Tag Archives: brewing

Charred grains.

Earliest evidence of beer brewing in Scandinavia hails from the Iron Age

New evidence shows that Swedes were producing beer on an industrial scale even since the Iron Age.

Charred grains.

Carbonized germinated grains found at Uppåkra, Sweden.
Image credits M. Larsson, A. Svensson, J. Apel, 2018, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Humans have had a very long relationship with beer. Legal documents and images recovered by archaeologists show that people in Mesopotamia produced the brew as early as 4000 BCE. There is also evidence of beer-making in China around 3000 BCE. Beer seems to have played an important part in these ancient cultures and economies, and it’s possible that the earliest permanent settlements were founded just so we could grow more grains and make more beer.

New findings from the Lund University, Sweeden, shows that northerners were also joining in the fun as early as the Iron Age.

Let there be ale!

Archaeologists from Lund report finding the carbonized remains of germinated grains in Uppåkra, southern Sweden. The findings show that malting processes were carried out here as early as the Iron Age — and where there’s malt, there’s beer. The scale of the operation and its position in the settlement indicates an industrial-level approach to brewing.

“We found carbonised malt in an area with low-temperature ovens located in a separate part of the settlement. The findings are from the 400-600s, making them one of the earliest evidence of beer brewing in Sweden,” says first author Mikael Larsson, who specialises in archaeobotany, the archaeology of human-plant interactions.

Finding cereals on archaeological sites is far from uncommon. However, there’s rarely any way to link these grains to certain processes, meaning we can’t tell what the people of old were planning to do with the seeds. The particularities of the malting process, however, allowed the team to identify the intended purpose of these grains.

It takes two key processes to brew beer. The first, malting, requires wetting grain with water to induce germination. During the process of germination, enzymes in the seeds break down proteins and starches into sugars. After enough sugar is formed, the second part of the process begins: the grains are dried in an oven to halt germination. The charring on the seeds discovered in Uppåkra, as well as the presence of ovens in the area, suggests that the grains were involved in this drying process.


Excavation of the kiln structure. a) During removal of clay base of oven. b) Stone packing exposed at the base of the kiln. c) Removal of stone packing and wall foundation of oven. d) Oven removed, excavation of trench cut in progress.
Image credits M. Larsson, A. Svensson, J. Apel, 2018, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Uppåkra is currently the largest Iron Age settlements in southern Scandinavia. From 100s BCE to the 1000s CE, it was a densely populated political and religious center. Imported luxuries such as jewelry and glass bowls were found in impressive quantities in the settlement, suggesting that it was an important and rich trading center. It’s not far-fetched, then, to assume that a local brewing industry might have thrived here — and evidence on the ground also supports this.

“Because the investigated oven and carbonised grain was situated in an area on the site with several similar ovens, but absent of remains to indicate a living quarter, it is likely that large-scale production of malt was allocated to a specific area on the settlement, intended for feasting and/or trading,” explains Mikael Larsson.

We’ve previously only found evidence of beer brewing in the Nordic region in two other places: one location in Denmark from around 100 CE, and one in Eketorp on Öland from around 500 CE. This would make the present findings the earliest evidence of beer production in the area.

The paper “Botanical evidence of malt for beer production in fifth–seventh century Uppåkra, Sweden” has been published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Barley’s full genome sequenced after decade-long research effort

After more than a decade of work, an international team consisting of over 70 researchers is poised to make your beer fuller and your Scotch neater — they have successfully sequenced the complete genome of barley, a major crop and key ingredient in the two brews.


Image credits Hans Braxmeier.

We’ve got a long and alcohol-imbibed history with barley. It has been a staple crop for us and animal feed as well as underpinned breweries ever since the agricultural revolution. Today, barley is a major component in all-purpose flour for bread and pastries, graces breakfast tables as an ingredient in cereals, is the prime ingredient in single malt Scotch, lends beer its color, body, the protein to form a good head, and the natural sugars needed for its fermentation.

