Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Beer of the Etruscans

Long before the Romans, there were the Etruscans.  Long before there was wine, there was beer.  Dogfish Head worked with two Italian craft brewers -- Birra del Borgo and Birra Baladin -- and a biomolecular archeologist, Dr. Patrick McGovern, to explore the intersection between the Etruscans and beer.

The intersection was found in well-preserved Etruscan tombs dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.  According to academic research, the tombs were found at Carmignano and Verucchio, along with other locations in Tuscany.  Archeologists discovered ancient vessels in those tombs.  While the contents of those vessels had long evaporated, the Archeologists were nevertheless able to identify contents through the residues left in the vessels.  Those contents gave rise to the discovery of a wheat and barley brew that was consumed by the Etruscans.

A later discovery in a 6th century B.C. tomb at Pombia provided further insight into the Etruscans' beer-like brew.  Archeologists found a small, terracotta urn with a water-tight seal. Inside the urn were the ashes of a deceased Etruscan male.  Someone also placed an impasto beaker filled with liquid inside the urn before sealing the vessel.  Studies were performed on the beaker and a pollen analysis determined that more than 90% of the pollen was from trees, cereals and hops.  The beverage had been made by fermenting cereals to produce a high alcohol content beer. 

The brewers of Dogfish Head, del Borgo and Baladin performed their own "research pilgrimage" to those early Etruscan tombs. Their research led them to recreate the 8th cenutry B.C. recipe, which was based on on chemical and botanical evidence of tree resins; beeswax and honey, whole pomegranates, hazelnuts, grapes and apples found inside ancient jars and drinking bowls.

Each brewer produced the beer -- Birra Etrusca -- using their own method.  Dogfish Head used bronze vessels, a popular material in brewing and cooking in the Etruscan era.  The ingredients for this ancient ale included honey, hazelnut flour, heirloom wheat, myrrh, gentian root, raisins, pomegranate juice and pomegranates.

The Birra Etrusca pours an amber color, with a good off white, persistent foam.  The aromatic elements are sweet, foreshadowing the honey, raisins and pomegranates used to produce the beer Sweet aroma from the honey, raisins and pomegranates. Some spice emerged as well, perhaps a little clove or allspice.

As for the taste of the Birra Etrusca, it was one of the more unique tasting beers.  Perhaps it is simply a statement of how far beer has changed over centuries and even millenia.  The beer was much sweeter than I expected, even knowing that honey, raisins and pomegranates were used to make it.  I clearly identified the pomegranate, as well as the honey, but the use of wheat provided some recognizable malt characteristics -- like some breadiness -- as well.  Other flavors emerged as I drank the beer, such as the grapes and hazelnuts. 

I still see this beer in stores, which is a good thing, because it is definitely worth trying (and trying again).  If I recall correctly, the Birra Etrusca sells for about $12.99 a bottle. 


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