This is the first entry in a multi-part series that explores the production of a beer that Xenophon witnessed during his travels in Armenia. You can read the description of this brew in a previous blog post.
The ancient Armenian beer is described to contain “wheat, barley, pulses and barleywine” with “grainy things floating at the brim.” Wheat and barley are standard grains used by brewers, but pulses are not. In fact, little information is available to the general public about the fermentation of pulses outside of a number of experiments by members of the homebrewing community. The goal of this HBW series is to augment our knowledge of the use of pulses in beer and gain experiential insight into the Armenian beverage of choice.
What are pulses?
Pulses are the grain seeds of legumes. Today, pulses are used primarily for grain feed, but several varieties remain common foodstuffs, including lentils, chickpeas, and green peas. Pulses are highly nutritious and offer an essential source of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and very little cholesterol or sodium. The value of pulses as edibles is equaled by their ability to reintroduce nitrogen to the soil. Most plants deplete nitrogen after successive episodes of planting and fatigue the soil. In order to combat this, many farmers plant legumes and pulses extending the productivity of fields and the robustness of the partner crops.
At many agricultural societies in the ancient Mediterranean, legumes and pulses are commonly identified among the preserved archaeobotanical remains. In fact, a particular pulse, bitter vetch (vicia ervilia), is considered one of the first domesticated crops in the entire world.
When one thinks of the Near East and Caucasus regions, lentils and chickpeas often spring to mind as important components to the diet. The popularity of these foodstuffs now, however, does not necessarily indicate a similar preference in antiquity.
In order to take the… pulse… of the ancient Armenian diet (I hope the audience is o-pun to such excellent word play), archaeologist examine the archaeobotanical remains recovered during careful excavation and sieving of soil. Archaeobotanical remains often include carbonized (burned) seeds and other plant materials that can be identified by specialists. Unfortunately, such analyses of Classical era sites and strata from Armenia (i.e. the period when Xenophon arrived) are currently hard to come by. However, there is significant evidence for collected and processed pulses at settlements from the Neolithic (ca. 6500-3500 BCE) and Bronze Age (ca. 3500-12000 BCE) periods. Examinations of the material from Aratashen and Aknashen, for instance, suggest the abundant use of lentils (lens culinaris) and bitter vetch (vicia ervilia) by the inhabitants (Hovepyan and Wilcox 2008).
Although this evidence does not guarantee a similar pulse popularity during the period contemporary to Classical Greek culture (ca. 490-332 BCE), it does indicate the suitability of the Armenian environment to the cultivation of this pulse. As a result, I choose lentils as the adjunct for use in the Armenian beer recreation. At least two modern commercial beers (to my knowledge) have utilized lentils in their beer, Rebellion Lentil Cream Ale and Mastri Birrai Umbri Cotta 74. Unfortunately, I do not have access to either beverage or much information concerning the addition of lentils to these brews.
This experiment will occupy several weeks and several HBW posts. For the initial study, I will malt, mash, and ferment green lentils. The use of this pulse is dictated by its presence in ancient Armenia and its availability in the modern market. Ultimately, I will brew three separate beers: a 100% lentil beer, a modern barley/wheat/lentil beer (i.e. strained, hop additions, etc.), and an ancient barley/wheat/lentil beer with the ever-important “floaty bits” remaining. I will also evaluate the amount of fermentable sugars that lentils contribute to the brew, the amount of unfermentable sugars that lentils offer, the ability of lentils to contribute diastase enzymes, the interaction of lentils and barley/wheat during brewing/fermenting, and, most importantly, the taste.
This experiment requires the following steps:
- Germinate – convert the starches in the lentils to sugar
- Malt – dry and roast the lentils
- Mash – soak the lentils at different temperatures to extract the sugars from the pulse
- Brew – add yeast to the sugar-water in order to facilitate the production of alcohol
- Taste – no description necessary
Call for Help
If anyone has any experience brewing with lentils or legumes, I would love to hear about it! Alternatively, any experience with biology or chemistry that might contribute to this discussion is also invited.
Hovsepyan, R. and G. Wilcox, 2008. “The Earliest Finds of cultivated plants in Armenia: evidence from charred remains and crop processing residues in pisé from Neolithic settlements of Aratashen and Aknashen.” Veget. Hist. Archaeobot. 17: 63-71.
Lens culinaris. Source: user: Rainer Zens/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.
Armenia ca. 50 BCE. Source: © user: Cplakidas/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0