Catching Up With Travis Rupp

A Q&A with our subject from “This 1,100-Year-Old Beer’s for You: Recreating Ancient Ales.”

It’s been almost a year since we published this video about CU Boulder Classics Professor Travis Rupp, who works with a special R&D team at Avery Brewing to recreate the beers of our ancestors. Naturally, our curiosity was begging for an update on what’s brewing (pun intended), the trend surrounding ‘ancient ales’ and more. Bottoms up!
Image credit: Dustin Hall (Brewtography Project)

Revitalizing ancient beer — what a novel idea! What were peoples’ reactions when you first mentioned this would become a serious passion of yours?

TR: Overall, people found the idea to be really interesting. The public is curious and they want an experience. Even if the beers were unpalatable, I think people would want to try them. However, neither they or myself thought it would become as popular as it has, nor did I think it would become my persona! Sensory experiences can and often are the best way to learn things! Luckily, all 6 have turned out well so far. I don’t know exactly what they will taste like when I finalize a recipe. I have an idea, but I can never be certain. So far, I think the Ales of Antiquity series has proven that the ancients were not less intelligent than we are. If anything, they were likely much more resourceful. Since I’m now defined as the “beer archaeologist” the research I conduct and the beers I recreate have become more personal. The public judges me according to these beers now, so they’re almost like my children! I became very attached to the most recent beers in my Ales of Antiquity series. Nursia and Benedictus are ancient Monastic ales dating to 825 CE. The journey to recreate them involved some very amazing monks in Italy, and my most recent public talks on the matter have shown my fans how much these projects mean to me.

Had you heard of other brewers trying to replicate century-old recipes? What were the conversations surrounding the practice, if any?

TR: I only knew of Dogfish Head’s “Ancient Ales” series. I didn’t get the opportunity to converse with Patrick McGovern (professor at Penn) about his practices until after I had started my own series. However, I had read the vast majority of his work. Sam Calagione, owner of Dogfish Head, had discussed their approach in brief with Adam Avery, the owner of the brewery where I work. Not much was reported back to me. I know that McGovern and Calagione’s approach was heavily scientific, using archaeobotanical analysis to identify what had once existed in ancient vessels post excavation. My practice considers the scientific equally with the archaeological, anthropological, and artistic elements. I fully survey all aspects of the culture before I definitively recreate the beer. My hope is that this eclectic approach will explain why and how the beer was made in antiquity.

Rupp at a Craft and Brews event at the Colorado Ballet in October 2017. Image credit: Sarah Neumann

Obviously replicating tastes from ancient beers can be difficult when ingredients, processes and palates have changed. How do you measure the accuracy of what you make and do you rely on anyone in particular to validate it? Who’s the target market for this?

TR: I rely on any kind of evidence I can reference from said culture. This can differ depending on the culture in question. How old is it? Is there a known form of written language? I analyze ancient descriptions of the beverage. This can be either the flavor or the effect following consumption. I’ll examine archaeobotanical evidence to see what was available and in what quantities. I examine what other cultures had contact with the culture being researched. Was their cross-culturalization taking place? If so, were their beers similar or different? Did they produce other forms of alcohol? Why were they drinking the beer? How “expensive” or readily available were the items for making beer? Was it for religious purposes, festivals, socializing, trade/bartering, or purely sustenance? Who drank the beer? Men, women, children, guests, etc.? Who produced the beer and where? Does their art and architecture lend a unique lens through which to view the brewing process and practice of drinking? These and many other questions are things I take into consideration on a case-by-case basis.

My first approach is to make an authentic beverage both in flavor and process. This is tricky because brewing ancient beers on modern systems is really difficult. In terms of flavor, I go through the same process I feel they would have. For example, putting too much wormwood in a beer can make it undrinkable, so they would have gauged this as well. Then I ask the question, why is the wormwood there? Is it supposed to bitter the beer, provide medicinal qualities, etc.? I validate the accuracy of the recreation through my scholarship and research. When it comes to the flavor, I rely heavily on the members of my Innovation team as well as advanced members of our production crew at Avery.

