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Recalling a taste of the Iron Age: barley grains offer savory insights into ancient Celtic malt.

Early rulers of a community in what's now southwestern Germany liked to party, staging elaborate feasts in a ceremonial center. The business side of their revelries was in a nearby brewery capable of turning out large quantities of a beer with a dark, smoky, slightly sour taste, new evidence suggests.

Six ditches at Eberdingen-Hochdorf, a 2,550-year-old Celtic settlement, were used to make high-quality barley malt, a key beer ingredient, says archaeobotanist Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. Thousands of charred grains unearthed in the ditches came from a large malt-making enterprise, Stika reports in a paper published online January 4 in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Stika bases that conclusion on a close resemblance of the ancient grains to barley malt that he made by reproducing several methods that Iron Age folk might have used. He also compared the ancient grains with malt produced in modern facilities. Upon confirming the presence of malt at the Celtic site, Stika reconstructed malt-making techniques there to determine how they must have affected beer taste.

"Stika's experiments go a long way toward showing how precisely barley was malted in ancient times," says classics professor Max Nelson of the University of Windsor in Canada, an authority on ancient beer. The oldest known beer residue and brewing facilities date to 5,500 years ago in the Middle East, but archaeological clues to beer's past are rare (SN.. 10/2/04, p. 216).

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At the Celtic site, barley was soaked in the specially constructed ditches until it sprouted, Stika proposes. Grains were then dried by fires at the ends of the ditches, giving the malt a smoky taste and a darkened color. The growth of lactic acid bacteria stimulated by slow drying of grains added sourness to the brew.

Unlike modern beers that are flavored with flowers of the hop plant, the Eberdingen-Hochdorf brew probably contained spices such as mugwort, carrot seeds or henbane, in Stika's opinion. Beer makers are known to have used these additives by medieval times. Excavations at the Celtic site have yielded a few seeds of henbane, a plant that also makes beer more intoxicating.

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Title Annotation:Humans
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Feb 12, 2011
Words:358
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