kiss of smoke.”
Heavy Foods: ”The more bitter, hoppy beers, which I do like a lot, the IPAs and Imperial IPAs
like a Russian Imperial Stout, go really well with German food. The heavier, meatier foods seem to go well with the bitter, hoppy beers,” says Koester.
Best Bets: The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper, with a promise to put hair on your chest, took the top honors over at Beer Advocate in the Imperial IPA category. And Paste Magazine nominated Great Divide Brewing Company’s Hercules, also a double IPA, for its balanced flavor and hoppy finish.
Sweet and…Sweet: With the glut of holiday cookies upon us, Koester says you can’t go wrong pairing a similarly sweet brew with a sweet treat. “Something like an Abbey Triple or a fruitier beer, a Lambic, with something sweet goes very well,” says Koester.
Best Bets: Developed from a Belgian recipe from the 1300s, the Allagash Brewing Company makes a Coolship Resurgam that the Wall Street Journal calls, “clean and tart with an effervescent strawberry finish.”
On craft beers for wine lovers:
So maybe you remember a little too well the stale, pale flavor of college party beers past though you wish you didn’t. For whatever reason, you’re a wine-only person. To get out of your grape rut, Koester again recommends starting with something like a Lambic, known for a refreshing, bubbly profile with hints of fruit that should appeal to the wine-lover’s palate.
Best Bets: And for another great Lambic from abroad, the New York Times likes Lindemans Cuvée René as an older, aged variety “with wonderful raspberry aromas that combined with a sort of earthiness.” For a sweeter finish, the New York Times suggests, De Troch Apricot Chapeau from Noble Union Trading, saying it had a ”nut flavor almost like Turkish delight.”
On beginner brews:
“A lot of the things that will turn people on or off is how bitter is the beer,” says Koester. “I think that’s a very basic question: Do you like more of a sweet or milder beer?” Because the hoppier brews can be a bit strong for beginners, he says brown and amber ales tend to cut a middle road. “They have some bitterness, some hoppiness, but they’re also a very flavorful malty beer.”
Best Bets: Tröegs Brewing Company’s amber ale, Nugget Nectar, has the highest user-generated score of any amber ale over at Beer Advocate. Available February through March, the brew promises to “take hopheads to nirvana with a heady collection of Nugget, Warrior and Tomahawk hops.” Meanwhile, Red Brick’s version, Laughing Skull, placed first in its category at the 2011 U.S. Beer Championships with its signature zombie logo.
December 17, 2012
With Christmas tunes, ugly sweaters and tacky plastic reindeer out in full force, it seems it’s time again to blend up some rum-spiked eggnog—but today, I’m going to stoke up a different sort of holiday spirit: really strong beer. ‘Tis the season, after all. We often see a spike in the number of extra potent beers about now, the common notion being that a touch more alcohol will warm the bones on cold nights. “High-alcohol” beers, by some standards, might include 6 or 7 percent alcohol by volume holiday releases, like Deschutes Brewing’s Jubelale, Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome and Marin Brewing’s Hoppy Holidaze, and if you’re a regular sipper of light lagers, these seasonal beers are festive enough. But it’s the ludicrously potent, double-digit beers that I’m thinking of now—beers with attitude, charisma, strength, flavor, culture and, especially, spirit.
