You know you’re a historic beer geek when … well, certainly when you immediately recognise a drawing of the plant bog myrtle on a bottle among the crammed shelves at Utobeer in Borough Market.
The name of the beer, Gageleer, from the Flemish word for the bog myrtle or sweet gale bush, gagel, confirmed what I had guessed from my initial glimpse: this was a Belgian brew flavoured with what was probably the most important plant used in pre-hop ales, Myrica gale, the heavily-scented heathland shrub that grows in wetlands throughout the British Isles, called gagellan in Old English, and also known as piment royale in French, Porst in German and pors in the Scandinavian languages.
Ping! It’s an email from the chaps at Thornbridge with details of their Bracia chestnut honey beer, the one raved over by more than just me at the Guild of Beer Writers dinner last week. The press release details exactly what goes into the beer, and also reveals where they got the name from: Bracia is, they say, “the Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire … [made] with cereals and, most probably, honey”
Aargh, ooh, er, cripes, well, no, actually, very sorry, guys, you’re wrong. Bracia isn’t the name of a type of Celtic beer.
There is a word, bracis, which was known from Pliny’s Natural History, written around AD 77, and which he says is the Gallic name for a “ genus farris“, or type of grain.
The word was largely unknown apart from that one reference until the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden writing boards dating to the last years of the first century and early years of the second century AD found at a Roman fort a few miles south of the later Hadrian’s Wall, close to the modern English/Scottish border.
These tablets reveal, among many other fascinating facts about the lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around AD 100-120 (such as they wore socks with their sandals – very British), that they were supplied with locally brewed beer, which was made from bracis.
Ha! As I wrote yesterday, researchers in yeast genetics are changing the story on the history of yeast all the time, and the day I put that post up, new findings on the genetics of lager yeast came out which, as New Scientistreported, take the hybridisation narrative further down the road to a fascinating destination.
To quote New Scientist, Gavin Sherlock and Barbara Dunn of Stanford University, California, compared the genes of 17 lager and ale yeast strains across the world, with origins dating from between 1883 and 1976, and derived from breweries as diverse as Carlsberg and Labatt, Rainier and Heineken:
It has long been thought that Saccharomyces pastorianus, the yeast used in lager production, formed only once from the hybridisation of S. cerevisiae and S. bayanus. Instead, the team discovered that it happened at least twice in two separate locations in Europe, giving rise to the two different lager families … The hybrid, which makes lager instead of ale, probably evolved in Bavarian beer-brewing cellars during the 16th century.
The team also found that Saaz yeasts have a single copy of each parent yeast’s genome, whereas the Frohberg yeasts have an extra copy from S. cerevisiae. They believe this difference affects the flavour of the lager, as well as how quickly the yeasts can ferment the hops
[my emphasis, and sic, fer gawd’s sake. Bloody journalists … do they know nothing?]
Around 80 million years ago, when Triceratops still browsed the plains of what wasn’t yet North America, some flowering plant species developed a new strategy to spread their seeds, encasing them in a soft, fleshy cover – fruit – that became sweet and tasty as everything ripened. The fruit was then eaten by animals, which would subsequently deposit the seeds far away from the mother plant, and with the addition of some useful fertiliser as well.
It did not take long, however, for enterprising funguses to start exploiting the sugar in the ripe fruits for their own growth and development, using oxygen to break the sugar down into carbon dioxide and water, releasing energy at the same time. If there was no oxygen about they would turn the sugar, via acetaldehyde, into alcohol, and make energy that way, although they very much preferred not to: alcohol was poisonous.
These funguses mostly reproduced by budding – dividing into two, and giving each daughter cell a complete copy of her mother’s genes. However, on one occasion, at least, a daughter received two copies of her mother’s genome instead of one. The daughter’s descendants evolved this spare set of genes so that, unlike their ancestors, they could make alcohol all the time, not just in the absence of oxygen. The spare copy of the gene that created the enzyme that turned acetaldehyde into alcohol also evolved so that it could do this trick in reverse – turn alcohol into acetaldehyde.
What these changes enabled the clever little fungus – the ancestor of brewing yeast – to do when it landed on sugary fruit was to quickly flood its environment with alcohol, which was toxic to most of its microbial rivals (our double-genome yeast had, of course, also evolved greater tolerance to alcohol, to cope with the extra alcohol it now created). Once it had swamped the area with alcohol, and thus seen off rival funguses, it could then win even more energy by turning the alcohol into acetaldehyde.
The alcohol content of over-ripe fruit attacked by yeast has been tested at as high as 4.5 per cent, and there is a theory that humans like alcohol in part because our early primate ancestors learned to associate its smell with the presence of ripe, sugary fruit – a sort of ancient alcopop. Appreciating alcohol, therefore, looks to be something deep in humanity’s genes, going back to when we lived in trees and were still covered in fur.