Gorging Gudea style

By Razib Khan | June 18, 2013 10:11 am

He liked a good brew!

Kevin Zelnio recently made me aware of this fascinating piece in The New York Times, For Its Latest Beer, a Craft Brewer Chooses an Unlikely Pairing: Archaeology. Here’s the catchiest aspect: a microbrewery is attempting to recreate the taste of ancient Sumerian beer! Why? Though it’s purportedly educational, obviously it’s also the “cool” factor which is at the root of this enterprise. The brewery doesn’t aim to sell this. I say why not!

A few years ago Paul Boom wrote the book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. This may seem like a trivial exploration of a topic, after all, who doesn’t know how pleasure works? But when you plumb the depths of genuine hedonism there are often rapid diminishing marginal returns when you simply apply a robotic calculus of more sensory vividness. Rather than a stronger chocolate, sometimes you want a finer chocolate. But what does that even mean? One thing that a standard hedonistic account of pleasure often underplays is that it is not a simple toting of sensory qualities. Rather, it is the essence of the thing that matters.

Lover of fine things!

Credit: www.kremlin.ru

An example will suffice to illustrate what I’m talking about. There is a bizarre story in the media right now about Vladimir Putin being involved in stealing a Patriots Super Bowl ring. I haven’t followed the story closely. But, I can tell you that the reason this is a story is not because of the physical value of the ring. It is because it is a Super Bowl ring. Rationally as human beings we understand that things are reducible to quarks and leptons, but hundreds of millions of years of evolution have hard-wired us with a sort of essentialism which tell us deep in our bones that there is a fundamental ineffable ontology to particular objects in the world. The nature of these objects is tied not just up in what they are in a proximate sense, but where they have been.

How does this apply to Sumerian beer? I believe one of the appeals of the Paleo diet is that it is purportedly the diet of our ancestors, and that has an innate appeal, because it feels deeply authentic.* This has pleasurable consequences. Similarly, the idea of drinking like the Sumerians has genuine value in and of itself in terms of hedonism, no matter the quality of the beer. Because of the downsides of modern processed foods one might argue that a fad for retro ancient food rooted in irrational instincts may actually be greatly beneficial to our society.

Delenda est processed food!

Of course the qualifier here is that we’d eat like a prosperous Roman, not the marginal peasant subsisting on gruel. But though there is an aspect of contemporary culinary arts which tend toward futuristic sophistication, such as molecular gastronomy, there is also a strain which leans upon simple and spare preparations. It may benefit American public health and our gustatory experience if an industry arose which marketed itself not as “health food,” but as “authentic food.” Eating a hearty Roman meal worthy of Cato the Elder, and wash it out with a beer which would have brought a smile to stern Hammarubi’s face! Silly, but sillier than a twinkie?

* I do not wish to get into discussing the Paleo diet, but I do think that empirically it is beneficial for many people because it gets them away from loading up on processed sugar rich foods.

MORE ABOUT: Beer, Food, Sumerians
  • Paul Conroy

    Wouldn’t Sumerian would be more Neolithic or even bronze Age?

    it’s interesting how marketing works, in Ireland Guinness drinkers are old, working-class men, in the USA it’s young, educated and often liberal youth who drink it. In the Caribbean and West Africa it’s a very popular beer (actually stout) and men imbue it with aphrodisiac qualities, a Ghanaian friend once told me that in Africa it was seen as, “Making you stronger…”, nudge, nudge, wink, wink…

    • razibkhan

      wasn’t connect sumerian beer to paleo diet directly.

  • marcel proust

    Doesn’t eating like a prosperous Roman include overdoing
    it (much like a modern American) and then vomiting?

  • Kevin Bonham

    This has been a fad in recent years – making beers according to old or ancient recipes. There are several problems with this approach: the modern yeast strains we use are decidedly different from the “spirits” that inhabited the sites of brewing in ancient times. Even if these guys do open-batch brewing, there’s no telling whether the natural strains that live in an area are similar to those that lived there thousands of years ago.

    Besides that, everything from the age of the barley to the salt content of the water can have profound effects on the flavor of the beer. Even if they magically got the right yeast(s) – which they won’t – other factors will confound the process.

    As a side note, I’m guessing that the reason they won’t sell this is because previous attempts at this sort of thing have led to products that were not particularly tasty. Novelty is one thing, but going through the process of labeling and distribution for a product that each customer is only likely to drink once is probably not worth it.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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