Historic Beer Birthday: Alan Eames

Today is the birthday of Alan D. Eames (April 16, 1947-February 10, 2007). Eames was an anthropologist of beer and a writer, and was known as both the “Indiana Jones of Beer” and “The Beer King.”


From Wikipedia:

Eames acquired a reputation as the “Indiana Jones of beer” in reference to his global quest to learn about the origins of beer and the role it played in ancient societies and cultures. Eames visited 44 countries. In Egypt he found hieroglyphics about beer, and travelled on the Amazon River in search of a lost black brew. In the Andes, Eames trekked in search of a brew made from strawberries that were the size of baseballs.

Eames claimed to have found the world’s “oldest beer advertisement” on a Mesopotamian stone tablet that dated to roughly 4000 B.C.[1] The tablet depicted a headless woman with large breasts holding goblets of beer in each of her hands. Eames claimed that the tagline to the tablet was “Drink Elba, the beer with the heart of a lion.” Eames believed that beer was the most feminine of drinks, and thought that ancient societies considered it a gift from a goddess rather than a god, as from the gods Ama-Gestin and Ninkasis. With Professor Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania, Eames formulated the theory that beer was an important factor in the creation of settled and civilised societies.


Here’s Eames’ obituary from the New York Times:

Alan D. Eames, who cultivated his reputation as “the Indiana Jones of beer” by crawling into Egyptian tombs to read hieroglyphics about beer and voyaging along the Amazon in search of a mysterious lost black brew, died on Feb. 10 at his home in Dummerston, Vt. He was 59.

His wife, Sheila, said he died after suffering respiratory failure while he slept.

Mr. Eames called himself a beer anthropologist, a role that allowed him to expound on subjects like what he put forward as the world’s oldest beer advertisement, dating to roughly 4000 B.C.

In it a Mesopotamian stone tablet depicted a headless woman with enormous breasts holding goblets of beer in each hand. The tagline, at least in his interpretation, was: “Drink Elba, the beer with the heart of a lion.”

He explored similar topics in seven books, the best known of which was “The Secret Life of Beer” (1995), in myriad radio and television appearances and in speeches at colleges and other institutions. A typical title: “Beer: A Gift from God, or the Devil’s Training Wheels.”

Mr. Eames, who followed the golden liquid to 44 countries, often told about his perilous trek high in the Andes in pursuit of an ancient brew made from strawberries the size of baseballs. Or about Aztecs forbidding drunkenness except among those 52 years of age or older. Or about accounts that said Norse ale was served with garlic to ward off evil.

Mr. Eames’s favorite and perhaps most startling message was that beer is the most feminine of beverages. He said that in almost all ancient societies beer was considered a gift from a goddess, never a male god. Most often, women began the brewing process by chewing grains and spitting them into a pot to form a fermentable mass.

Alan Eames with a sack of malted corn on a trip to Peru in 1991. Credit Joel Jacobs
Alan Duane Eames was born on April 16, 1947, in Gardner, Mass. His father was Warren Baker Eames, a Harvard-trained anthropologist. By the time he was 11, young Alan was advertising his magic act. He graduated from Mark Hopkins College in Brattleboro, Vt., now closed.

In 1968, he moved to New York City and opened an art gallery. He spent evenings at the New York Public Library researching beer.

His beer-related business ventures began in the mid-1970s with his acquisition of Gleason’s Package Store in Templeton, Mass., which became known for its large beer selection. He conceived, designed and operated Three Dollar Dewey’s Ale House in Portland, Me., and another with the same name in Brattleboro.

He found ways to cash in on his celebrity, including helping market Guinness stout. In an interview with The St. Petersburg Times, he lauded its “rich dark color, the creamy white head that leaves delicate traces of foamy lace on the inside of the glass.”

He concluded, “It is one of the great joys in this vale of tears.”

Mr. Eames was the founding director of the American Museum of Brewing History and Fine Arts in Fort Mitchell, Ky., known for its festive “beer camps.” He contributed items on subjects from ancient times to the mid-19th century to the Encyclopedia of Beer.

But beer did not always pay expenses, and Mr. Eames sometimes had to take jobs like packing boxes in a vitamin factory and tending bar.

Mr. Eames is survived by his fourth wife, the former Sheila Momaney; his sons, Adrian and Andrew, both of Dummerston; his daughter, Elena Eames of Brattleboro; his stepsons Logan and Riley Johnson, of Dummerston; his father, of East Templeton, Mass., and York Beach, Me.; his mother, Mavis Franks of Denham Springs, La.; his sister, Holiday Eames of Westminster, Vt.; his half-brother, Mark Warner of Baton Rouge, La., and one grandson.

There’s also obits from the UK Guardian and Real Beer.


Beer loses its historian

Above all others, Alan Eames loved Guinness. But after traveling the world to find new beers, it seemed too easy to love such a common one. He had another favorite, though: Fruitillata, a milkshake-like beer made with strawberries and corn, brewed only 10 days a year by a tribe in remote South American mountains. One year, he just happened to show up in time for a drink. But then, that was what Eames did.

Eames, a beer historian nicknamed the “Indiana Jones of Beer,” died in his sleep on February 10. He was 59. His career took him across the world, researching beers and the innumerable ways they’re made, and he wrote his findings in books such as Secret Life of Beer.

“He was very passionate about things, and he would develop intense interest in things,” said his wife, Sheila, who was living with Eames in Dummerston, VT. “There’s so much history in beer that he never grew tired of learning about it, reading about it, talking about it.”

