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Bread, beer and an ancient Goddess....

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates. Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

craft beer, ancient beer, Sumaria
Ninkasi's seal - a depiction of Sumarians drinking beer through straws

Bread and beer have a long-established association. As a staple in the diets of successive civilisations, bread was also one of the key ingredients in early experiments in brewing in Mesopotamian times (what is now modern-day Iran, circa 3500BC). Ninkasi was the Sumerian Goddess of Beer worshiped and revered in Mesopotamia, and the enduring legend runs deep in contemporary craft beer circles, inspiring an Oregon-based brewing company, Ninkasi Brewing, and a Belgian style Saison from Somerset’s craft beer innovators Wild Brew Co. The Hymn to Ninkasi (excerpt above) clearly describes an ancient recipe for brewing beer, including a depiction of dough and baking in the process. Even earlier evidence points towards pre-agricultural humans enjoying the intoxication of naturally fermented fruit. It seems humans have naturally sought out intentionally brewed intoxicants. As one historical website describes it: “human beings, after taking care of their immediate needs of food, shelter, and rudimentary laws, will then pursue the creation of some type of intoxicant”. Maslow couldn’t have put it better!

Babylone, from the Brussels Beer Project, is positioned as a “Back to the future” project that revives a 7,000-year-old tradition, based around the fermented brew drunk in Babylon. Described as a “circular economy” project, unsold fresh bread is incorporated into the recipe, replacing 20% of the malt, giving the beer a pleasant toffee / toasty touch. Speaking to Ferment magazine, Babylone founder Sebastien Morvan described the inspiration to name the beer after the ancient origins of beer; “I thought of the waste, and I thought of the history and I wanted to try it for ourselves. It was the first beer made of food waste and the first beer to made of bread in the modern day.”

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the award-winning Toast Ale, made from surplus bread

Tristram Stuart discovered the Brussels Beer Project using traditional recipes utilising bread in the brewing process, and was suitably inspired to launch Toast Ale, becoming the first to produce a UK beer made from unsold or unused bread. Tristram is the founder of the charity Feedback which campaigns to end food waste. In the UK, bread is a major contributor to the an estimated 10 Million tonnes of food waste accumulated from companies and consumers every year. Toast initially teamed up with Hackney Brewery and Hambleton Ales to develop their brews. They have since linked up with Wold Top Brewery in Yorkshire, who have some strong sustainability credentials and a progressive business model. The brewery won the “Best Green Business” award at the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) Business Awards in 2013. The farm-based brewery source local natural water supplies, power the farm through wind turbines, grow and malt their own barley, and maintain wildlife biodiversity in growing the crops. All profits from Toast Ale sales, and the range now includes award-winning IPA’s, American Pale Ale and lagers, is donated to Feedback. Tapping into the huge popularity of homebrewing, Toast is also keen for DIY brewers to get in on the act and reuse their own surplus bread by publishing a bread beer recipe online for everyone to have a bash at brewing their own.

The subject of food waste has become a national concern alongside wider global environmental issues. Iceland has emerged as an unlikely environmental forerunner in the supermarket sector. Not only have they pledged to become the world’s first major retailer to eliminate plastic from their own-label packaging within the next five years, they’re also finding solutions to surplus bread supplies that might otherwise end up as waste.

‘Bread Board’ is the fruition of a collaboration with Newport’s Tiny Rebel Brewery that uses unsold bread from local stores and Iceland’s Welsh bread supplier, to produce a sessionable 4.4% IPA. Some of the malt is replaced during the brewing process with the leftover bread, extracting starches and breaking them down into fermentable sugars.

The name of the beer also hints at another positive angle to the collaboration. Donations are made from every sale to Surfers against Sewage (SAS), the grassroots movement that has grown into one of the UK’s most active and successful environmental charities, tackling pollution in the seas around the UK. The money raised will help fund UK beach cleans and other initiatives that champion the reduction of avoidable single-use plastic consumption (linking neatly back to Iceland’s plastic-reduction commitments). Brad Cummings, Co-founder, and Director at Tiny Rebel explained why they hooked up with Iceland to launch the product, “We’re really passionate about reducing waste and we’re chuffed to be helping Iceland repurpose this bread to make beer. It’s a really drinkable beer that shows the value and the massive potential from using alternative ingredients.”

From ancient roots as an ingredient in nascent brewing recipes to a modern contribution to tackling food waste and inspiring beer with purpose, the union of hop and grain is still something worth raising a toast to!

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