Why Are We Magnetized By Beers of the Past?

On Monday, archaeologists revealed evidence of a 5,000-year-old Chinese brewery. It got picked up quite broadly and for good reason--it's pretty cool. (Follow the link if you missed it.) What was odd was that I had just returned from a junket to Copenhagen, where the Carlsberg brewery was unveiling their own project involving old beer--recreating an 1883 beer they found in their extensive cellars. Over the past couple decades, breweries and archaeologists have made a cottage industry of recreating lost beers, and we are always, without fail, magnetized by it. Serious question: why?

One of the actual
The Carlsberg experiment was a case-in-point. Conceptually, it was very cool. The brewery found these old bottles and realized they dated to a period of bottle-conditioning. (I got to take a trip down to one small part of the cellars and came across a different box of dust-encrusted old cage-and-cork bottles of very distant vintage. They're apparently laying all over the place.) Even after 133 years, they managed to rouse the yeast enough to get it to propagate, and they decided to make a beer from it.

Old brewing logs are great about some things and bad about others. Recipes from the era made it easy to replicate the water, and they went to a seed bank for old varieties of barley, which they had floor-malted at a distillery. (Later, to give the malt the proper 1880s color, they kilned it a bit more.) Hops were more of a mystery. They had some evidence of the provenance--Hallertau--but nothing about the variety or alphas. They decided to use Hallertauer Hallertau and guessed at the bitterness. It took a couple years to get everything in place, and the brewery went into high drive to celebrate its release. You can see a video they put together here, along with a cameo by Martyn Cornell. And of course, they flew me and dozens of members of the media in from all over the world to try the beer.

They finished it off in a wooden barrel for a week--though strangely, an unpitched wooden barrel, which would not have been typical of the day. We were given a tour of some of the technical facilities in Copenhagen (the main brewery is no longer located there) and then joined the brewery for the big unveiling.

The night before, Pete Brown made an obvious point that I think eluded the brewery. They'd set up sort of a no-win situation. Either the beer was going to be sublime, which was the ostensible expectation, or it would be a dud. If it were a dud--well, that's obviously not good. But if it were sublime, it would cast an odd shadow over the brewery's 21st century beers. Carlsberg, which is run by a foundation that diverts some profits into technical research, has a heavy R&D bent. The project itself, whatever the beer tasted like, was going to be interesting as a science experiment. I'm sure they learned a great deal. (Not the least of which was that 133-year-old yeast is still viable.)

But on the big day, we tried the beer and .... Well, care to guess? Here's a picture:

And here's the ceremony:


Guesses? Guesses? It was ... all right. And now we come back to the the question from the top of the post. The beer had an antiquated quality. It was brownish and heavy, quite sweet and undercarbonated. Pale lagers were in the midst of taking over the world, and they were replacing old brown beers. And they were replacing old brown beers, presumably, because they weren't as tasty. We always romanticize the past, thinking that industrial precision and agricultural manipulation have surely brought us to a benighted state. And that's not entirely without merit--heirloom apples taste a lot better than giant supermarket fruit.

But I think it's wrong with beer. I've had the opportunity to sample a few recreations, and they always taste weird and un-modern. Attenuation was terrible, so they're usually heavy and sweet. I don't think recreations tend to capture the microbiological capriciousness of old beers, either. Technology has given us the tools to make the beer we want now, and much more ably and precisely than at any time in the past. The idea of time-traveling through our tastebuds is alluring, but it's foolsgold. I'm convinced the past didn't taste very good.