Selective breeding has allowed farmers to develop tastier, more nutritious barley with a greater yield over that time – but there’s still room for improvement, as the crop’s genome was barley known, limiting the effectiveness of breeding efforts.

Now, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium (IBSC) a team of 77 researchers from around the world report that they’ve successfully sequenced the full genome of barley families heavily relied on for malting processes. This allowed them to pinpoint the bits of code that formed “genetic bottlenecks” during domestication, and further breeding efforts focus on increasing diversity in these areas and make the crops even better. It should also help scientists working with other crops in the grass family such as rice, wheat, or oats.

It may not sound like a huge accomplishment until you consider that barley’s genome is almost double the size of a human’s, and large swathes of it (around 80%) is composed of highly repetitive sequences, which made it incredibly hard for the team to focus on specific locations in the genome. The team had to make major advances in and sequencing technology, algorithmic design, and computing for the task at hand. Their findings provide knowledge of more than 39,000 barley genes.

“This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside and co-author of the paper.

“It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.”

One finding, in particular, surprised the scientists, and it has to do with the malting process. This involves germinating and then crushing the grains and is a key step in brewing. During germination, seeds produce amylase, a protein which breaks down their store of starch into simple sugars – which will ferment into alcohol. The team’s sequencing efforts revealed there was much more variability than expected in the genes encoding the amylase.

The full paper “A chromosome conformation capture ordered sequence of the barley genome” has been published in the journal Nature.

Archaeologists and brewers recreate 2,500 year old funeral drink from residues found in a tomb

Archaeologists recreated an Iron Age brew buried with the dead 2,500 years ago, and it tastes “very cool”.

Image credits Bettina Arnold.

Image credits Bettina Arnold.

Back in 2000, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee archaeologist and anthropologist Bettina Arnold was examining a burial plot from 400 or 450 B.C. in what is today Germany. Inside, she stumbled upon a portly bronze cauldron. After analyzing the remnants on the vessel’s walls, she and a team of local craft brewers brought the drink back from the dead.

Dig first, drinks later

The plot Arnold was investigating is called a tumulus from the Latin word for “little hill”. It looks like a mound of earth and cut stones built over a grave, and they’re usually indicative of a noble or rich person’s burial place. It was built sometime in the 7th to 5th centuries BC in today’s Swabia, Germany, and by the time Arnold began investigating it the skeleton was nowhere to be found, likely dissolved by the acidic soil. It was most likely a male, though, as the archaeologists found an iron sword, a helmet, and two long iron spears buried inside the tumulus.

Archaeologists also found a bronze pot or cauldron inside, which Arnold chalks up to one of the best reasons for having a drink handy I’ve ever heard.

“The dead man in Tumulus 17 Grave 6 had been sent into the afterlife not only with his weapons but with about 14 litres of an alcoholic beverage that he could have used to establish himself as an important person in the next world as he had been in this one,” she explains on her blog.

Turns out the afterlife is a lot like college. Arnold says the cauldron contained roughly 14 liters (3.7 gallons) of fairly high-quality liquid — but it’s had a few thousand years to age, so it had a particularly un-drinklike form when she found it. A paleobotanical analysis of the vessel’s contents created a basic run-down of the ingredients in the brew’s recipe.

“Luckily for us, they didn’t just send people off to the afterlife with [weapons] — they also sent them off with the actual beverage. It’s a BYOB afterlife, you know? You have to be able to sort of throw a party when you get there,” she told Bonnie North at the NPR.

“We actually were able, ultimately, to derive at least some sense of what the contents were in a bronze cauldron,” says Arnold. “The honey, which is definitely present … and then as a bittering and preservative agent — not hops … but meadowsweet,” she explained.

Paleobotanist Manfred Rösch and conservator Tanja Kreß sample the ancient cauldron in Tübingen, Germany.
Image credits Bettina Arnold.

Besides yeast, the brew is made up of barley, honey and meadowsweet. Mint was also identified in the drink.

