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How to Make 3,000-Year-Old Beer

The idea came to Dylan McDonnell early in the pandemic, when a sourdough-baking craze took over a nation under lockdown. Mr. McDonnell, an amateur brewer who lives outside Salt Lake City, saw Seamus Blackley, a video game designer, boasting on social media about baking bread with 4,500-year-old Egyptian yeast.

I wonder if I could do that with beer, Mr. McDonnell recalled thinking.

The answer recently arrived in the form of an amber brew that Mr. McDonnell believes is the closest approximation yet to what Rameses the Great may have been drinking between battles with the Hittites.

Recent years have seen attempts to recreate the beer of the Vikings, the Late Shang and Western Zhou dynasties of China, and the Sumerians, who are believed to have invented beer. “These beers can be all over the map,” said Neil Witte, a beer expert at Craft Quality Solutions in Kansas City, Mo. “What was good 500 or 1,000 years ago is likely nothing like what we consider good today.”

Still, the lure of connecting with bygone civilizations by reviving their potent potables appears to be surging.

Mr. McDonnell, who is the chief operations officer of a nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities, has no desire to compete with professional brewers — or to commercialize his own concoction. But he does believe that he has gone further than others in seeking out the exact ingredients the ancient Egyptians would have used — and fermenting them with ancient yeast.

While wine is often associated with the Greco-Roman civilization, “beer was integral to ancient societies in the Levant and the ancient Near East,” said Marie Hopwood, a scholar of ancient beer at Vancouver Island University, where she is the head of the anthropology department. “Everyone drank beer,” she said, especially since water was often contaminated.

And yet only recently, Dr. Hopwood added, has beer archaeology attained the respect long afforded to the study of wine, a discrepancy she attributed to modern biases. Many 20th-century archaeologists “grew up thinking of wine as elite and beer as low class,” she said.

But with archaeologists now excavating brewing sites on Cyprus, and Archival Brewing, a brewpub in Belmont, Mich., focusing on historical recreations like 19th-century Mexican lager, both academia and the brewing industry appear to have expunged that longstanding favoritism.

Ancient beer would have been less alcoholic than ours, and served warm. Women typically brewed it, Dr. Hopwood said.

“We see evidence for this all over the world,” she said, including in Viking and Inca cultures. “They would have been taught by their mothers, who had been taught by theirs.”

Constrained by work and family, Mr. McDonnell took more than three years to carry out what he described as his “harebrained” idea. First, he consulted the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian text of medical recipes from 1500 B.C. One recipe calls for “fat from a fierce-looking lion” to cure male baldness, for example, while another suggests a concoction of salt, milk fat, sweet beer and honey “to be poured into the buttocks” of women experiencing gynecological pain.

Mr. McDonnell eventually found about 75 recipes for beer and compiled the ingredients in a spreadsheet. Eventually, he settled on the eight most frequently mentioned: desert dates, Yemeni Sidr honey, sycamore figs, Israeli golden raisins, prickly juniper berries, carob fruit, black cumin and frankincense.

Sycamore figs were especially difficult to find. Mr. McDonnell considered using black mission figs, apparently a close botanical relative.

But as luck would have it, his friend Marika Dalley Snider, an architectural historian at the University of Memphis, was working at the time on a digital reconstruction of the Karnak Temple in Egypt. It turned out that the family of an archeological foreman in Luxor had been tending to a grove of sycamore fig trees for many generations.

“We just celebrated,” Mr. McDonnell said.

For base grains, he chose purple Egyptian barely and emmer wheat. Then he turned to the yeast. Much like Mr. Blackley, Mr. McDonnell wanted to use an ancient strain, not an ordinary commercial variety.

Here, he was fortunate again. In 2015, an Israeli team led by Itai Gutman, a veteran brewer living in Europe, had extracted yeast from an amphora found in Israel that had most likely been used by the Philistines for brewing around 850 B.C.

Yeast has a remarkable ability to lay dormant for exceptionally long periods of time. The billions of cells in a dormant colony “still talk to each other,” Mr. Gutman said. “They still have all those chemical signals between them. And they just wait. They say, ‘Now is not a good time to reproduce.’”

Mr. Gutman is the founder of Primer’s Yeast, a company that sells ancient strains of the microorganism. He argues that the difference between ancient yeast and the yeast found on a supermarket shelf is the difference between a wolf and a golden retriever. Commercial yeast creates a more predictable taste profile, whereas wild yeast came to be associated with what are now called “off flavors.”

“What they did is to take away a lot of the byproducts,” Mr. Gutman said. Traditional European breweries — like those run by Belgian monks hewing to centuries-old methods — retain the fruity signature of yeast in its untamed, lupine form, he said.

Those were the very flavors Mr. McDonnell wanted to tease out. “It was by far the most important part of the process,” he said, referring to Mr. Gutman’s yeast. “To me, this would have just been another fun beer I made that isn’t noteworthy if it didn’t include the yeast.”

Some in the industry are skeptical that ancient yeast is much of a game changer. “Modern science hasn’t deprived anyone of anything,” said Mr. Witte, the beer expert. Thanks to modern microbiology, brewers can use “pure cultures of a single yeast strain,” he said. “This gives brewers more control over the finished beer than at any time in history.”

Mr. McDonnell, though, is pleased with his historical blend, which is initially sour but then becomes increasingly complex, arriving at a rich, refreshing, cider-like quality. The flavor, like the color, suggests apricot. The carbonation, in keeping with history, is low.

Mr. McDonnell said he is often asked what the beer is called. Branding was not much of a consideration, he said, since he had no plans to sell his suds. But the question has been posed frequently enough that Mr. McDonnell has settled on a name, one that reflects both the beer’s flavor profile and its distant origins near the desert peninsula where the ancient Egyptians mined turquoise: “Sinai Sour.”

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