My target market is those who are curious, want to learn more, and are intrigued by unique sensory experiences. This audience includes the academics and the “beer geeks”, but as we’ve learned at Avery, it really involves everyone. Food and drink are personal! We all want an experience when we take our first bite or drink of any food or beverage. Therefore, I want these beers to appeal to everyone. Sure I want people to drink several pints of these beers on various visits to the brewery, but what I want more is for everyone to try/experience these ancient beers at least once in order to learn something about ancient peoples. Alcohol is one of those things that ties all people together, regardless of culture or race. Even those who choose not to drink are (or have been) affected by alcohol in such a way that it causes them to make a life decision. Beer is the prime catalyst for socializing. It’s built to bring people together, where other alcoholic beverages are better suited for solitary sipping.

Rupp preparing a taste of Pachamama, an ancient Peruvian chicha. Image credit: Travis Rupp

Your Great Big Story video on YouTube has a 98% thumbs up rating — would you say this mirrors the response from first time ancient beer samplers?

Absolutely. I was honestly not prepared for the public response to this project. It was very overwhelming, but in a really good way. As I said before, it has become who I am. I’m that guy who recreates ancient beers! Pretty darn cool, but it has also made me realize that I’m obligated to advance the field in this area. The study of beer history has been overlooked for a long time. However, the public is demanding more of it, and it has gone into hyperdrive with the rising craft beer movement. There is a lot of work to be done. Sure, we had people like Michael Jackson (who wrote prolifically on beer and alcohol from the 1970s-2007), but they were far and few between. I don’t have all of the answers, but I hope I ask enough questions in areas where I cannot be definitive so that future brewers, historians, Classicists, archaeologists, scientists, etc. will find those answers. Mentors and authors in the field of beer history like Stan Hieronymus, Randy Mosher, Frank Clark, John Mallett, Mitch Steele, and Max Nelson have embraced this as their duty, and they have inspired me to do the same.

Have you started to see this become a trend elsewhere since you got started? Have brewers and/or distributors come to you for inspiration, help or for business?

I don’t know if I’d say it’s fully a trend yet, but it has gained significant traction in the last year. Yes, several breweries have come to me. Several local breweries have dabbled in the idea of making viking beers or chicha like we made at Avery. These include Upslope Brewing Co in Boulder, CO and Wibby Brewing in Longmont. At the same time, I’ve been approached by Carakale Brewery in Jordan and Jopen Brewing in the Netherlands for possible collaborations. More and more of the collaboration has been with local museums (like Denver Museum of Nature and Science) or performing arts centers (like the Colorado Ballet). I’m not that surprised that people who are interested in science, history, culture, and the arts are intrigued by the academics of the Ales of Antiquity Series. I’ve been approached by the Global Explorer team from Nat Geo, the American Research Center in Egypt, and the Archaeological Institute of America to keep the project moving. Beer tends to make even the most academic of fields approachable and “palatable”.

Does the history of beer find its way into your lesson plans at CU-Boulder?

Yes. I do lectures on beer production in the following courses:

  • Greek Art & Archaeology
  • Egyptian Art & Archaeology
  • Pompeii and the Cities of Vesuvius
  • Ancient Sports and Games (concession stands existed then too!)
Rupp alongside his fellow brew crew. Image credit: Travis Rupp

Lastly, any sneak peeks at classic recipes you’re currently studying and what ancient beer drinkers should get excited about in 2018?

Well, I’m still formulating all of my ideas for this year, but I can tell you that the brewery has asked me to release eight new Ales of Antiquity this year. Some of them may end up bottled for national distribution as well. Our first release for 2018 was Nursia (an ancient monastic cervisa c. 825 CE). Next up will be a beer to coincide with the Dead Sea Scrolls (which is coming to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in March). I am also working on ideas involving a colonial porter inspired by our Founding Fathers, an ancient Hawaiian beer, ancient Iberian beer, Cambodian inspired ale, and a few others that I’m kicking around.

Also, for those who love beer history, we are having the second ever Ales Through The Ages conference in Colonial Williamsburg in October 2018. This conference was held for the first time in 2016, and it was a huge success. We’re hoping to make it happen every two years moving forward. Most known beer historians from the U.S., Canada, and Europe attend and give a presentation on their research. To demonstrate how small this field is, there were only about 15 of us in 2016! Being an academic, I’ve been to dozens upon dozens of conferences, but this is by far the best one I’ve ever attended. It’s run extremely well, and you don’t have to pick and choose what lectures you want to go to because there is only one speaker on one stage at any given time. Brilliant!

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