But science is all about getting to know the great unknown. So Arnold enlisted the aid of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery to try and re-do the brew, using the ingredients identified in the cauldron. Lakefront cellarmaster Chad Sheridan’s expertise in home brewing meads and similar drinks helped re-create the process. As he explains, the drink was likely a braggot — “a blend of barley and honey as the two sugar ingredients to create the beverage.”

“I got to sip the final product,” writes Bonnie North at the NPR. “The result was smooth and pleasant — almost like a dry port, but with a minty, herbal tinge to it. It also packed an alcoholic kick.”


Sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll find this ancient pick-me-up on grocery shelves anytime soon.

“[While the drink is] very cool to taste … I don’t think people would be interested in purchasing it to drink,” says Lakefront Brewery’s Chris Ranson. “But it sure was a fun experiment.”

“[Our] version would have been significantly cleaner than the prehistoric one, but we did succeed in producing something that provides those of us with jaded modern palates with a very different flavour profile,” her blog post reads.  “The mint actually came through first, which was unexpected, followed by the slightly astringent meadow sweet, but the honey was barely in evidence (having been almost completely converted to alcohol).”

With all that honey converted into alcohol, the drink also packs quite a sizable punch.

“With an [alcohol by volume] of over 8 percent, this is not your grannie’s braggot,” Arnold goes on to say, “and although adding honey at this stage would probably make it more drinkable for [today’s] mead imbibers, we decided to leave it as is.”

But the braggot seems to have done the trick for Arnold, who hopes this is just the first re-creation of many to come. She said the UWM’s College of Letters and Science is working on a program focusing on the cultural and scientific elements of fermentation. In the future, she says, she’ll be developing a course where ancient recipes and archaeological evidence are used to brew up different drinks. Cheers to that!

Keeping coffee in the fridge enhances its flavor, besides keeping it fresh

A new study found there are some added benefits to keeping the coffee in the fridge, which not even the best baristas know. Namely, the colder storing temperature enhances flavor.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To see how storage affects the quality of coffee, researchers at the University of Bath collaborated with a local café and ground coffee beans stored at various temperatures. The beans were stored on the counter (room temperature), in a fridge, freezer and, to push to the extreme, in vats of liquid nitrogen (-196 degrees Celsius).

The flavor of coffee depends not only on the quality of the beans themselves, but also how these become grounded. Like anything in the kitchen, brewing coffee ultimately comes down to chemistry. The smaller the coffee particles, the better the flavor can be extracted with the boiling water because the particles share more surface area. Even distribution also helps extract the flavor better.

“What you’re looking for is a grind that has the smallest difference between the smallest and largest particle,” noted Christopher Hendon, a chemistry PhD student at the University of Bath. “If you have small grinds you can push flavor extraction upwards. We found that chilling the beans tightens up this process and can give higher extractions with less variance in the flavor—so you would have to brew it for less time or could get more coffee from the same beans.”

Grinding coffee the proper way might not be on the top of your list when brewing coffee is concerned, but subtleties can make all the difference at some point. In this case, the difference between a stale and a rejuvenating brew. For the industry, though, these findings could help coffee companies with their turnover. The uniform, cold beans can cut on waste because more flavor is being extracted.

Among baristas, though, the findings are sure to stir controversy. Many believe freezing coffee beans is bad because it cracks the beans, attracts water from the freezer, promotes accelerated degradation after the beans are thawed or breaks down the flavor oils in the beans. None of these views are supported by science, and there are as many favored storage methods as are professional baristas, and each brewer thinks their method is right, and the others are wrong.

As far as I can tell, this is the only study which actually investigates the relationship between freezing beans and flavor. So, at the end of the day you’re welcome to try any method you’d like, but if you’re serious about science-based coffee brewing, keep those beans in the freezer.

“The research suggests that temperature of bean needs to be more constant to help us achieve consistent grinds. It suggests that cooler temperatures will allow us to maximise surface area and utilise more of the coffee. All of this will impact on how we prepare coffee in the industry, I bet we will see the impact of this paper in coffee competitions around the globe, but also in the research and development of new grinding technology for the market place,” said Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, the owner of the cafe which worked with the researchers.