She said his introduction to beer came at a beach party in Maine when he was 17.

It was a Ballantine IPA. “He wrote about the attraction of the green of the bottle, the perfect fit in the hand, the wonderful smack of it when the beer hit his tongue,” Sheila says. “He was always interested in history, but I think that was his first real life-changing event, as far as beer went.”


Here’s some of the books he wrote, though he contributed to many more.

  • Ale Dreams
  • The Secret Life of Beer!: Exposed: Legends, Lore & Little-Known Facts
  • A Beer Drinker’s Companion (5000 years of quotes & anecdotes about beer)

And here’s an interview of Eames by Robert Lauriston, though I’m not sure when it took place. You can also listen to him on the Splendid Table program, from a show recorded February 12, 2000.

I remember when he passed away, and even wrote a blog post about him. I only met Eames once, but we spoke on the phone a couple of times. But by a weird quirk of coincidence, I ended up with several boxes of miscellaneous stuff that Pete Slosberg bought. The books in his collection were donated to UC Davis (I think) but the leftover papers, press releases and other oddball stuff ended up in my garage after Pete and Amy moved to a smaller apartment in San Francisco. But there was some pretty interesting stuff among the boxes.


5,000-Year-Old Beer Recipe Found In China

There was exciting news yesterday about a find in China by a research team from Stanford University. According to one source, “Archaeologists have discovered what they believe to be the earliest direct evidence of beer brewing in China, a trove of beer-making equipment dating from between 3400 and 2900 BCE, discovered at the Mijiaya site in Shaanxi province. Along with this archaeological find, scientists conducted an analysis of residue on the ancient pottery, jars, and funnels found, revealing a surprising recipe for the beer.” Their findings will be published in the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).

Here’s the abstract:

The pottery vessels from the Mijiaya site reveal, to our knowledge, the first direct evidence of in situ beer making in China, based on the analyses of starch, phytolith, and chemical residues. Our data reveal a surprising beer recipe in which broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and tubers were fermented together. The results indicate that people in China established advanced beer-brewing technology by using specialized tools and creating favorable fermentation conditions around 5,000 y ago. Our findings imply that early beer making may have motivated the initial translocation of barley from the Western Eurasia into the Central Plain of China before the crop became a part of agricultural subsistence in the region 3,000 y later.



This research reveals a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in which broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and tubers were fermented together. To our knowledge, our data provide the earliest direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, showing that an advanced beer-brewing technique was established around 5,000 y ago. For the first time, to our knowledge, we are able to identify the presence of barley in archaeological materials from China by applying a recently developed method based on phytolith morphometrics, predating macrobotanical remains of barley by 1,000 y. Our method successfully distinguishes the phytoliths of barley from those of its relative species in China.

I’m not sure how that squares with Chateau Jiahu, the beer made by Dogfish Head based on a 9,000-year-old find in China, from Northern China. They also found preserved pottery jars “in the Neolithic village of Jiahu, in Henan province.” The difference, as far as I can tell is the ingredients themselves, although in both they do use barley. This beer recipe calls for broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), Job’s tears (Coix lacryma-jobi), and tubers to be fermented, whereas the earlier one from Jiahu used “pre-gelatinized rice flakes, Wildflower honey, Muscat grapes, barley malt, hawthorn fruit, and Chrysanthemum flowers.” So their claim that this is older seems suspect unless there’s some qualifier I’m missing. As is typical, academic papers are only available online if you’re already an academic or are willing to pay to look at it for a short period of time, so I’ve not been able to look at their full claims or at the recipe itself, except what’s been written about it by more mainstream news outlets.

According to Gizmodo’s coverage:

Step aside with your claims to long legacies, craft breweries! This reconstructed beer recipe is over 5,000 years old. It’s the earliest beer recipe—and the earliest known use of barley—in China.

Archaeologists at Stanford University, while digging along China’s Wei River, made an intriguing discovery: A marvelously complete set of brewing equipment. And at the bottom of that equipment was something even more wonderful: Residue from the drink it once brewed.

After scrapping that gunk from the pots, researchers analyzed it and confirmed that it was, indeed, leftover froth from a 5,000-year-old beer. They were also able to pin down the recipe of that beer to an unlikely, but delicious-sounding, combination of broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and tubers.

So they claim, or rather Stanford claims, this is “the earliest known use of barley in China.” I didn’t think that the Chateau Jiahu added the barley to the original recipe, which was developed with the Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania, and I have a call into Dogfish Head to find out. But failing that, there’s a 4,000-year difference in the two claims that it seems hard for me to believe the Sanford team wouldn’t have uncovered.

The report from CBS News calls the barley a “secret ingredient,” which seems really odd, but seems to reflect the surprise of the researchers on this project. But McGovern’s find in the Jiahu area of China is more than ten years old, and got considerable media attention when the modern version of the beer was first released in 2007, so again I’m not sure a) how they could have missed it or b) what makes this find different, and if it is why none of the news reports are addressing that difference. Some news outlets, such as IFL Science, do mention that beer is older than 5,000 years, which is fairly well-known. Whether it was known in China at the very beginning, as it was in the fertile crescent seems to be gaining ground as a theory.

