ITHACA, N.Y.—Who would have thought that a mummified bird, a sacred ibis, specifically, would inspire the creation of a beer?
Well, it just so happens that several grad students along with four local breweries not only had that thought but also brought it to fruition.
In 2021, a Cornell University archaeology master’s student named Carol Barsody discovered the origins of a mummified sacred ibis that has been at Cornell University for a hundred years. Barsody’s research led to a multi-sensory exhibit earlier this month, and more about her research can be found in this article from the Cornell Chronicle. (Barsody did not respond to request for comment.)
As part of this multisensory exhibit, Austin Montgomery said, the idea for a beer inspired by ancient Egypt was brought up as a joke, only to be entirely followed through on and created. Along with a few other grad students, Big Red Brewing, Brewery Ardenne, Big Alice Brewing Finger Lakes and Lucky Hare Brewing Company, production got underway.
Montgomery, a PhD student studying wine flavor chemistry and is president of Big Red Brewing, said that the ability to collaborate with local brew professionals and breweries made the whole project possible.
After researching what flavor profiles would have been prominent in ancient Egypt, a member of the group, PhD student Glycine Jiang, decided to isolate yeast from an ancient, 4,000-year-old clay pot (pictured left) and mix it with a traditional brewer’s yeast to ensure that the fermentation process happened properly.
To mimic the correct flavor profile, star anise and cardamom were also used in the beer.
“It is known that beer had been brewed in ancient Egypt, going way, way, way back. It’s a very ancient beverage,” said Derek Edinger, cofounder and head of brewery operations at Ardennes.
Along with the star anise, cardamom and yeast, Tony Cordova of Lucky Hare said that the group used honey and teff, gluten-free ancient grass. “It was really fun to try to use that ingredient throughout the process, and it was fun to really work together and get the breweries to work together,” he said.
After trying a few different combinations of yeast and brewing a test batch at the beginning of the summer at Ardenne, Lucky Hare brewing about 93 gallons in total.
“Yeast, since the 1400s, has been drastically selected by humans to be a lot better at fermenting alcohol and producing specific flavors — brewers can just select a yeast for the flavor you want,” Montgomery said, adding that, “Egyptians thought it was just magic, they didn’t know what yeast was.”
Despite it containing 4,000-year-old yeast, Edinger said that the brew has been pretty popular.
“When you try to find inspiration for something like this, there aren’t a ton of ways you can go that are precedented,” Cordova said. “They had beer at that time, so we tried to mimic something that maybe would have been brewed at that time, though there isn’t a ton of information, so we just had to grab inspiration.”
The beer is currently on tap at Ardenne, Big Alice and Lucky Hare while supplies last, most likely for another month or so.
Correction: The original version did not mention Glycine Jiang, the PhD student who had the idea to isolate yeast from the clay pot.