Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dogsplosion! A Blast from the Past

Last week I promised you two reviews: Theobroma and Sah'tea. While I don't intend to back out, these reviews come with some prerequisites. Unlike a college course on Bioinformatics however, you can still participate without a full understanding of the material or a BAC less than 0.08. Obviously the latter is optional, but just like a college course: by the end of it you'll have remidied both of those inadequacies.

Without any further ado, here's a crash course in Ancient Ales.

Prereq 1: Anthropology

When you think about beer today, certain smells and flavors come to mind which are probably common to most of the population. It wasn't always that way however, beer comes in as many varieties as there are cuisines. The culture, climate, and available materials has resulted in uncountable mutations of this poisonous corruption of normally wholesome ingredients. You're most likely thinking, "Wait... What?" after that last sentence; "Poisonous corruption?"

Let's jump back a few million years.

We can actually trace the genes required to process alcohol to a mouse-like creature that had access to fermenting (rotting) fruit with is usually toxic. Being able to eat this fruit allowed access to a plentiful supply of food with little competition. Like many beneficial evolutions, naturally over time this lead to other creatures competing for this niche; We're some such creatures.

Let's fast forward to ancient times.

People have been making beer or wine for at least the last 9000 years. Since you need to stay in one place for a while to ferment, it makes perfect sense that hunter gatherers wouldn't have beer (discounting the occasional rotten apple.)

We find evidence of fermented liquids in all manner of ancient vessels. From wine bottles in shipwrecks to canopic jars in the desert: just about every ancient society in the past 9000 years had some form of alcoholic beverage. This wasn't all for fun and games; it served a very practical purpose: You can make clean beer with bad water. 

Small amounts of alcohol allow water to be transported great distances without spoiling. We can probably thank beer for almost all ancient viking maritime success and expansion,  the feudal system (peasants rarely practiced proper sanitation), and pirates (which are really cool.) While I could write an entire post on just this, I'll have to hold back for now.

It wasn't until Reinheitsgebot (or the German Beer Purity Law of 1487) that beer generally became homogeneous. With home-brew and craft breweries, we're starting to undo some of the damage, but generally you'll still find beer made after this fashion (but not even up to that standard) at your local Kwik-E-Mart. Again, I could write an entire post on this; I probably will when I review Saison Du Buff but I still haven't found the Stone version.

Prereq 2: Archeology

Like many lost secrets, you can only find the best stuff by digging. While we won't be finding Jimmy Hoffa anytime soon, we have turned up ancient recipes and dried out samples of ancient beverages. Dogfish Head (with the help of molecular archeologist Dr.Patrick McGovern)  is becoming rather notable for resurrecting some of these through the use of a Mass Spectrometer. Current examples include Midas Touch, Chateau Jiahu, Theobroma, T'ej, and Sah'tea. Read more about those here.

Almost as a rule, these beers use unusual ingredients. From hawthorne fruit and honey to ancho chilies and cocoa, the flavors are astonishing. I've tried most of these and they are amazing. Now that you have a small appreciation for the history, we'll get down to the reviews. They deserve proper reverence however, and so will be addressed in next week's post!

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