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Going for the Ancient Gusto

November 11, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago, Fritz Maytag saw a newspaper article about ancient Sumerian beer. On Sunday, he recounted his experience of trying a 5,000-year-old beer recipe before a sold-out audience at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Maytag makes no claim to be a scholar of ancient Mesopotamian languages--he is, as most beer lovers know, the proprietor of the Anchor Steam Beer Co. of San Francisco. But because of his practical experience as a beer-maker, he was able to clear up some obscure points. He has convinced scholars that a word that had been translated as "sweet herbs" was just a sweetener, such as honey or dates.

Technically, the subject of his talk was an idea anthropologists have toyed with since the 1940s: that people might have given up their hunting and gathering ways and started raising grain for the sake of beer, not bread.

It did faintly weaken the case for beer that the Sumerian recipe (derived from a hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing) is based on fermenting a flatbread called bappir. The Sumerians also kept warehouses filled with bappir as an emergency food ration.

For his first batch of Sumerian beer, in 1989, Maytag made bappir from honey and barley. For his second batch in 1991, he used dates and a primitive durum wheat called emmer, whose grains are encased in a tough husk, making for what you might call a high-fiber beer. Maytag pointed out that the Sumerians originally drank beer through straws for just this reason.

How did it taste? Bready, Maytag said, with a pleasant sweetness from the dates, but only slightly effervescent and rather weak, with only half the alcoholic content of a mild American beer. There was none of the refreshing bitterness of hops, because hops weren't used in beer-making until the late Middle Ages.

"So how was it?" somebody asked.

"Much better than no beer at all," said the beer-maker loyally.

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