France today may be renowned for its fine wines, but it has at least a 2,500-year-old history of beer-making, suggests an Iron Age beer operation recently discovered in the Provence region.
The early beer-making items, described in the latest issue of the journal Human Ecology, provide the oldest direct archeological evidence for beer brewing in France. The home brewery is also one of the most ancient in all of Europe.
There's a chance that beer then was about the same as it is today.
"From what we can tell, it was processed in a way that was close to traditional beer-brewing techniques and was not so different from modern home-made beers," lead author Laurent Bouby told Discovery News.
"It is, however, still difficult to know what the taste was of this beer," added Bouby, a researcher in the Institute of Botany at Montpellier. "We know nothing, for example, about possible additives used in brewing, such as hops. We know nothing about possible lactic fermentation, which would give a sour taste to the beer."
Bouby and colleagues Philippe Boissinot and Philippe Marinval analyzed three samples of sediment from a fifth-century B.C. house at a site called Roquepertuse in the Provence region of southeastern France. The area had been settled by people of Celtic heritage. One sample came from the dwelling's floor, near a hearth and oven. Another came from a ceramic vessel, while the third sample was found in a pit.
All three of the samples contained carbonized barley, 90 percent of which had sprouted. The barley had been carefully sorted, with no weed seeds present, eliminating the possibility that it had germinated by accident during storage.
Based on the barley remains, its location and the equipment, the researchers believe the home's inhabitants soaked the grain in vessels, spread it out during germination on a flat area of the paved floor, dried the grain in the oven to stop germination, and used grindstones to pulverize the malted barley. Hearths and containers were then probably used for fermentation and storage.
The brewmaster may have shared his beer.
"Being a domestic production does not necessarily imply that it was consumed at a single family level," Bouby said. "It could have been dedicated to collective drinking or feasts. In traditional societies, the consumption of alcoholic beverages often bears strong social and symbolic meanings. ... This is why grain could have been used to brew beer instead of being preserved for human or animal consumption."
At the time, people from southern France used to consume wine imported from the Mediterranean region, frequently from Greeks in the city of Massalia, Bouby explained. Local wines were also being made.
Based on historical writings, the Greeks and the Romans often turned their noses up to beer then, so it is unlikely that the French beer-maker was able to trade the brew for wine. The raw grain itself, or materials such as metals, might have been traded for wine.
The Celts, however, seemed always to have an appreciation for beer, so trade could have existed between their populations. Wooden barrels found in early Celtic communities may have been used to transport beer instead of wine.
Hans-Peter Stika of the University of Hohenheim's Institute of Botany has also been studying early evidence for beer making in Europe. Stika told Discovery News that while Greek and Roman historians wrote about beer, specific information about "prehistoric beers is poor."
"Archaeological excavations of features where beer production took place are scarce," Stika said, "so I was really happy to learn more about Iron Age brewing."
Stika said it's important to note that the Celts in France were producing both wine and beer, and possibly other alcoholic beverages. Future analysis of the manufacture and use of these beverages could reveal important information about social, cultural and economic life during Iron Age Europe.