Although most of the paper is unavailable, there is supplemental information that is available, and that does give some information about the brewing process:



Mesoamerican Corn Beer Discovered on Ancient Teeth

The ancient city of Casas Grandes (a.k.a. Paquimé) is “a prehistoric archaeological site in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Construction of the site is attributed to the Mogollon culture. Casas Grandes has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.” It once was home to at least 3,000 people in the 14th century, and was most likely a trade center in its heyday. It was first excavated in the 1950s, and initial finds included hundreds of human remains. It was inhabbited beginning around 1130 CE and hit its peak after 1350 CE, but was inexplicably abandoned a century later by 1450 CE. It’s “regarded as one of the most significant Mogollon archaeological zones in the northwestern Mexico region.”


So you’d think it was pretty well mined for what could be learned from the ancient city. But a team of archeologists from the University of Calgary led by Dr. Anne Katzenberg is using new technologies to examine the plaque on the teeth of hundred sets of human remains, specifically what they call “tooth calculus,” which she says is “fossilized tooth tartar.”

Western Digs, which “is a science news site that investigates the archaeology, anthropology, and paleontology of the American West,” continues the story in First Evidence of Corn Beer in Southwest Discovered on Teeth From Ancient Burials:

“If teeth aren’t cleaned regularly, then the tartar, which can trap pretty much anything in it, such as algae, plants, fungus, or fibers, will slowly mineralize with everything stuck in it and turn into calculus, while the microremains turn into microfossils.”

To get at this microscopic evidence, the team recovered tartar from the remains of 110 people found within the ancient city and from other sites in the Casas Grandes River valley, all buried between 700 and 1450 CE.

Of those 110 samples, 63 yielded some sort of microscopic remains.

But what they’ve concluded is that there was a lot of corn beer being consumed, but more importantly “what archaeologists say is the first conclusive evidence of corn beer in the Greater Southwest.”


Here’s more from First Evidence of Corn Beer in Southwest Discovered on Teeth From Ancient Burials:

Three of the samples revealed granules of maize that bore the unmistakable signs of fermentation, he said — including swelling and fragmentation caused by being heated at three distinct temperatures, and striations created by the fermenting process.

These bloated, broken grains seem to be the result of making chicha — a corn beer whose use has been recorded in Central and South America for as much as 5,000 years, King said.

In those cultures, brewing and consuming chicha is thought to have held ceremonial value, but it may have held other functions as well, he noted.

“We don’t have enough information to determine [chicha’s] use,” King said.

“Based on ethnographic accounts, we default to ‘ritual’, although I always think that’s a cop-out answer.

“We know modern groups used corn beer or similar drinks in religious ceremonies, so that’s all we can go off of.”

In addition, King noted, the burial contexts of the samples haven’t yet been analyzed, so archaeologists can’t yet draw conclusions about whether beer consumption was limited, for example, to a certain social class.

Moreover, he added, this is the first “substantial evidence” of corn beer in the Greater Southwest, so it’s possible that chicha may have served a different function in Casas Grandes than it did in Mesoamerica.

When it comes to beer in the southwestern archaeological record, he said, “almost nothing exists for northern Mexico or the American Southwest. The results we posted may be the first of their kind for this region.”

King’s new findings, then, raise the question of how the custom of brewing corn beer arrived at Casas Grandes, as well as when, and by whom.

“The best archaeological evidence we have for corn beer and other alcoholic drinks comes from Peru or Mesoamerica,” King said.

“So, if anything, the idea for corn fermentation came up from the south, but that is still conjecture at this point.”

As for when beer came to town, his findings do provide some insights.

His team studied teeth dating back as far as the year 700, but the fermented granules were only detected on remains dated to the so-called Medio Period of Casas Grandes — a cultural heyday that spanned from about 1200 CE to 1450 CE — suggesting that chicha might have been a relatively recent phenomenon.

“Our results show that maize was used throughout various time periods, but evidence for maize fermentation only comes from the Medio period,” he said.

“This is not to say such use did not exist in the [earlier] period, only that our results don’t currently support that idea.”

But whether it was brewed, chewed, or cooked, the corn of Casas Grandes may, in time, teach us volumes, not just about diet, but also about the social interactions that shaped one of the most important cultural crossroads in ancient North America.

“The continuity of maize use throughout the two time periods is important,” King said.

“It may suggest a continuity of people, thereby supporting an in situ development.

“Turning maize into beer during the Medio period, however, could suggest an influx of new ideas — or perhaps even people — during that time, which might indicate outside influence — either foreigners coming to Casas Grandes, or locals traveling and coming back with new ideas.”

Why Greasy Food Tastes So Good When You’re Hungover

There’s nothing quite so tasty the next morning after a session of drinking that wakes you up with a pounding headache as greasy food. For me, greasy food is perfect for any meal, but it’s especially fitting after a night of overindulgence. I’ve often wondered why that is, or if it was anything more than the grease sopping up the leftover alcohol coursing through my veins. According to a short article in Popular Science a few years back that I just stumbled on entitled FYI: Why Do We Crave Greasy Food When We’re Hung Over?, the answer is, at least in part, because “we’re really just going back to our caveman roots.”

“All mammals gravitate to eating the most energy-dense foods,” David Levitsky, professor of human ecology and nutritional sciences at Cornell University, says. “Fat is the most energy-dense food available.” It’s just that sober, you won’t usually give in to those cravings. But after a night of boozy indulgence, you lose such learned inhibitions as disciplined eating, Levitsky says.

Or it might be galanin, a “brain chemical.”

William Gruchow, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has studied and written about galanin and its effects on various neurotransmitters. “Galanin increases appetite for fats, and consumption of fat causes more galanin to be produced,” Gruchow said. “Alcohol intake also results in increased galanin production.”

