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Sumerian Beer Dinner on Tap at Fountainhead

By Patty Wetli | August 23, 2013 12:00pm
 Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Co. brings a unique beer to Fountainhead, made according to techniques 4,000 years old.
Sumerian Beer Dinner
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LINCOLN SQUARE — The jury's still out on whether it's actually possible to walk like an Egyptian, but a unique beer dinner mounted by Fountainhead and Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Co. will have a guest eating and drinking like an ancient Sumerian.

For the last year and a half, Great Lakes founder Pat Conway has been working with archaeologists at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute to recreate the way beer was made 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, an area that roughly corresponds to modern-day Iraq and parts of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Kuwait.

"It's been an absolutely wonderful project ... to reach back to what our brewing brothers and sisters were doing," said Conway, who used to live in Rogers Park and taught history and social studies at Holy Trinity High School.

The results will be on tap Monday at a sold-out dinner at Fountainhead, where chef Cleetus Friedman has developed a menu inspired by, but not strictly limited to, Sumerian ingredients.

"When you do research into Sumerian cuisine, it's not that fun," said Friedman. "The question is, what did Sumerians eat, what did they grow? The answer is, not much."

Alongside Sumerian staples like dates, barley and cucumber, the chef added fried garbanzos and smoked duck.

"People are going to have a very big understanding when they walk away that 'God, are we spoiled today'" with the bounty of foods we have available to us, Friedman said.

But Friedman readily admits his food is merely a supporting player to the real star of the show — the beer.

"To have this beer in this ceramic pot ... I'm lucky Pat came to me," he said.

While other breweries, including Dogfish Head and Anchor Steam, have also produced beers drawn from ancient recipes, Conway went his peers several steps better, focusing as much on the "how" as the "what."

Eschewing modern techniques and equipment, he had the Oriental Institute craft precise reproductions of Sumerian vessels thought to have been used in brewing. Electricity and gas were out, as was filtration, carbonation and yeast.

"It was a frustration and a challenge," Conway said. "We had to infer a lot."

The final product was a cloudy, sour, flat brew with a consistency some have likened to porridge and a flavor most akin to Belgian farmhouse beers, he said.

One of Conway's steadiest partners in the venture was Tate Paulette, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago who specializes in Mesopotamia [his resume lists "archeology of beer and cereal fermentation" as a research interest].

The area and period of history initially captured Paulette's attention because of the availability of written records and the explosion of urbanism.

Writing appears around 3200 B.C. "and beer was already a major part of the society," Paulette said. "There are hundreds and hundreds of documents that have to do with beer."

Taking those writings about beer and using them to make beer resulted in a number of interesting discoveries.

Archaeologists "don't necessarily know what we're doing" when it comes to recreations, he said. The strength of the Great Lakes collaboration was working with professional brewers.

"When you put it into practice, all kinds of things came up," he said.

For example, a basic ingredient of Sumerian beer is something called bappir.

"The general consensus is that it's a kind of bread. But there's disagreement about what it was and how it fits into beer," Paulette said.

The Great Lakes team called in an artisan baker to create the most seemingly authentic bappir possible, and proved that it could have served as the beer's yeast.

Paulette will be on hand at Fountainhead, speaking about Mesopotamia and providing context for the beers guests will have the opportunity to sample.

"You can hear a pin drop" during his presentation, Conway said.

Great Lakes produced three versions for the event: One is purely authentic, adhering to Sumerian techniques; the second adds a bit of date syrup to sweeten the otherwise sour beer; the third is a hybrid — a Sumerian recipe brewed with modern equipment.

"I think my favorite was the first one," Paulette said. "But I'm not going to say I would want to drink that every day."

Conway is now faced with the "innovator's dilemma" — how to continue experimenting with Sumerian technique while keeping up with demand for Great Lakes core brews, a pursuit he considers as practical as it is quixotic.

"These brewers really knew so much more," he said of his forebearers' abilities, particularly in light of their limited resources.

What if Great Lakes could figure out a way to brew without electricity? he wondered.

"It gives us insight into possible innovations. It'll be fun in a year from now to see what we come up with."