Imperial Stout. Few beers may so strongly evoke the image of dark winters, frozen European landscapes and long ship voyages as Imperial Stout. This pitch-black, super-strong sipper has become a favorite in modern American craft beer circles, but the style has a long and compelling history, too. The story takes us across oceans and continents, to the damp streets of London and even into the dens of emperors. While England made the first Imperial Stout, it was Russia that drank the stuff. Czar Peter the Great is known to historians for his productive time as Russia’s leader from 1682 until 1725. But many beer geeks only know the famed czar’s role in the invention of Imperial Stout. Peter visited England in 1698, when he was in his late 20s. Here he took a liking to the nation’s black and bitter stouts. Before returning to Russia, Peter requested that a shipload be delivered at a later date. England proudly answered the request—but with embarrassing results: the beer casks, deep in the ship’s hold, froze during transport through the frigid Baltic Sea. The water expanded and burst the barrels. The beer was ruined. (Actually, they might have discovered the trick now known as “freeze distillation” had they only the courage to taste the stout. See below.) As legend tells it, the Barclay Brewery of London came forward with a solution: Raise the alcohol level to stave off frost and try again. They custom brewed a new batch, and the effort seems to have worked. The next delivery made it to Peter in shipshape, and the bigger-boned rendition of the standard English stout swept the emperor off his feet. Deliveries became routine, and the beer is now often called Russian Imperial Stout. Though the first batch that Peter tasted may only have been about 7 percent ABV (like Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, brewed in North Yorkshire—a classic representative of the original), modern brewers have upped the numbers. North Coast Brewing Company‘s rendition runs 9 percent, Lagunitas Brewing‘s is 10, Three Floyds‘ 15 and Dogfish Head‘s a smashing 18. These are the big guys that sit well in a brandy snifter—and they fit nicely in a Christmas stocking.
Other Holiday Spirit Boosters
Samichlaus Classic Malt Liquor. Billed as “The World’s Most Extraordinary Beer,” Samichlaus Classic measures 14 percent ABV and back in the 1990s was recognized as the world’s strongest lager. The beer is brewed once per year, on December 6, and after months of aging, released about a year later. Trust me: It’s not going to be a favorite of just everyone. It barely tastes like beer, in fact. It is sweet, sticky, syrupy and raisiny, with hardly a hint of hops. Colored like brandy, it drinks about like one, too. In other words, go slow. The beer, for a piece of trivia, means Santa Claus in Zurich, the Swiss-German dialect of the Alps.
Ice Beers: No—don’t go plunking any ice cubes in your stout. Ice beers, in fact, are made through quite the opposite process: Beer is placed in a freezer, where water in the beer turns to ice, while the alcohol remains in liquid form. As clear ice floats to the surface of the beer, a stronger, condensed version of the original brew is left behind. It’s basic chemistry—and a trick brewers call freeze distillation. It’s illegal, in fact, in the United States—mostly. That is, the law’s fine print says it’s OK to use freeze distillation to add trace amounts of alcohol—a loophole that allows big breweries to make such products as Molson Ice and Bud Ice, which are only barely affected by the process. However, we have secret info from industry insiders that the technique occurs in full force at some brewpubs, where the often smooth, velvety beer may be served on tap. Customers thus unwittingly consume great beer, contraband and evidence of the crime all in one glass. The first ice beer is believed to have been made by accident in Kulmbach, Germany, in 1890, when a cask of beer was forgotten and left out on a freezing night. In the morning, the brewers tasted the beer and found the boozy liquid under the cap of ice to be strong and delicious. Sound tasty? You’re in luck, because while making ice beers is illegal in America, importing them from Europe—where freeze distillation is completely lawful—is not. Kulmbacher Eisbock and Aventinus Weizen-Eisbock are two available examples of the style.
He’Brew Jewbelation Sweet 16 from Shmaltz Brewing. What? You don’t believe a fat man in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer delivers billions of presents around the world every December 24? Yeah—it does seem sometimes like a grand parental hoax. But far from being left out in the cold this winter, you just might be enjoying the best specialty drink of all: an extreme Hanukkah ale called Jewbelation, brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company in upstate New York. The beer, released this month, commemorates the 16th anniversary of the brewery’s birth. The anniversary series began with Shmaltz’s eighth, when the beer was made with eight kinds of hops, eight malts and to 8 percent ABV. In following years, the numbers pattern was maintained—and now, Jewbelation has morphed into a 16 percent ABV giant. It’s dark brown and easy to love for anyone with a small glass and a taste for brownies, chocolate and coffee. One bottle contains 480 calories, so divvy this one between friends—and if you believe in him, don’t leave it for Santa: There’s a lot of skinny chimneys out there.