The thinking goes:

By consuming large quantities of high-fat foods and alcohol, you increase your triglycerides possibly stimulating galanin production. That, in turn, makes you crave that calorific Denny’s breakfast you’d never touch otherwise. “The bottom line here is that alcohol intake increases one’s appetite for fat, and fat intake does the same. This is a double whammy for drinkers who eat fatty foods while drinking,” Gruchow says.

And here I just thought it tasted good.


Intelligent People Drink More Alcohol

I saw this yesterday in the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity.com. In answer to the question “do intelligent people drink more alcohol,” two separate answers reached the same surprising conclusion. When I say surprising, I mean it will come as a shock to the anti-alcohol wingnuts who continue to deny any positive attributes whatsoever to drinking alcohol. Because while the answer isn’t that new, or that unpredictable, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time around responsible drinkers — wets vs. drys — you probably already knew that the answer is simply yes.

Their first answer was from Ian O’Neill, Discovery News’ Space Producer, who wrote:

Surprisingly, a recent study using data from the National Child Development Study in the United Kingdom and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in the United States indicates that intelligent people really do drink more alcohol.

By tracking the intelligence of children under the age of 16 and then revisiting them as adults, it turned out that kids who were considered “more bright” than others in their age group ended up drinking more alcohol later in life. Even after researchers canceled out marital status, parents’ education, earnings and childhood social class, smarter kids were drinking more alcohol as adults.

Why would intelligent people drink more alcohol? Some researchers suggest that as the production of alcohol is only a recent invention (within the last 10,000 years) and our ancestors had gotten their alcohol buzz from rotten fruit, the more intelligent humans would be more likely to drink modern alcoholic beverages. Although this is attractive evolutionary speculation, it’s more likely the real reasons are more complex.

The second answer was presented not by an individual, but as a group answer by Curiosity:

It’s a myth that alcohol kills individual brain cells, but drinking can cause long-term brain damage. That’s why researchers were surprised in 2010, when data from Britain and the United States revealed that more intelligent children, when grown and of legal age, tended to drink more alcohol than their less intelligent peers. The researchers were able to control for other factors that might affect a person’s propensity to drink, such as marital status and income, and the findings related to childhood intelligence held up. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why this link exists; one writer posited that drinking alcohol for pleasure is a relatively new thing, evolutionarily speaking. Intelligent people tend to try new things, so the writer argued that people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner are actually performing a novel act when you take a long view of history.

One of the longitudinal study each answer is referring to was The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) conducted here in the U.S., while the other was part of the UK’s massive National Child Development Study in the UK. I started writing about some of the conclusions drawn from the UK study several months ago, abandoning it when I got busy with other projects, but it’s still pretty interesting. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist who writes a blog for Psychology Today entitled the Scientific Fundamentalist, wrote More Intelligent People Are More Likely to Binge Drink and Get Drunk which covered much of the same ground. Although in it Kanazawa focuses on something I strongly disagree with. “Not only are more intelligent individuals more likely to consume more alcohol more frequently, they are more likely to engage in binge drinking and to get drunk.” That propensity to “binge drink,” I’d argue, has more to do with the narrowing definition of binge drinking than any actual increase in drinking. Binge drinking used to be a defined qualitatively but over the past few decades has become quantitative, meaning it’s become defined as a specific number of drinks in a set period of time, absent any context or mitigating factors (of which there could be many). And even that nonsensical number keeps shrinking and changing.

Kanazawa wonders aloud if that should be worrying. I have to say “no, Doc, it’s not.” Here’s why. Look at this chart below. It shows the correlation between intelligence and incidence of “binge drinking,” as defined using the modern absurdity of five drinks in a row.


But what this chart really says is that the most intelligent among us have just under five drinks one and a half times a year, roughly three times every two years. The horror! Or is it?

Even “controlling for age, sex, race, ethnicity, religion, marital status, parental status, education, earnings, political attitudes, religiosity, general satisfaction with life, taking medication for stress, experience of stress without taking medication, frequency of socialization with friends, number of sex partners in the last 12 months, childhood family income, mother’s education, and father’s education,” the smarter you are as a child, the more you’ll apparently drink as an adult. Isn’t it at least possible that the intelligent people are on to something? Maybe it’s not such a terrible thing after all.

Another psychologist who also writes for Psychology Today, Stanton Peele, wrote sort of a rebuttal to Kanazawa. In Are More Intelligent People More Likely to be Alcoholics?, he ponders.

So, we can ask, is getting drunk ‘once every other month or so good, bad, or neutral? Is it harmless — even beneficial? Is it a social convention? An exploration of the universe? Fun for people who are better off and can spare the time and who can protect themselves while having a night out drinking? Or is this behavior pathological, a precursor to alcoholism? Specifically, are more intelligent people more likely to be alcoholics?

To this, he posits three possibilities.

  • Although smarter people (as measured in childhood) get drunk more, they are less likely than dull people to become alcoholics. Does that mean that they are inured against alcoholism? The dominant theory here would be that being smart is a protective life asset.
  • They are just as likely to become alcoholics. Which would still be somewhat counterintuitive, since despite getting drunk far more often than dull people, they are no more likely to succumb to alcoholism.
  • Smart people are more likely to be alcoholics. This could follow from several theories of behavior: smart people tempt fate by drinking more, and thus they are more likely to become alcoholics. Or, smart people are inherently more likely to be alcoholics — perhaps being smart makes them more acutely aware of the world’s problems, or creates other damaging emotional states.

