Iron Age Beer in Provence

By Dirk Hanson 06/23/11

Home brew goes way back—but nobody’s sure what it tasted like.

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Beer Jug.
Photo via archaeological

We know that the brewing of beer is an ancient art, as beer commercials never tire of informing us. Specifically, in the Middle East, evidence suggests brewing is at least 5,500 years old. But archaeology that gives us a true picture of early beer habits is hard to come by. One trend is evident, though: Northern Europeans really like their beer—then and now. The Greeks and Romans historically viewed beer as déclassé, preferring fine wines instead, but not so the Celts of Europe. We recently reported on the case of a dig at an Iron Age party site in Germany, where the remnants of a huge malt-making operation were uncovered. The works were probably built around 500 B.C., according to a report in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika believes that the so-called “Hochdorf malt” began with the process of soaking barley in ditches until it sprouted.

Now comes evidence in Human Ecology of beer making in an Iron Age Celtic village in the Provence region of southeastern France. Carbonized grain samples were collected near the ruins of a hearth and an oven, which “could have been used to stop the germination process at the desired level by drying or roasting the grain,” the investigators wrote.
The 5th Century technique mimicked the German process of the same period, according to Discovery. “Based on the barley remains, its location and the equipment, the researchers believe the home's inhabitants soaked the grain in vessels, spread it out during germination on a flat area of the paved floor, dried the grain in the oven to stop germination, and used grindstones to pulverize the malted barley.” If that sounds familiar, it should. "From what we can tell, it was processed in a way that was close to traditional beer-brewing techniques and was not so different from modern home-made beers," lead author Laurent Bouby told Discovery News. "It is, however, still difficult to know what the taste was of this beer.”

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]