A bet, a beer and Archaeochemistry


About a year ago this very week, I met with Charlie Berger and Patrick Crawford of Denver Beer Co. to brainstorm experiments for our annual partnership beer for the Museum’s Young Professional event, Science on Tap. In the previous year, we brewed a historic kolsch with a native thistle to commemorate Denver’s brewing history. But for 2013, we wanted to get nerdier and more beery. So we honed in on flavor and the underappreciated role of yeast, and I was challenged to prove my microbial worth. It went something like this, “Nicole, you have a degree in microbiology, how about you isolate a wild yeast strain?” Me: “There are over 1000 species of yeast, the chances of getting one that ferments are slim to none.” My arguments went unheeded and soon thereafter I found myself agreeing to take the team into the wilds of City Park, armed with swabs, test tubes and a bet from Patrick that we could make beer from the isolated yeast. If we made beer, Patrick would “win,” and would get to be a curator for a day. If we didn’t make beer, I would “win,” and get to be a brewer for a day. (See full story covered in 2013 by Jonathan Shikes of Westword.)

Fast forward to July 2013, and we found ourselves in a draw. We had used our “call-a-friend” lifeline to Neva Parker from White Labs, and she helped us to actually isolate a yeast strain. Although we didn’t have enough time to sequence the DNA, and therefore didn’t know the species, we pitched it anyway and crossed our fingers. In the end we made a beverage—I’m not sure I would call it a beer, as the yeast was not exactly a happy fermenter. In fact, I think we drank mostly wort (read: slurry of unconverted sugars, and thus no alcohol). However, making good on this bet brings us to the present.

Patrick came to the lab yesterday to be a curator for a day, and we started by extracting his DNA to be sequenced. This was pretty sweet in and of itself, but we took it one step further and decided to get to work on this year’s installment of Science on Tap. Our beer collaboration—bringing together the minds of the Museum, Denver Beer Co. and Metro State University—will attempt to use archaeochemistry (the chemical analysis of archeological specimens) to find out what food and/or beverages were housed in ancient Maya and Moche vessels from the Museum’s collection. Then, once we have an ingredient list, we will brew a beer based off of what was in those vessels.


First, Patrick and I worked with Dr. Michele Koons, an archeologist who recently joined our curator ranks, to select two vessels that had a higher probability of having held a fermented beverage. Then, we placed those vessels in a sonicator, which uses sound waves to shake food and beverage nanoparticles left over from the pottery into a solvent. The samples Patrick helped us collect will be analyzed using gas chromatography. We hope that these experiments will give us clues to the recipes that were used to make fermented drinks consumed by the ancient peoples of the Americas. And if we can figure out these recipes, we’ll make a beer inspired by what we find and we’ll debut the beverage at Science on Tap 2014.

The team working on this project is a unique intersection of disciplines. Dr. Michele Koons provides the archaeological expertise on the collections and the ancient cultures; I bring molecular composition of food and taste expertise to the table; Dr. April Hill of Metro State University is our lead chemist; Dr. Hill’s graduate student, De Regan, brings all the elements of chemistry and archaeology together for her dissertation. Finally, the team is rounded out by our partners in beer experimentation, Patrick and Charlie at DBC who will ultimately use the art of brewing to bring this data to life.

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