Our history lesson starts with an ancient stone cylinder half the size of a roll of film.
Roll it out onto a piece of clay to reveal a scene of people drinking from the same vessel with long straws.
“Party like it’s 16 B.C.,” someone types in the chat of our virtual beer tasting.
Actually, this is much older. Thousands of years ago, people were brewing beer.
Luckily, our beer has evolved beyond what our archeologist virtual guide described as sludgy and porridge-like.
It’s still not safe to drink from the same glass like those Mesopotamians. And it’s going to be a while until my next brewery tour. In the meantime, I’ve joined virtual events like this to learn more about beer, from local breweries to ancient discoveries.
The cylinder came from “Ancient Alcohol,” a tour and beer tasting from Penn Museum. Our virtual group saw a few of the million artifacts at the Philadelphia museum. These pieces were paired with beers. A group of speakers shared more about brewing science and brewing with new grains.
On the history side, I learned that the earliest beer was brewed around 9,500 B.C. in what’s now Iran. The earliest wine can be traced to 6,000 B.C. in what’s now the country of Georgia.
How can they discover these details from sites buried thousands of years ago?
Archaeologists find clues in residues, grad student Mark Van Horn told us. Finding calcium oxalate on a container could be a sign that it once held beer. Tartaric acid and tree resin points to wine.
As technology evolves, research teams are learning more about what was unearthed long ago. They’re also digging up new surprises. Last month, archaeologists discovered a 5,000-year-old brewery in Egypt that had a production capacity of 22,400 liters (not a modern mega-brewery, but still larger than a few clay pots.)
So, why were they drinking beer through a straw?
We got a lesson on why drinking modern carbonated beer from a straw is not a good idea from Matthew Farber, who created the brewing science program at University of the Sciences.
We also heard how Troegs Brewing Co. brewed a spelt golden lager with local spelt and spelt baguettes. More Pennsylvania-grown grains recently were added to beers like Troegenator dopple bock, something brewmaster John Trogner says he wants to continue.
This was my first virtual talk hearing someone ask for us to drink when the sphinx appears. Throughout the two-hour session, we were led to sample a custom list of beers selected to match the talk. Unfortunately, most of these beers weren’t available in northern Lancaster County. I wasn’t driving to Philly to the bottle shops that had the museum pack in stock and they didn’t deliver here so I made some substitutes.
Add quizzes and polls plus a peanut gallery chat thread and this was not a stuffy lecture.
The session I joined was part of the Philadelphia Grain & Malt Symposium. It’s also part of Penn Museum’s roster of virtual tours you can schedule with a group. The next (virtual) Ancient Alcohol After Hours is Friday, May 14, 7-9 p.m. This session will explore beer brewing in South America and learn about chicha, an Andean beer made from chewed corn. Tickets are $10.
Something else that’s available 24/7 (and free) is Brew: The Museum of Beer. Organizers want to build a museum all about beer and make it as big as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They’ve been raising money and planned to launch a pop-up museum in Pittsburgh just before the pandemic shut down life.
Since then, the group’s shifted online where there’s an interactive exhibit focused on Pennsylvania.
At brewmuseum.com, you can go back to the earliest breweries in the state (in the 1600s) and see how the industry’s grown. There’s a lot of insight into the Pittsburgh area and the Philadelphia area. I’d love to see more from the rest of state.
The museum’s hosted live virtual events through the winter. In these free events, experts talk about historic topics like the controversy of beer-brewing Benedictine monks. Another one focused on the making of “Poured in Pa,” a modern series about breweries and beer throughout the state. These talks then become part of the online exhibit.
There are quizzes to explore, too, including one that tests your knowledge of what’s brewed in Pennsylvania. I now know that Red Stripe was once made in Latrobe.
While I wait for my vaccine appointment, these have been fun and safe ways to learn about beer near and far.