The World’s Oldest Brewery (No, it’s Not Budweiser)

By Dirk Hanson 04/15/11

Add a touch of henbane for that smoky flavor.

Ancient brewmasters perfecting their art.
Photo via ablogabouthistory

If you have ever favored beer with an extra kick, a German brewery founded 2,550 years ago had just the brew for you. Archeologists leading a recent dig at an Iron Age party site in Germany discovered the remnants of a huge malt-making operation, 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. Then the “growth of lactic acid bacteria stimulated by slow drying of grains added sourness to the brew,” writes Bruce Bower of Science News. Unlike the mild hops used today, Iron Age beer was fortified with other flowers and spices, including mugwort, carrot seeds—and most notably henbane, a poisonous and psychedelic plant. Stika speculates that henbane offered an extra oomph to the brew, which turned out like an early form of pilsner, with a bitter taste and a smoky yellow color. This henbane beer even has a name: Pilsenkraut (from pilsen: imagine, to fantasize, to have a vision; and kraut: plant, shrub).

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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]