Which, he notes, is odd, since it would seem to suggest “childhood intelligence is a risk factor for alcoholism.” Are parents putting their children at risk by sending them to good schools, making them do their homework or encouraging them to read? Peele declares this to be something of a “quandary — something most people generally value leads to a behavior of which we disapprove.” And Kanazawa concludes that since “more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to engage in binge drinking and getting drunk,” then “occasional drunkenness is incompatible with regular moderate drinking.”

The fallacy with both these lines of thought, I believe, is that occasional drunkenness may not be the demon the medical community has come to believe. In their zeal to quantify everything, they’ve removed the problems in problem drinking and reduced it to a simple formula that clearly doesn’t work. By their standards, I’m an undisputed binge drinker, and yet I’d warrant I’m drunk less than many people. I can state clearly and unequivocally that I’m not an alcoholic, having grown up with and around countless actual problem drinkers. And without trying to sound too egotistical, I’m not an idiot, at least. I did reasonably well in school. Maybe that’s why I drink more now? Since most of the people I know also drink a fair amount, does that means beer drinkers tend to be smarter than non-drinkers? My anecdotal evidence says yes. But then I’m very biased. Don’t we all want to believe we have smart friends? Maybe, but I’m just happy if they like good beer. Of course, that may possibly be one and the same thing.

Sumerian Beer: The Origins of Brewing Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia

Peter Damerow, from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, has published online a lengthy paper about the origins of Sumerian brewing. Entitled Sumerian Beer: The Origins of Brewing Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia, it’s part of The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). The opening sentence gives a flavor of its purpose. “The following paper is concerned with the technology of brewing beer in the Sumerian culture of ancient Mesopotamia, which we know about from cuneiform texts of the 3rd millennium BC. and from reminiscences in later scribal traditions which preserved the Sumerian language and literature.”

It’s broken down in to seven sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Overview of the sources
  3. Beer types and ingredients in proto-cuneiform documents
  4. Beer types and ingredients in the Old Sumerian period
  5. Beer types and ingredients in the neo-Sumerian period
  6. The brewing of beer
  7. What kind of beer did the Sumerians brew?

Fig. 1: Impression of a Sumerian cylinder seal from the Early Dynastic IIIa period (ca. 2600 BC; see Woolley 1934, pl. 200, no. 102 [BM 121545]). Persons drinking beer are depicted in the upper row. The habit of drinking beer together from a large vessel using long stalks went out of fashion after the decline of Sumerian culture in the 2nd millennium BC.

I confess I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I did download the pdf of it so I can put it on my iPad. Still, just from skimming it appears fairly interesting, and a worthy piece to read over the holidays.

Did Lager Yeast Come From Patagonia?

You probably saw this little item, it’s been all over the interwebs over the last few days, about a group of eight scientists positing that a newly discovered yeast strain, dubbed Saccharomyces eubayanus, may have hitched a ride from Patagonia, in South America, to Europe where it got busy with local yeasts there — notably Saccharomyces cerevisiae — to form the yeast we know today as lager yeast, or Saccharomyces pastorianus (a.k.a. Saccharomyces carlsbergensis).

The academic paper, to be published in the August edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (or PNAS), goes by the rather dry title, Microbe domestication and the identification of the wild genetic stock of lager-brewing yeast. The Abstract summarizes the paper:

Domestication of plants and animals promoted humanity’s transition from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles, demographic expansion, and the emergence of civilizations. In contrast to the well-documented successes of crop and livestock breeding, processes of microbe domestication remain obscure, despite the importance of microbes to the production of food, beverages, and biofuels. Lager-beer, first brewed in the 15th century, employs an allotetraploid hybrid yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus (syn. Saccharomyces carlsbergensis), a domesticated species created by the fusion of a Saccharomyces cerevisiae ale-yeast with an unknown cryotolerant Saccharomyces species. We report the isolation of that species and designate it Saccharomyces eubayanus sp. nov. because of its resemblance to Saccharomyces bayanus (a complex hybrid of S. eubayanus, Saccharomyces uvarum, and S. cerevisiae found only in the brewing environment). Individuals from populations of S. eubayanus and its sister species, S. uvarum, exist in apparent sympatry in Nothofagus (Southern beech) forests in Patagonia, but are isolated genetically through intrinsic postzygotic barriers, and ecologically through host-preference. The draft genome sequence of S. eubayanus is 99.5% identical to the non-S. cerevisiae portion of the S. pastorianus genome sequence and suggests specific changes in sugar and sulfite metabolism that were crucial for domestication in the lager-brewing environment. This study shows that combining microbial ecology with comparative genomics facilitates the discovery and preservation of wild genetic stocks of domesticated microbes to trace their history, identify genetic changes, and suggest paths to further industrial improvement.

Mainstream media, picking up the story, has sensationalized it, looking for the human angle. For example the L.A. Times compared the discovery to finding the evolutionary missing link, titling their piece Scientists find lager beer’s missing link — in Patagonia. Essentially, they detail the scientists’ five-year quest to answer the question of where lager yeast originated, and how it came to be. The answer, according to the new paper, is a newly found strain of yeast discovered in the forests of Argentina’s Patagonia region. The wild yeast was named Saccharomyces eubayanus, and it was found living on beech trees.

