Friday, February 4, 2011

Early Celtic Beer

I recently discovered this Science News article about an archaeological find of 2,550 year-old charred barley grains thanks to a post on David Beard's Archaeology in Europe Blog.

Charred grain that is over 2,500 years old does not, in and of itself, sound exciting.  But context is everything.  The Science News article explains that archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Sitka of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart saw a resemblance between the grain find, which had been excavated at Eberdingen-Hochdorf, an Iron Age Celtic settlement, and barley that he himself had charred in the course of experiments with beer-making techniques available in that time period.

According to Mr. Sitka, barley grains would have been soaked in the specially constructed ditches until they sprouted, at which point they would have been dried by lighting fires a the end of the ditches. The slow drying process would have added lactic acid bacteria to the grain, making the final brew more sour, and the smoking would have added a smoky taste. In addition, early brews such as this one would have been flavored with spices such as mugwort, carrot seeds or henbane. A few seeds of henbane were also found at the site, suggesting that it might have been used. The fact that henbane is also an intoxicant would have been a positive feature as it would have made the beer more intoxicating in addition to adding flavor.

As I read the Science News article, I reflected that it would be interesting to imagine an early Celt sipping such a beer while eating a flatbread like the Icelandic flatbread discussed in my last post, perhaps accompanied by a bit of cheese or smoked meat.  Or was beer too precious to consume merely as an accompaniment to a meal?  The early Hochdorf finds feature valuable  beverage service sets, suggesting that drinking parties had a special role in the culture of the period.

Mr. Sitka's paper has been published online in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. It is available for download to subscribers of that journal; other would-be readers must pay $34 USD to obtain a copy. The article can be purchased here.

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