Archaeology is frequently criticized for being impractical, but this myth was laid to rest when research from Hebrew University led to a startup offering pre-sales of an ancient strain of yeast that may have been used to make beer that was drunk by Goliath before facing off against David 3,000 years ago.
The PTS-900 BCE strain, referred to as the Philistine yeast since it was discovered in the Tel Safi excavation that some believe was the ancient Philistine city of Gath that dates to 900 BCE, will soon be available to homebrewers.
“I think that many people would like to know what is the taste of the beer that Goliath or King David drank, and many people would be curious to drink the wine of Jesus Christ in the Last Supper,” said Prof. Ronen Hazan, a microbiologist at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Dental Sciences and School of Dental Medicine. “With history, we can always imagine or see something with our eyes. But this is another sense we can activate to touch the past, which is rare.”
The strain is very similar to baker’s yeast, commonly used today, and can be used for baking.
In 2019, researchers succeeded in isolating six strains of yeast taken from nano-pores found on 21 potsherds excavated from four different sites in Israel that had once held beer or wine. The sites, once populated by Philistines, Canaanites, Egyptians, or Judeans, include biblical Tell es-Safi/Gath (ca. 850 BCE), Bronze Age En-Besor in the Negev, and an Egyptian brewery found in Tel Aviv’s Ha-Masger Street (both ca. 3100 BCE), and Jerusalem’s Ramat Rachel (ca. 8th to 4th century BCE).
The ancient yeast was revitalized in an unprecedented achievement, and each strain was used to brew a distinct type of beer. The results were published in a peer-reviewed mBio journal paper, “Isolation and Characterization of Live Yeast Cells from Ancient Vessels as a Tool in Bio-Archaeology.”
The researchers discovered that each strain had a unique flavor because, during fermentation, the different yeasts emit different gasses with flavors or aromas based on their genetic makeup and source.
D. Yitzchak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority explained that ancient cultures consumed beer that had been flavored or enhanced. The Egyptians and Philistines would have likely flavored theirs with cinnamon, cardamom, and herbs rather than the hops used in modern ales and lagers. Dates and pomegranates were probably added to increase the sugar content for the yeast to consume during fermentation.
If you are not a home brewer but still want to taste the Biblical brew, it is available at the Israel Museum’s “The Feast” exhibition from May 12 to December 31, which explores banquets, feasts, and food in the Ancient Near East in the 4th-1st millennium BCE. In cooperation with Shikma Brewery and Primer’s Yeast, the museum is offering commercially produced beer called “Mishteh,” made from the ancient yeast. The beer can be purchased at the museum’s gift shop and select beer stores across Israel.
The researchers are developing two yeast strains related to wine, including one related to ancient Roman wine and one used for mead, or fermented honey wine. They are also working on isolating microorganisms found on ancient pottery used to culture dairy products.
Beer was a staple in the ancient world, drunk by children and adults, frequently being safer than the local water. In 2018, archaeologists working in the Carmel Mountains identified ancient beer residue that was believed to be between 11,700 to 13,700 years old, suggesting that before grains were cultivated for food, they were grown for fermented alcoholic beverages.