While Covid has put a damper on some of our plans for 2020, we are still brewing delicious ancient-inspired ales. Read our blog posts below for details about our current shenanigans in the world of beer archaeology.

A few dozen threads of saffron for a batch of Midas Touché, plus an extra pinch for luck. Photograph by Melissa Renwick (2019)

Beer-Soaked Cherries, Women Brewers, and the Flavor Profile of Birch Bark

October 23, 2020

I know you are not supposed to pick favorites, just like you are not supposed to pick a favorite child (my husband and I only have one… and he is our favorite), but this beer…  It might just be my favorite.

Our fourth batch of Odin’s Eye, or Viking-era grog, is tucked into its fermenter.

The first time we brewed our Viking-inspired ancient ale ended with me, Melissa and Dave heads down in the brew kettle eating the still-scalding, beer-soaked cherries from the rinsed mash.  Dave had taken the kettle outside for cleaning, and we were curious about what this crazy combination of birch bark and dried fruit would taste like.  For scientific purposes we all sampled some of the rehydrated fruit… and then stayed there for a good 15 minutes nibbling on hot cherries until we could not stand being head first in the kettle any longer.

Birch bar and a variety of dried forest fruits and herbs add to the flavor profile of our Viking-era ancient ale, Odin’s Eye.

This was our second beer for the series, and we were struggling coming up with a name for it.  Luckily for us, we have Rachel Paul, Dave’s wife and Librarian-extraordinaire.  She came up with the name “Odin’s Eye,” referring to a story from Viking deep time in which Odin, on a quest to gain vast spiritual knowledge, was required to sacrifice an eye in order to gain this wisdom.  I’ve always liked this name for our beer, as the Raise Your Glass to the Past project is based on putting faces onto the past through recreating ancient beers.  We want people to engage with the past, with ancient knowledge, in meaningful and relatable ways.  For the Vikings, this means looking beyond horned helmets and beard braids, towards something a bit more real and a bit less Hollywood.

While no sensory organs were harmed in the creation of our grog, there was a good amount of time sacrificed.  In researching Iron Age European archaeology for evidence of Viking brewing, I needed to get a grasp on who the Vikings were in the first place (more on that in a future article), as well as what “grog” actually meant.  This term is often used to reference watered-down rum served to our favorite ocean-faring scallywags.  For our Viking-purposes, however, grog refers to a beer with numerous botanical and other non-grain components.  This separates the headily flavored Viking grogs from “beer” as it was dictated by the Reinheitsgebot Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516 that required the only ingredients used to be water, barley and hops (yeast would be added in later).  Odin’s Eye is definitely a grog, as it is based on archaeological evidence of libations containing numerous botanicals, such as forest berries, meadowsweet, yarrow, elderflower, and birch bark.

I will get back to the birch bark in a moment, but first it is the herbs that caught my attention.  Last February, before everything changed, I gave a beer archaeology talk at the Nanaimo Museum in collaboration with the Nanaimo Craft Beer Society and their Nanaimo Craft Beer Week.  In short, it was awesome and feels like a lifetime ago.  While researching my talk, I delved a bit into herb lore for our botanicals, and came up with some interesting (and unsubstantiated) health claims, all of which centered around women’s health.  Up until that point, the last thing that came to my mind when thinking about Vikings was an abiding interest in women’s health.  Yet, I was wrong.

The Viking brewers were, in fact, women brewing for their households.  Female brewers will be a common refrain in many of the ancient cultures we explore through beer, because before industrialization where else are you going to get most of the things you need to survive?  From your home and your family, of course.  Beer requires boiling and warmer temperatures for fermentation.  These both necessitate proximity a heat source, and what better source than the hearth of a kitchen?  From archaeological and written evidence, we know that beer was intimately linked to Viking hospitality, being offered to guests, consumed daily by the household, and serving as an integral beverage for any feasting event.  We also read in the sagas of women basing their self-worth on their brewing prowess.  In one saga, a Viking Chieftain was tricked by his two wives into a taste test between their beers to see which he preferred, and by association to see which wife he preferred.  I do not remember if he survived that tasting, but towards the end of the Viking era there will even be laws enacted requiring that farmers brew a certain amount of beer each season or face serious fines.  Beer was clearly important to the Vikings, as was the skill of their female brewers.

