Beer Was the Glue That Held This Ancient Civilization Together

April 26, 2019

By Diana Hubbell, April 26, 2019

A little more than a century after the sack of Rome, another mighty empire in another hemisphere rose to power. For more than 500 years, the Wari civilization was unrivaled in South America. At one point, its dominion stretched for nearly a thousand miles, roughly the distance between Jacksonville, Florida and New York City. For years, one of the great mysteries of the Wari was how they managed to hold such a politically and culturally diverse society together

“One of the answers that we came up with was through the production of beer,” says Ryan Williams, an anthropological archeologist at the Field Museum who has been studying ancient civilizations in the Andes for the past two decades. “The Wari would throw these festivals in which elites from around the region would gather around breweries and commiserate. That’s a neat way to keep things together and it lasted for almost 400 years, so it was pretty successful.”

Fifteen years ago, Williams and his colleagues found the remnants of one of these breweries high on a mountain peak. It was the oldest large-scale facility of its kind ever discovered up in the Andes. While the archeologists were thrilled at the find, it would take years of painstaking analysis to uncover its secrets. By using a laser to drill a microscopic hole in the sides of these ceramic vessels and analyzing the atomic makeup of the sample, the team was able to not only discover where the Wari mined the clay, but also that they used Peruvian pepper berries to flavor their distinctive brew.

The Field MuseumRyan Williams at the excavation site.

“We found that they were producing the entire ceramic assemblage that’s used to boil, ferment, mash, serve, and drink beer on a local level,” Williams says. “We did an atomic analysis of the clays in the ceramic vessel and then a biomolecular analysis of the residues that were in the ceramic pores to identify the pepper berry biomarkers that were within that ancient beer from a thousand years ago.”

Through these molecular clues and anecdotal reports from indigenous communities still living in the Andes, the archeologists slowly pieced together a clear picture of what this chicha, or corn beer, must have been like. Since it seemed like a shame not to put that knowledge to use, the crew teamed up with Off Color Brewing to brew a contemporary spin on this long-lost drink. The result was Wari Ale, a chicha-inspired brew made with purple corn and those crucial Peruvian pepper berries, also known as molle berries.

Archeologists love beer anyway. A lot of places are rediscovering their roots through historical brewing and we’re using it as a way to bring the past to life for the public.”

“We did several different batches as we developed that beer and tried to arrive at a taste that was as close as possible to what we tasted in Peru from our own experiments. It took us six months of experiments but we made it and released it and it’s been doing great.”

Wari Ale, which is due for a re-release this June, is part of the Field Museum’s long, fruitful history of collaborating with the breweries. Previously, with a little help from Toppling Goliath, they released pseudoSue, a juice-bomb knockout named for their most famous 67 million-year-old T-Rex, in addition to Tooth and Claw, a dry-hopped lager, and QingMing, a rice beer inspired by ancient Chinese techniques, both made by Off Color Brewing.

The Field Museum

Uncovering the details of ancient brewing techniques might sound like pure beer geekery, but the process also provided valuable information about these societies. In the case of the Wari, the details of the chicha brewing process actually provided evidence for the existence of the raucous pre-colonial boozefests that held the social fabric together.

“We estimate that they were producing somewhere around 500 gallons at a time. All of that beer would have gone bad in five to seven days, because they didn’t have preservatives like hops and they didn’t have bottling technology,” Williams says. “That indicates that these were festival events in which people had to come together to consume this amount of alcohol in a short period of time.”

It all goes to show that beer and diplomacy are a pairing almost as old as civilization. Humans have been brewing for the past 10,000 years and appear to have been using to settle political disputes for almost as long. For his part, Williams celebrates the key insights beer offers.

“Archeologists love beer anyway,” he says. “A lot of places are rediscovering their roots through historical brewing and we’re using it as a way to bring the past to life for the public.”

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