According to the Times’ report:

Their best bet is that centuries ago, S. eubayanus somehow found its way to Europe and hybridized with the domestic yeast used to brew ale, creating an organism that can ferment at the lower temperatures used to make lager.

Geneticists have known since the 1980s that the yeast brewers use to make lager, S. pastorianus, was a hybrid of two yeast species: S. cerevisiae — used to make ales, wine and bread — and some other, unidentified organism.

Then one of the eight, Diego Libkind, a professor at the Institute for Biodiversity and Environment Research in Bariloche, Argentina, discovered sugar-rich galls on southern beech trees in Patagonia. Yeast were drawn to the galls like a moth to a flame, and had been used by native populations to make a fermented beverage. The yeast in the galls was sent to the University of Colorado, who analyzed the genome, finding that it was 99.5% identical to lager yeast. They named the new yeast Saccharomyces eubayanus, presumably because of its similarity to Saccharomyces bayanus, a yeast commonly used to make cider and wine. Said Stanford geneticist Gavin Sherlock, quoted in the L.A. Times: “The DNA evidence is strong.”


Naturally, Sherlock, and many others have been wondering how Saccharomyces eubayanus hitched a ride to Bavaria at a time when there was no known contact between the two parts of the world, separated by an ocean and some 8,000 miles. The article also states that “Lager was invented in the 1400s,” though my memory is that European brewers were using lager yeast well before that, and it was the lagering process was developed in the 1400s, but perhaps I’m not remembering that correctly.


In an interesting development surrounding this debate, U. Penn biomolecular archeologist, Patrick McGovern (author of Uncorking the Past), weighed in with his thoughts at the MSNBC article about this story, Beer mystery solved! Yeast ID’d. Here’s what McGovern had to say, as summarized by author John Roach:

Assuming the genetics work is correct, he said he is “troubled by how this newly discovered wild yeast strain made it into Bavaria in the 1500s.”

For one, he noted, Germans, and especially Bavarians, were not involved in the European exploration of Patagonia at the time. So, if the yeast somehow hitched a ride back to Europe via trade with the English, Spanish, and Portuguese, how did it get to Bavaria?

“Perhaps, some Patagonian beech was used to make a wine barrel that was then transported to Bavaria and subsequently inoculated a batch of beer there?” he asked. “Seems unlikely.”

He said a more likely scenario is that galls in the oak forests of southern Germany also harbored S. eubayanus, at least until it was out competed by the more ubiquitous S. cerevisiae.

“If true, then the use of European oak in making beer barrels and especially processing vats, which could harbor the yeast, might better explain the Bavarian ‘discovery’ of lager in the 1500s,” he said.

Nevertheless, he added, history and archaeology are full of surprises.

“Nowhere is this more true than of the seemingly miraculous process of fermentation and the key role of alcohol in human culture and life itself on this planet,” he said.

“This article has begun to unravel the complicated heritage and life history of the fermentation yeasts, and will hopefully stimulate more research to see whether the Patagonian hypothesis proves correct.”

Diplomatically put, because as everyone admits, the find in South America may not be the exclusive area where Saccharomyces eubayanus lives, just the first place it’s been found. The human history portion of this story doesn’t seem to quite fit at this point, but it’s certainly a compelling story and it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop.


Dig, Drink And Be Merry

The current issue of Smithsonian magazine has an interesting article about archeologist Patrick McGovern, who’s at the University of Pennsylvania and his work uncovering evidence of early alcoholic beverages. His particular sub-field is molecular anthropology and he has a great book about his work titled Uncorking the Past. The Smithsonian piece is entitled Dig, Drink And Be Merry in the print version, but is called The Beer Archeologist online.

Patrick McGovern

Also prominent in the article is his collaboration with Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head and their latest concoction, an Egyptian ale called Ta Henket, whose recipe dates back several hundred centuries. The ingredients includes Middle Eastern spices such as za’atar, along with chamomile and dried doum-palm fruit.

Sam Calagione

One of my favorite new beer quotes I discovered in the article, too. Walking the halls of the University of Pennsylvania, the article’s author — Abigail Tucker — details an encounter between Dr. McGovern and a fellow professor, Alexei Vranich (an expert on pre-Columbia Peru). After a short discussion, Vranich thanks McGovern for his research, and quips. “I keep telling people that beer is more important than armies when it comes to understanding people.”

Late in the article, there’s also a nice overview of the emerging “beer before bread” debate within science and the origin of fermented beverages generally.

A display showing the ingredients used in the ancient Egyptian brew Ta Henket. (All photographs from the Smithsonian article by Landon Nordeman)

Nubian Antibiotic Beer

For reasons passing understanding, apart from anti-alcohol propaganda, beer is forbidden from advertising its many recognized health benefits. For people against alcohol, saying beer is good for you, or at least isn’t bad for you (in moderation), is apparently the same as saying “drink up.” And for goodness sake, we’d never want to tell people to do something that might be good for their health, especially if a small minority can’t handle the truth … er, the beer.

But despite our peculiar inability to be reasonable regarding alcohol, beer and health have been inextricably linked since the beginning of civilization when drinking beer was safer than the water. But there may have been at least one more medicinal use of beer, at least in the variety brewed by ancient Nubians, “an ethnic group originally from northern Sudan, and southern Egypt now inhabiting East Africa and some parts of Northeast Africa.” And for a time, they even ruled over ancient Egypt, beginning in the 25th Dynasty.

