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.”
Indeed, the Sumerians, who lived in what is now Iraq, used those innovations to lift human society to the level of a civilization for the first time, according to one school of thought. The Sumerians were one of the first peoples to realize they could preserve their thoughts by setting them down in writing.
Their version of writing, known as cuneiform and inscribed on clay tablets, has enabled modern scholars to understand how the Sumerians felt about ethics, education, religion and beer.
“Beer is mentioned repeatedly in the tablets,” Paulette said. “They tell us that it was brewed in palaces and temples. Ordinary people made small batches, sort of a home brew.”
Sumerian is the name of a language; the people who spoke it are unknown to us. Unanswered too, is the question of where they came from and where they went. They appear on prehistory’s stage around the fifth millennium B.C. and disappear a few millenniums later.
It’s not clear what they were up to when they first harvested cereal crops. By the time of written records, Sumerians were using a form of bread in their fermentation process. Did they brew beer and then realize that a breadlike substance could be eaten, or vice versa?
“It’s called the ‘bread-versus-beer controversy,’ ” a variation on the egg-and-chicken puzzle, Paulette said.
“I think the beer came first, but then I’m a brewer,” Conway said. “The artisanal baker helping us with the Sumerian beer project is just as convinced that bread was first.”
Miguel Civil, a professor emeritus at the Oriental Institute whose translation of a key document inspired the search for neo-Sumerian beer, takes a third position. He notes that almost any organic product will turn to alcohol, if given time.
“People ask me: ‘Did the Sumerians invent beer?’” Civil said. “I tell them: ‘It invented itself.’ ”
It’s known that the Sumerians produced beer in various flavors, much like the brands on a liquor store’s shelves.
“The tablets speak of a golden beer, a dark beer, a reddish beer, a dark and sweet beer and a filtered beer,” Paulette said.
What Sumerian brewers used to produce those varieties isn’t known, Paulette said. At a recent archaeological conference, he presented a paper titled “What Happens in Sumer, Stays in Sumer: The Archaeological Invisibility of Beer in Mesopotamia.”
All he can do is suggest that the brewers at Conway’s Great Lakes Brewing experiment with flavoring supplements the Sumerians are known to have possessed: dates, coriander, fennel and juniper berries.
Conway reports that the current mixture of ingredients — cooked over dung, as might have been done in a land where wood was scarce — produces a mildly sour taste, similar to a Belgian beer.
But the cooking method, the ratio of water to solids, and other key details are only educated guesses. They’re not mentioned in the tablets’ most comprehensive description of Sumerian beer, “The Hymn to Ninkasi.”
A poetic invocation to the deity who oversees beer-making, that piece reads in part like a modern advertising jingle. Hamm’s beer was proclaimed “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters.” The 19th-century B.C. hymn begins: “Born of the flowing water.”
Civil translated the document in the 1960s on the scholarly equivalent of a dare, a German scholar having proclaimed it impenetrable. At the time, the Sumerian language wasn’t fully understood.
“I published my translation in a scholarly journal,” Civil said, “and there it rested in peace for 25 years.”
Then he got a phone call from Fritz Maytag, the washing-machine heir. He’d acquired Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco and, interested in the history of beer, had stumbled across Civil’s scholarly article.
As Maytag’s guest, Civil went to the brewery for an attempt to make Sumerian beer, albeit with modern equipment.
“It tasted like cider,” Civil recalled.
He awaits the results of the current try with Sumerian-like equipment, but at 89 years old, he probably won’t attend the forthcoming tasting.
Paulette wouldn’t miss it for the world — or his Ph.D., for that matter. Having neglected his dissertation on ancient grain storage to work on Sumerian beer, he has to finish this year or forfeit the degree.
“Of course, I’ll be there. I love beer,” Paulette said. “That’s why I got involved in this crazy project.”
©2013 Chicago Tribune
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