Now before I go in search of any remaining bottles of Odin’s Eye in the beer fridge (for research purposes, of course) I did promise to come back to birch bark.  This was one of those ingredients that we were skeptical about, but were also fascinated by.  It was also my first (but definitely not last) experience having trouble sourcing an ingredient for our project.  Not normally needing tree bark for any purpose, I was not sure where to begin.  None of my herbal or holistic sources panned out and I was getting ready to start checking out our local forests for birch trees until I stumbled across the birch syrup industry.  This then led me to the wonderful people of Rocky Lake Birch Works, who donated a large box of birch bark to our cause.  Someday I look forward to visiting their farm in Manitoba to visit this birch paradise in person.

All of this, however, led to me beginning our Odin’s Eye #4 brewing day by tearing birch bark.  Lots and lots of birch bark.  This is one of those oddly relaxing tasks that requires little focus, allows for plenty of chatting time, and leaves your fingers smelling great if a bit woodsy.  To see if the taste of birch we get in the beer tastes the same as the bark itself, we chewed a bit and, yes, uncooked birch bark has the same mineral-rich flavor that you get at the end of a sip of Odin’s Eye.  The dark ale looks like it should drink heavy, but it is remarkably light and has an almost sour quality to it.  This brightness comes from tart lingonberries, cranberries (aka bog berries), and other forest fruits, including blue berries, cherries and strawberries.  More nuanced than you expected of an ancient Viking beer?  We thought so too.  Odin’s Eye is a perfect example of a flavor profile that you likely have never had before, but which you will soon be hooked on.

If you are able to get your hands on a bottle or two of Odin’s Eye, it is best drunk when not too cold so that the flavors really sing.  And that crazy, almost mineral flavor at the end?  That would be the birch.  Now you too can be an expert in recognizing birch as a flavor profile.  Skål!

Taste testing, for scientific purposes, of course…

When Beer Began

Sept 30, 2020

The first batch of Midas Touché put to bed in the fermenter.

A prehistory of beer is not what comes to mind for most people when thinking about archaeology.  Abandoned stone cities, ruined walls and houses, some broken pottery and if you are lucky a horde of forgotten metal seems about right.  As does a khaki clad archaeologist with hat at a rakish angle, a whip, and potential looting intentions.  Or just about anything that has to do with the Romans.  Or mummies… long dead, mummies exposed in gruesome ways, surrounded by traps, spider webs and treasure.  Any of these images might come to mind first when thinking about archaeology, or perhaps even catch your attention on a social media feed, but an archaeology of beer?

Here is why we study an archaeology of beer; because people for thousands of years have brewed and drunk it.  Beer is not a modern invention, but in fact its origins reach back well beyond the first written words.  Archaeologists have debated which was the greatest driving force leading people to transform wild grasses into domesticated grains like wheat and barley.  Was it for making bread or brewing beer?  Likely, it was a combination of both.

Beer, while it can be viewed with ambivalence by some, is one of the most imminently accessible of ancient technologies.  It is relatively inexpensive (even for the good stuff, which I highly recommend), being much cheaper than wine.  It is well known and valued as a social beverage in many cultures, is often easy to purchase, and has been shaped for thousands of years into numerous forms around the world.  Beer carries immense baggage from Prohibition, gendered tastes, and religious dictates.  Yet when done well, beer can also be a fantastic entry point into talking about and studying the lives of ancient peoples.  It is much more approachable to sip an ancient-inspired ale than it might be to cook up a dinner inspired by ancient foods.  Squab in blood sauce, anyone?  I thought not…

For Dave, Melissa and myself we began our first brewing experiment, Midas Touché, nearly two years ago.  That first ancient-inspired beer-hybrid-mashup was a combination of my archaeological research in Ancient Mesopotamia with Melissa’s fascination with Ancient Egypt and Dave’s overall beer artistry and well-honed curiosity.  We combined archaeological research with studies of Patrick McGovern’s “Ancient Brews” to craft our own take on his collaboration with an amazing American brewery, Dogfish Head.  From the first sip of the warm, unfermented wort, I was hooked.  It was sweet from the grain and honey, almost citrusy from the coriander, and the faint metallic twang of the saffron…  We could not wait to see what the wort would turn into through the magic of fermentation and bottle conditioning.  Weeks later when opening the first bottle (scientists must test these things after all…), I was nervous.  Had I just wasted all of Dave’s time?  Perhaps led my student down a false path of investigation and knowledge sharing?  Would it be terrible like a comedy spit take sprayed across the brewery?  Nope.  It was delicious!  Dry not sweet.  The aroma of honey and lemons, with the after effect of the saffron.  Deeply golden, sparkling with carbonization, and filled to the brim with stories about the ancient past.  In short, it was exactly what I had hoped for, and sold out within a week.

