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Bock of Ages

Move over, Indiana Jones. The latest trend in brewing is thousands of years in the making.

Many beers have quirky origin stories, but the ones Travis Rupp brews come with epics that stretch on for centuries. Rupp is a classics lecturer at the University of Colorado Boulder and a brewer at Avery Brewing Company in Boulder, where his job title is beer archaeologist—he makes new beers based on ancient recipes.

Rupp’s process begins with deep research. He spends days in libraries, “reading a lot of journals, reading a lot of history books. But where I get a lot of my ideas is archaeological reports. I’ll look for analyses from excavations that point to certain plant life, or see if they were processing grains in a certain way.” Then, he goes to the place where the beer was made and conducts on-site research, looking for evidence in museums, the natural environment, and the local cultures that exist today.

Rupp’s first beer for Avery, released in September 2016, was called Nestor’s Cup, an Iliad reference and a nod to the beer’s roots in Mycenaean Greece. The ingredients included figs, acorn flour, and elderberries—not exactly familiar tastes for a modern drinker.

“I had no idea what it was going to taste like. I wasn’t sure what the wild yeast would do to the flavor profile,” Rupp says, before adding, with an exuberant chuckle, “But we decided to just go for it.”

Nestor’s Cup turned out to be rich, slightly tart, and fruity—and instantly popular, selling out its first tank in 10 weeks. Since then, Rupp has made three more ancient beers: Khonsu Im-Heb, from Egypt around 1100 B.C.; Pachamama, from the Peruvian Andes, circa 1200 A.D.; and, in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, an ale called Ragnarsdrápa, inspired by ninth-century Vikings. Avery calls them the Ales of Antiquity, and with each launch, Rupp hosts a lecture, with a dinner and beer pairing.

Sometimes the historic techniques and ingredients have disappeared, but often they’re still in use. That isn’t to say Rupp can use them for his purpose—the small-batch methods may not translate well to the scale of Avery’s output, or his machinery may not be able to handle the ingredients.

Using so many unfamiliar ingredients means Rupp is constantly uncertain what, exactly, to expect of the final product.

With Pachamama, Rupp ran into both problems. The beer is a type of chicha, a South American drink most commonly brewed with corn, and still made in Peru using traditional methods, which include chewing the corn. Human saliva contains an enzyme called alpha-amylase, which initiates the fermentation process by breaking down starches; mastication really is a critical step. So for Rupp’s first attempt at making Pachamama, that’s exactly what he and his colleagues did: chewed and chewed and chewed. “It just makes your jaw so unbelievably sore and tired,” Rupp recalls. The corn also got stuck in Avery’s brewing system. For the second attempt, Rupp found mass-produced alpha-amylase online—less authentic, perhaps, but more effective and efficient for his needs.

Using so many unfamiliar ingredients and techniques means Rupp is constantly uncertain what, exactly, to expect of the final product. But the challenge and the mystery are part of the appeal. After the surprise popularity of Nestor’s Cup—patrons still request it, a year after its limited run—Rupp was emboldened and got more experimental with Khonsu Im-Heb, the Egyptian beer. It was wildly fermented (meaning the container was left open to absorb natural yeast in the air) and made using only ingredients found in ancient Egypt, including emmer wheat and kamut wheat. “For most of us at the brewery, that’s our favorite,” Rupp says. “It’s sour and light and refreshing.”

Avery is planning eight new Ales of Antiquity in 2018, and it’s a globe-hopping, centuries-spanning lineup. There’s one that Rupp has been planning with Umbrian monks, a colonial American beer he’s creating in collaboration with the Smithsonian, and another made in partnership with the only craft brewery in Jordan. There’s also a “dinosaur beer,” made using the oldest known variety of hops—which happens to come from Colorado—and yeast propagated from amber, a process Rupp compares, excitedly, to Jurassic Park. 

Rupp says that the beers he’s made so far have made him realize that thinking of their own craft-brew epoch as the high point in beer making may be “a little bit pretentious.”

“It turns out that ancient beer,” he says, “is pretty damn good—at least so far.”


Doug Mack is a journalist and the author of The Not-Quite States of America, a travelogue about the U.S. territories. He lives in Minneapolis. Email him at doug@douglasmack.net.

Illustration by Tim Tomkinson

Originally Published December 2017