Not a beer fan? Then drink glögg. The Swedish rendition of mulled wine, glögg, or gløgg, is a keyboard nightmare—so we’re going to call it glogg. Red wine, orange peel, cloves and cardamom are the essential ingredients of this Christmastime drink, though some versions contain additions like sugar, cinnamon sticks, brandy and Port wine. My own preference is for something heavily spiced but on the drier side. Glogg can be purchased ready-made in bottles, but the drink is so easy—and, at the risk sounding cheesy, fun and festive—to make that not stewing up your own would just be silly. Try this recipe. The wine (it needn’t be expensive) is heated slowly in a cauldron with orange slices, whole cloves and cardamom powder bathing in the drink. These and other ingredients’ flavors leech into the wine, and the warm aromas fill the house. Now, before your company arrives, get the pronunciation down: That funny “o” is, in fact, pronounced like the double “o” in hook, making glogg actually more like “glug.” Which allows you, as host, to look from guest to guest to guest as you take drink orders and suggest, “Glug? Glug? Glug?” Mulled wine just isn’t the same.
Drinking Down Under? As a northerner, I’ve always been intrigued if not confused by the notion of celebrating Christmas at the peak of summer. But for many in the world, it just might be 95 in the shade this Christmas Day. For you folks, I feel I need to suggest something, but I’ll be honest: I’m clueless. Cold lemonade? Watermelon juice? Fruit smoothies? Ice water? Really: We northerners are fascinated: How do you drink in the holidays?
June 18, 2012
Soak grain in water and a seed begins to sprout. Dry out that tiny protoplant, or acrospire, roast it, and you’ve got malt—the basis for fermenting beer (and distilling whiskey too). The process can be crude; soaking can take place in a puddle, drying on the roof of a house. I wrote about the small-scale revival of the malting process, of the more modern variety, in The New York Times last week and it’s curious just how far the process predates the current garage-scale renaissance, the flourishing of regional malthouses in the 19th century, or even the English maltsters who first set up shop on American soil four hundred years ago.
The late historian Peter Damerow, of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, published an examination of 4,000-year-old cuneiform writings found near present day Turkey, including a mythic text from ancient Sumerian tablet known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” Ninkasi was the goddess of brewing. In the paper, published earlier this year, he explains that the hymn accompanied “a kind of drinking song” dedicated to a female tavern-keeper. It’s the first recipe, of sorts, for beer:
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles dough (and) … with a big shovel,
Mixing, in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics.
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grain.
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the earth-covered malt (“munu”),
The noble dogs guard (it even) from the potentates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt (“sun”) in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash (“ti-tab”) on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes …
Ninkasi, you are the one who holds with both hands the great sweetwort (“dida”),
Brewing (it) with honey (and) wine.
[You ...] the sweetwort (“dida”) to the vessel.
The fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on (top of) a large collector vat (“laÌtan”).
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is (like) the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
As archeologist Patrick McGovern has written in Uncorking the Past, the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent led to the emergence of a forebear to modern beer some 6,000 year ago, providing a possible motive for a decisive step in the development of human culture and the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Beer may have come before bread. Still, these cuniform tablets are notoriously difficult to translate and leave only a rough outline of the process—so, despite the best efforts to replicate the Tigris-like rush of ancient Sumerian beer today, unanswerable questions about the beer’s exact composition remain. When, for example, did they interrupt the germination of the “earth-covered” malt, a crucial step enabling a grain to undergo alcoholic fermentation?
Damerow suggests there’s reason to doubt whether these brews even proved to be much of an intoxicant 4,000 years ago: “Given our limited knowledge about the Sumerian brewing processes, we cannot say for sure whether their end product even contained alcohol.” Then again, would we really have kept the ancient process alive for so long if it just gave us better nutrition and didn’t also make us feel good?
Image: Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102/Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, 2012