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Earliest Brewery in Britain Discovered – And it’s Very, Very Old

Nancy Bilyeau
Beer
Beer

People were brewing beer in Britain at least 2,000 years ago, according to evidence found literally in the road. Signs of an Iron Age brewery dating to about 400 BC were identified by archaeologists during an upgrade of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. The evidence found in Cambridgeshire is fragments and lumps of charred residues from the beer-making process. This is the earliest evidence of brewing ever found in the British Isles.

Alulu beer receipt c. 2050 BC from the Sumerian city of Umma in ancient Iraq

Alulu beer receipt c. 2050 BC from the Sumerian city of Umma in ancient Iraq

Dr. Steve Sherlock, Highways England archaeologist on the the A14 project, said in an interview with Daily Mail: “It’s a well-known fact that ancient populations used the beer-making process to purify water and create a safe source of hydration, but this is potentially the earliest physical evidence of that process taking place in the UK.”

Lara Gonzalez, who is one of more than 200 archaeologists on the project led by MOLA Headland Infrastructure, made the discovery.

Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the pouring out of beer

Egyptian hieroglyphics depict the pouring out of beer

“I knew when I looked at these tiny fragments under the microscope that I had something special,” she said to the media.

Gonzalez studies ancient plants and investigates their connections to human societies. Ms. Gonzalez made use of a scanning electron microscope [SEM] to examine the burned material.

Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer in southern Iraq, 3100–3000 BC

Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer in southern Iraq, 3100–3000 BC

“The microstructure of these remains had clearly changed through the fermentation process and air bubbles typical of those formed in the boiling and mashing process of brewing. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack but, as an archaeobotanist, it’s incredibly exciting to identify remains of this significance and to play a part in uncovering the fascinating history of the Cambridgeshire landscape.”

Woman brewing beer

Woman brewing beer

Other discoveries reportedly made by archaeologists hired for the road project include the remains of a medieval village, a comb made from deer antlers, Roman coins, and the fossil of a woolly mammoth that could be more than 130,000 years old.

When it came to the brewery discovery, all the fragments contained barley, water, and oats. “The thing that actually distinguishes [the fragments] is that bread is made of very fine flour,” Gonzalez explained in an interview. “For beer and porridge, they are cracked grains. They are bigger. When I looked under the SEM, you could see the starch granules from the beer grains have differences that show fermentation.”

Woolly mammoth model at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Photo by Tracy O CC BY-SA 2.0

Woolly mammoth model at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Photo by Tracy O CC BY-SA 2.0

The Robb Report declared, “The ancient remnants were found alongside those of bread and porridge, proving that even BCE humans found that nothing helps wash down a meal — or take the edge off an otherwise stressful day — quite like a tasty brew.”

Brewing in England dates back thousands of years without question. It was firmly established by the time the Romans occupied England.

On a related note, look at these weird mummified cats and beetles just discovered from ancient Egyptian tombs:

Early beer, made from cereal grains, water, and yeast, would have been produced mostly by individual households and farms.

Beer expert Roger Protz, a former editor of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, said in an interview: “East Anglia has always been of great importance to brewing as a result of the quality of the barley that grows there. It’s known as maritime barley and is prized throughout the world. When the Romans invaded Britain they found the local tribes brewing a type of beer called curmi.”

Protz believes curmi was made from grain. Hops were not used in Britain until the 15th century.

Read another story from us: The Ancient Egyptian Obsession with Beer

The cultivation of hops was introduced by Flanders to England in the Maidstone region of Kent at that time, historians believe. England’s national drink until then had been ale, unhopped and sometimes flavored with herbs such as wormwood. By the 17th century, ale was no longer popular and beer was the established drink.