Roughly 1,000 years ago in the highlands of Guatemala, a member of the Maya civilization lifted a clay vessel -- adorned with an intricate jaguar figure -- to his lips and took a slug of something. Beer? Corn liquor? Something else? Last May, two scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Denver Beer Co's Patrick Crawford tried to find out what it was by chemically evaluating...the backwash. Ah, science.
"If they could ferment it, they drank it," says Michele Koons, the archaeology curator at the museum. "It's no different from today."
One goal of the experiment, a continuing collaboration between the brewery and the museum, was to find remnants of what had been inside the vessel -- whether it was corn, chocolate, coffee, bark, chile peppers or something else -- and to then create a beer based on those ingredients and serve it at a museum event taking place next Monday, July 21.
But the more important goal -- if anything is more important than beer -- was to pioneer a new way to analyze ancient vessels that doesn't destroy them in the process.
For their mission, Koons and Nicole Garneau, the curator and chairwoman of the health sciences department, selected seven promising Maya vessels from the museum's collection; they then put them into a sonicator, a piece of equipment that uses sound waves "to shake food and beverage nanoparticles left over from the pottery into a solvent," explains Garneau. The samples were then analyzed using gas chromatography, which gives off different patterns based on the material it finds.
Scientists already use this process to determine what ancient people were eating or drinking, but to get good results, they usually have to grind up the vessel to do it.
Unfortunately, Koons and Garneau discovered that the solvents they were using could destroy the glues that their predecessors may have used to patch up ancient artifacts. They also didn't have much luck with the gas chromatography. In fact, only one of the vessels returned a hit -- for beeswax, something that the Mayas could have used either in the mold that created the vessel or inside it as a ceremonial candle.
So with science on hold, the two decided to brainstorm with Crawford -- and came up with a beer that uses honey (in honor of the beeswax), along with dried chiles, roasted cacao nib, corn and sweet potatos, not to mention barley and hops. (Oh, and they're adding in a tiny insect called cochineal, which lives on prickly pear cactus. The Maya and other Central and South American cultures used the bug, in ground form, to dye things a bright red. Don't worry, it's edible.)
Named Tipsy Tzolk'in in honor of the Maya calendar, the beer was brewed two weeks ago -- you can read Garneau's full report of that day on her Genetics of Taste blog -- and will be served on Monday, July 21, during the museum's periodic Science on Tap night. It will be poured again on August 8 during Summer Nights @ the Museum.
"We took a leap of faith for the beer, although we wouldn't do that in our research," says Garneau. She and Koons, along with chemist April Hill of Metro State University of Denver and Metro grad student De Regan, will go over the results of their testing again and see if they can learn anything new. After that, they'll try again to come up with a way to test artifacts for food and beverages without destroying them.
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