A bucket of emmer wheat that would challenge Dave’s grain crusher on our first brew day.

Jump forward two years to soul-testing 2020.  It is September, and Dave and I have just brewed our 6th batch of Midas Touché, which it is bubbling away gleefully in its fermenter.  This batch was brewed without Melissa who has since graduated from VIU and begun a graduate program to explore an archaeology of beer.  But don’t worry, I have a sneaking suspicion you will read about her again in these blogs.  She is a rock star and will do very well in whatever topic she sets her sights on.

Melissa crushing coriander seed with a mortar and pestle.

This brew day was different than our first, not the least of which being the fact that we are all now 6 months in to our covid-based isolation.  The LoveShack Libations tasting room is closed for the time being, but Dave sells his beers at the brewery (check out the website or social media for details) so that you can share them at home with those loved ones (of age) in your bubble.  And we are still brewing all six of our ancient-inspired ales as we cycle through the year.

Each time we brew Midas Touché makes me sentimental, since it is the benchmark for the beginning of our project.  The first Midas was great, and then the three of us decided to experiment a bit with the second batch.  Specifically, we significantly ramped up our use of saffron, a pinch of which gave the original batch a deeper golden hue than some beers and its faint mineral kick at the end.  Instead in batch #2 we sprinkled in the whole Midas-worthy box of saffron, hoping for an intensely red-gold ale and a better understanding of what Midas’ brew found in the tomb at Gordion might have tasted like.  We got both things, the hue and an intensely saffron-forward beer.  We were lucky since too much saffron can be like a mouthful of copper, and we did not quite get to that level.  Batch #2 was definitely not our most balanced beer, but it gave us an intriguing glimpse into the flavor profiles that might have been preferred by Midas and his crew.  Now with batch #6, we have the count of a couple dozen saffron threads for a 300-pint batch of ancient-inspired ale down to a science… with an extra pinch for good luck.

The grain bed for Midas Touché always smells like the world’s best hot porridge.  We combine ancient emmer wheat, which was the first grain domesticated on the planet, with kamut (khorsian) that shares a similar distinction as being first domesticated in ancient Egypt.  Later once the wort is separated from the grain, we add a healthy dose of honey to the boil that turns the steam flower-scented and will create a relatively boozy, dry finish for our ale.  Then the botanicals are added in the form of coriander and saffron, and we finally put the beer to bed in the fermenter with the yeast and wait for the magic to happen.

The Midas Touché grain bed always smells like the world’s best hot porridge.

At the time of this writing, Midas Touché #6 is bubbling away in the fermenter with the yeast happily gobbling up the sugars we so carefully built in the wort.  Soon it will be bottled and start the bottle-conditioning process that gives LoveShack beers a special finish.  Then a few weeks later the fun will really begin.  Pre-covid this would have meant the joy of chatting with people in the tasting room about the beers and the ancient prehistory that led to them.  I miss those conversations dearly, but that just means we need to find new ways to chat about beer archaeology.  One of those ways will be through this blog, as well as with the new memories and conversations you will craft while sharing these beers and thoughts with your special people.

As usual, Dave and I think this might be our best version of Midas Touché yet.  I still love tasting a sample of the wort siphoned off from the fermenter, and trying to imagine the chemical wonders that will transform that oddly sweet, warm liquid into a dry, deeply golden fermented ale.  There will likely be traces of honey in the aroma and that wonderfully odd little kick of mineral at the finish from the saffron.  Midas Touché also comes with a heady amount of prehistory, built off of brewing traditions that predate cities, writing and even farming.  The origins of beer are so deeply entrenched in time that in the first clay tablets describing beer, it is clear that the libation had been brewed for thousands of years already.  I hope you are able to get your hands on a bottle of Midas Touché #6, as it is truly special.  Maybe we will even be lined up together in the socially distanced, mask-wearing que to purchase our bottles when it is released.  The sharing of these beers with our bubble-mates is not quite the same as it was in the 2019 tasting room, but perhaps our relationships are the stronger for it.  Time and proximity with our friends and loved ones is even more precious now, in ways we could not have imagined a year ago.  These moments of connection might even be Midas-worthy.  Cheers!

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