CHICAGO — The mission of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is the study of vanished civilizations and dead languages. Its scholars generally consign to science fiction the notion of bringing the past back to life.
But now some of those scholars are engaged in a project something like that: re-creating Sumerian beer.
Some might see it as a quixotic venture: trying to make a potable brew according to a list of ingredients inscribed on a clay tablet 4,000 years ago. Chicagoans will be able to judge the results for themselves. The university will host an ancient beer tasting in August.
This isn’t the first time contemporaries have tried to make Sumerian beer, noted Tate Paulette, a U. of C. graduate student, and point man on the current project. But previous attempts have used modern equipment, the shiny kettles and pipes to be seen in the microbreweries of hip, urban neighborhoods.
The Sumerians knew how to work metal, but they had to reserve the product of their furnaces and forges for weapons to use against marauding nomads.
So at the urging of Pat Conway, a Cleveland brewer and their partner in the project, Oriental Institute scholars created clay vessels like those presumably used by Sumerian beer-makers.
Using the U. of C.’s clay vessels, Great Lakes Brewing Co. has produced several facsimiles of Sumerian beer, tweaking the recipe according to the professors’ theories about the ancient brewmasters’ craft. Conway will come to Chicago to brew the final version for the August tasting.
A former U. of C. graduate student, Conway took time out on a sales trip to Chicago about a year ago to visit the institute’s museum, where his imagination was captured by the history of beer.
“I was fascinated that people were brewing beer for thousands of years before they were writing,” Conway said. “The Sumerians were amazing. They gave us law, mathematics, cities, empires.”