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The Frozen Horse That Begat a Beer

January 30, 2018

By Katie Bain, January 30, 2018

In 1993, two Canadian miners were digging for gold in a remote region of the Yukon, driving pickaxes into the muck of a riverbed in the woods near the Alaskan border. While they didn’t find the precious metal they were seeking, the miners did unearth a vastly rarer find – the frozen remains of an ancient Yukon horse. Hailed by scientists as the largest mummified remains ever discovered in the Yukon, this exceptionally well-preserved specimen offered major insight into biodiversity during the last glacial period.

And now, the discovery has inspired a new beer.

25 years after the horse was unearthed – and 26,000 years after it roamed the Yukon plains – Canadian scientists and brewers have collaborated on Glacial Gruit, a 6.3% alcohol by volume limited edition gruit made with many of the same plants that scientists found preserved inside the horse’s stomach. While that flavor profile may sound unenticing, the Gruit is uniquely delicious – mildly tart and fruity, with a floral, subtly smoky aroma and hazy copper pour.  

This drinkable science project began a year and a half ago, when members of the Alliance of Natural History Museums of Canada (ANHMC), a consortium of 15 natural history museums from across the country, gathered in Ottawa to discuss how to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada in 2017.

They were working in collaboration with Beau’s Brewery, a longstanding Ottawa brewery that was commemorating the 150th by releasing a new Canadian-inspired beer every month of 2017. Each of these small batch runs was created in conjunction with a different Canadian collaborative partner including Mining Watch and the Trans Canada Trail Foundation.

The ANHMC reps wanted their beer to reflect the natural history of Canada and the collaborative spirit of the ANHMC itself, while extending their mission of educating the public about natural history in dynamic and interesting ways.

Then, during the Ottawa meeting, they remembered the horse.

Beau's BreweryPictured from left to right, Beau’s head brewer Brian O’Donnell, Paul Sokoloff, ANHMC Chief Administrative Officer Elizabeth McCrea, and Beau’s Marketing Director Jacquie Severs.

For those assembled, this discovery represented the deep history of the country they were celebrating and the Canadian spirit of collaboration, in the way researchers from around the country had analyzed the horse. In the data set detailing what the horse had in its stomach, they already had their recipe.

“In the end, we decided to use plants that would taste good and also would have been found in and around the area that’s now the Yukon during the last ice age,” says Paul Sokoloff, a botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa who worked on the project.

While many think of wooly mammoths and a perpetual state of deep freeze when they consider the ice age, during the last glacial period – between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago – the Yukon was actually largely ice free. This environment provided refuge for plants and animals and allowed many now-extinct creatures like the Yukon Horse to roam the barren, iceless plains.

In the Yukon, most ice age horses were tiny, standing only four feet high at the shoulders. These petite ungulates were one of the most abundant mammals that roamed the treeless steppe of ice age Yukon. Currently on display at the Yukon Beringea Interpretive Center, the unearthed horse offered great insight into the ecology and botany of the era.

“That’s incredible information,” says Sokoloff, “especially to researchers like us who are interested in how the Arctic changes over time.”

Beau's BreweryIngredients used in Glacial Gruit, pictured left to right, birch syrup, yarrow, fireweed and rose hips.

With their parameters for the beer in place, the scientists and brewers developed an ingredient list featuring rosehips, yarrow, fireweed, and buckwheat, all plants found in the ancient arboreal forests of the ice age and thus, in the stomach of the horse that grazed there. Not all the contents of the horse’s stomach were edible, however. A variety of grasses were ditched because humans can’t digest them. 

The recipe also includes barley malts, birch syrup, brewers yeast, and organic hops. Plants and herbs formed the gruit, a traditional mixture used to flavor beer in lieu of hops. This style is also rooted in history, going back a thousand years to an era when most beers in Europe derived their flavor from gruit, as brewing with the mixture was mandated by law.  

The final ingredient for Glacial Gruit, however, was the hardest to come by.

“Beau’s suggested that if we were going to make this beer themed around the ice age, it would be really cool to have an aspect of a glacier in it,” Sokoloff says. “They told us, “If anyone is near a glacier, can you collect clay from underneath it?’”

Paul SokoloffScoping the glacial clay before scooping the glacial clay and bringing it home.

As luck would have it, Sokoloff was scheduled to take part in an expedition to Axel Heiberg Island, located in the Arctic Ocean in the northernmost Canadian territory of Nunavut. Ice thickness of the glaciers on the island extends up to 1,300 feet. Here, at the base of a massive glacier, Sokoloff collected clay from the glacial stream and brought it back to Ottawa, where the Beau’s brewers used it in a process called fining, which makes the beer clearer and less hazy.

“It’s the glacier to glass mentality,” Sokoloff says with a laugh.

Beau’s will tap a keg of Glacial Gruit in their taproom on February 1st in celebration of International Gruit Day. Founded by Beau’s in 2013, this event celebrates the gruit tradition and includes craft breweries from more than 50 countries including New Zealand, Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, Ireland, the United States and Canada. Beau’s will also serve Glacial Gruit at Extreme Beer Fest, happening in Boston on February 2nd and 3rd.

The first taste testers, however, were of course Sokoloff and his fellow scientists, who were altogether satisfied not only with their beer’s taste and complexity, but how they’d found a way to educate people who spend more time in bars than museums. The public first sipped the Gruit during an afterhours party at the museum this past December. Sokoloff, who went all the way to the base of a glacier for the project, was there handing out samples. By his account, the crowd loved it.

“It was this interesting moment where people were like, “Hey, I like this beer – oh, there’s something more to it,” Sokoloff says. “Those innovative educational approaches are great, and when they’re combined with beer, it’s even better.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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