Conventional wisdom has it that the use of antibiotics is a modern invention, thought to be no more than eighty years old, but archeologists have found in the bones of ancient Nubian skeletons traces of tetracycline, “a broad-spectrum polyketide antibiotic produced by the Streptomyces genus of Actinobacteria, indicated for use against many bacterial infections.” This suggests that the use of antibiotics may be 2,000 years older than previously thought.

From Discovery News‘ coverage:

Some of the first people to use antibiotics, according to the research, may have lived along the shores of the Nile in Sudanese Nubia, which spans the border of modern Egypt and Sudan.

“Given the amount of tetracycline there, they had to know what they were doing,” said co-author George Armelagos, a biological anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “They may not have known what tetracycline was, but they certainly knew something was making them feel better.”

Armelagos was part of a group of anthropologists that excavated the mummies in 1963. His original goal was to study osteoporosis in the Nubians, who lived between about 350 and 550 A.D. But while looking through a microscope at samples of the ancient bone under ultraviolet light, he saw what looked like tetracycline — an antibiotic that was not officially patented in modern times until 1950.

And Physorg.com adds this, from Emory anthropologist George Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals:

“We tend to associate drugs that cure diseases with modern medicine,” Armelagos says. “But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this prehistoric population was using empirical evidence to develop therapeutic agents. I have no doubt that they knew what they were doing.”

Armelagos is a bioarcheologist and an expert on prehistoric diets. In 1980, he discovered what appeared to be traces of tetracycline in human bones from Nubia dated between A.D. 350 and 550. The ancient Nubian kingdom was located in present-day Sudan, south of ancient Egypt.

Armelagos and his fellow researchers later tied the source of the antibiotic to the Nubian beer. The grain used to make the fermented gruel contained the soil bacteria streptomyces, which produces tetracycline. A key question was whether only occasional batches of the ancient beer contained tetracycline, which would indicate accidental contamination with the bacteria.

Their results were published in the September issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology Here’s the abstract:

Histological evidence of tetracycline use has been reported in an ancient X-Group population (350–550 CE) from Sudanese Nubia (Bassett et al., 1980). When bone samples were examined by fluorescent microscopy under UV light at 490 Å yellow–green fluorophore deposition bands, similar to those produced by tetracycline, were observed, suggesting significant exposure of the population to the antibiotic. These reports were met skeptically with claims that the fluorescence was the result of postmortem taphonomic infiltration of bacteria and fungi. Herein, we report the acid extraction and mass spectroscopic characterization of the antibiotic tetracycline from these samples. The bone samples were demineralized in anhydrous hydrogen fluoride which dissolved the bone-complexed tetracycline, followed by isolation by solid phase extraction on reverse-phase media. Chemical characterization by high pressure liquid chromatography mass-spectroscopic procedures showed that the retention times and mass spectra of the bone extract were identical to tetracycline when treated similarly. These results indicate that a natural product tetracycline was detectable within the sampled bone and was converted to the acid-stable form, anhydrotetracycline, with a mass + H of 427.1 amu. Our findings show that the bone sampled is labeled by the antibiotic tetracycline, and that the NAX population ingested and were exposed to tetracycline-containing materials in their dietary regime.

As they discovered, the most likely source of their “dietary regime” that included the antibiotic was Nubian beer. Back in 2000, Armelagos figured out it was most likely the beer, and he published his findings in the magazine Natural History, in an articled entitled Take Two Beers and Call Me in 1,600 Years.

But back to Discovery News:

His team’s first report about the finding, bolstered by even more evidence and published in Science in 1980, was met with lots of skepticism. For the new study, he got help dissolving bone samples and extracting tetracycline from them, clearly showing that the antibiotic was deposited into and embedded within the bone, not a result of contamination from the environment.

The analyses also showed that ancient Nubians were consuming large doses of tetracycline — more than is commonly prescribed today as a daily dose for controlling infections from bad acne. The team, including chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, reported their results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

They were also able to trace the antibiotic to its source: Grain that was contaminated with a type of mold-like bacteria called Streptomyces. Common in soil, Strep bacteria produce tetracycline antibiotics to kill off other, competing bacteria.

Grains that are stored underground can easily become moldy with Streptomyces contamination, though these bacteria would only produce small amounts of tetracycline on their own when left to sit or baked into bread. Only when people fermented the grain would tetracycline production explode. Nubians both ate the fermented grains as gruel and used it to make beer.

The scientists are working now to figure out exactly how much tetracycline Nubians were getting, but it appears that doses were high that consumption was consistent, and that drinking started early. Analyses of the bones showed that babies got some tetracycline through their mother’s milk.

Then, between ages two and six, there was a big spike in antibiotics deposited in the bone, Armelagos said, suggesting that fermented grains were used as a weaning food.

Today, most beer is pasteurized to kill Strep and other bacteria, so there should be no antibiotics in the ale you order at a bar, said Dennis Vangerven, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

But Armelagos has challenged his students to home-brew beer like the Nubians did, including the addition of Strep bacteria. The resulting brew contains tetracycline, tastes sour but drinkable, and gives off a greenish hue.

Maybe that could be used for St. Patrick’s Day? As for the antibiotics, they’re not even the only medicinal uses of beer in ancient in times, according to Armelagos:

The first of the modern day tetracyclines was discovered in 1948. It was given the name auereomycin, after the Latin word “aerous,” which means containing gold. “Streptomyces produce a golden colony of bacteria, and if it was floating on a batch of beer, it must have look pretty impressive to ancient people who revered gold,” Nelson theorizes.

The ancient Egyptians and Jordanians used beer to treat gum disease and other ailments, Armelagos says, adding that the complex art of fermenting antibiotics was probably widespread in ancient times, and handed down through generations.

Pretty fascinating stuff. It’s too bad you can’t get antibiotics today by the case … or keg.


Civilization’s First Decision: Orgies Or Beer?

Gizmodo has an intriguing post up right now, combining ideas from two books about early man and the dawn of civilization, Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality and Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. In Orgies or Beer? You Only Get One, author Joel Johnson speculates that early man eschewed group sex with multiple partners to settle down and make beer, setting us on the path to modern civilization, monogamy and the happy hour. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, it’s a pretty funny idea. (In other words, you can safely ignore the many outraged commenters who seem to have confused Gizmodo with an academic journal, they’re an entirely different kind of funny.)

As Patrick McGovern makes the case in Uncorking the Past, a growing body of evidence is pointing to alcohol — and most likely beer, or a rudimentary form of it, at least — as the reason early nomadic man settled down, in order to grow the crops to insure a steady supply of it. In other words, beer, rather than bread, may have been responsible for civilization as we know it today, with all its good and bad developments and legacies. In the newer book, Sex at Dawn, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá argue that what we gave up for civilization, agriculture and beer was free love, group sex and orgies. Gizmodo summarizes the book’s claims in chart form.


One thing that’s funny about the chart is that everything leads to war, and the most hate-filled comment that I ever received was from someone calling himself “The Savagist” who took that same view to ridiculous heights. He vehemently believed that beer and alcohol were directly responsible for every bad thing that ever happened in the history of mankind, ignoring anything good that civilization also brought. Given his epithet, one might have reasonably presumed he had or wanted to return to that savage “pre-civilized” time, but he was obviously still living in a building, with electricity, and typing on a computer connected to the internet, with no sense of irony. Apparently, when he looked in Pandora’s Box, there was no hope at all after beer released all the evil into the world. Me, I found hope … and hops.

But back to Sex at Dawn, and the key points, as laid down in the Gizmodo article:

  • Before humans settled down into civilization, we were small bands of hunter-gatherers who had no notion of sexual monogamy. Within our relatively small tribes, most humans had multiple partners, primarily from within the tribal group, although occasionally we’d have a dalliance with a stranger to keep the DNA pool zesty. Children had multiple social “fathers,” jealousy was nearly nonexistent, and relatively easy access to calories kept us fit, happy, and satisfied well into our 70s and 80s—provided we managed to get past the perils of high mortality rates expected from a wild environment and primitive medicine.
  • Upon the discovery of agriculture, nomadic wandering was no longer possible—someone has to stick around to water the crops—so the ideas of property and inheritance became sadly useful. Domesticated food could become scarce, unlike the effectively endless bounty of hunter-gathering (ignoring the occasional climate-torqued famine or run of bad luck), so hoarding became necessary to ensure calories even in lean times. It’s a lot of work to farm, so it became important to ensure that you weren’t wasting your precious grains on someone else’s offspring, especially if it meant you own kid was getting short shrift. Hence monogamy, marriage, and the unfortunate concept of partners as property, manifested in agrarian societies as a tendency to view women as chattel.
  • Our genes, still tuned toward sexual novelty, cause us to really hate being monogamous, but societal pressures—including centralized codified religion—force men and women into an arrangement that brings with it just as many problems as it solves. Men cheat, women wither in sexual shackles (or, you know, cheat), wars erupt over resources or sexual exclusivity, cats and dogs almost start sleeping together except they’re afraid the neighbors might find out—Old Testament, real wrath of God-type stuff.

But accidental alcohol was around for probably millions of years and the “drunken monkey hypothesis” proposed by biologist Robert Dudley “attempts to explain why our bodies have evolved such a happy capacity for metabolizing ethanol.” McGovern extends that idea in Uncorking the Past.

On average, both abstainers and bingers have shorter, harsher lives. The human liver is specially equipped to metabolize alcohol, with about 10 percent of its enzyme machinery, including alcohol dehydrogenase, devoted to generating energy from alcohol. Our organs of smell can pick up wafting alcoholic aromas, and our other senses detect the myriad compounds that permeate ripe fruit.

A couple of years ago, this came up in a different context, in a post I wrote entitled Beer and Civilization which discussed a book by Steven Johnson entitled The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. In Johnson’s book, he discusses how at the dawn of civilization, survival often depended on how a person’s body reacted to and could tolerate the beer that was generally safer to drink than water. Over time, only people who were genetically predisposed with the ability to drink large quantities of beer survived, passing that trait down to their children so that perhaps today most of us have such an ancestor as evidenced simply by the fact that we’re here. As [George] Will (and Johnson) explains.

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors — by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. “Most of the world’s population today,” Johnson writes, “is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol.”

But sitting here in my pajamas, typing on my laptop, beer in hand, surrounded by the trappings of modern society, I can’t help but think we made the right choice. I know the world has many, many challenges and problems but would any of us be happier crawling around the Savannah in a loincloth hunting (and gathering) for our next meal — and without a beer to pair with it? Beer may have been responsible for the single greatest butterfly effect in our civilization’s history because it’s nearly impossible to say what life might be like had we not taken the path we’re on. Did we give up orgies for our beer and civilization? Who knows, but I still think we chose wisely.

Another funny and very interesting excerpt from Sex at Dawn is The Flintstonization of Prehistory in which modern morals and values are super-imposed on to the past.