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    Ancient Peruvians partied hard, spiked their beer with hallucinogens to win friends / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 13 January, 2022 - 19:02 · 1 minute

A vessel from the Wari site of Conchopata features the tree and its tell-tale seed pods sprouting from the head of the Staff God.

Enlarge / A vessel from the Wari site of Conchopata features the tree and its tell-tale seed pods sprouting from the head of the Staff God. (credit: J. Ochatoma Paravicino/M.E. Biwer et al., 2022)

Lacing the beer served at their feasts with hallucinogens may have helped an ancient Peruvian people known as the Wari forge political alliances and expand their empire, according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity. Recent excavations at a remote Wari outpost called Quilcapampa unearthed seeds from the vilca tree that can be used to produce a potent hallucinogenic drug. The authors think the Wari held one big final blowout before the site was abandoned.

“This is, to my knowledge, the first finding of vilca at a Wari site where we can get a glimpse of its use,” co-author Matthew Biwer, an archaeobotanist at Dickinson College, told Gizmodo . “Vilca seeds or residue has been found in burial tombs before, but we could only assume how it was used. These findings point to a more nuanced understanding of Wari feasting and politics and how vilca was implicated in these practices.”

The Wari empire lasted from around 500 CE to 1100 CE in the central highlands of Peru. There is some debate among scholars as to whether the network of roadways linking various provincial cities constituted a bona fide empire as opposed to a loose economic network. But the Wari's construction of complex, distinctive architecture and the 2013 discovery of an imperial royal tomb lend credence to the Wari's empire status. The culture began to decline around 800 CE, largely due to drought. Many central buildings were blocked up, suggesting people thought they might return if the rains did, and there is archaeological evidence of possible warfare and raiding in the empire's final days as the local infrastructure collapsed and supply chains failed.

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    German chemists identified over 7,700 different chemical formulas in beers / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 17 August, 2021 - 22:30 · 1 minute

A cold, frosty mug of beer.

Enlarge / German chemists combined two complementary mass spectrometry techniques to analyze 467 different commercial beers from around the world. (credit: Natasha Breen/Getty Images )

People have been brewing beer for millennia, and the basic chemistry of fermentation is well understood. But thanks to advanced analytical techniques, scientists continue to learn more about the many different chemical compounds that contribute to the flavor and aroma of different kinds of beer. The latest such analysis comes courtesy of a team of German scientists who analyzed over 400 commercial beers from 40 countries. The scientists identified at least 7,700 different chemical formulas and tens of thousands of unique molecules, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Chemistry. And they did it with a new approach that can analyze a sample in just 10 minutes.

"Beer is an example of enormous chemical complexity," said co-author Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin of the Technical University of Munich and the Helmholtz Center in Munich. "And thanks to recent improvements in analytical chemistry, comparable in power to the ongoing revolution in the technology of video displays with ever-increasing resolution, we can reveal this complexity in unprecedented detail. Today it's easy to trace tiny variations in chemistry throughout the food production process, to safeguard quality or to detect hidden adulterations."

As I've written previously , all beer contains hops , a key flavoring agent that also imparts useful antimicrobial properties. To make beer, brewers mash and steep grain in hot water, which converts all that starch into sugars. This is traditionally the stage when hops are added to the liquid extract (wort) and boiled. That turns some of the resins (alpha acids) in the hops into iso-alpha acids, producing beer's hint of bitterness. Yeast is then added to trigger fermentation, turning the sugars into alcohol. Some craft brewers prefer dry-hopping—hops are added during or after the fermentation stage, after the wort has cooled. They do this as a way to enhance the hoppy flavors without getting excessive bitterness, since there is no isomerization of the alpha acids.

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    The chemistry of what makes sour beer so sour / ArsTechnica · Monday, 24 August, 2020 - 15:45 · 1 minute

Scientists report progress on a study of how acids and other flavor components evolve while sour beer ages.

Sour beer has been around for centuries, and has become a favorite with craft brewers in recent years. But the brewing process can be unpredictable. To help brewers better understand how sour beers develop their distinctive complex flavors, chemists at the University of Redlands in California have been tracking various chemical compounds that contribute to those flavor profiles, monitoring how their concentrations change over time during the aging process. They presented their initial findings during the American Chemical Society's Fall 2020 Virtual Meeting & Expo last week.

Goses, lambics, and wild ales, oh my!

Brewers of standard beer carefully control the strains of yeast they use, taking care to ensure other microbes don't sneak into the mix, lest they alter the flavor during fermentation. Sour beer brewers use wild yeasts , letting them grow freely in the wort, sometimes adding fruit for a little extra acidity. Then the wort is transferred to wooden barrels and allowed to mature for months or sometimes years, as the microbes produce various metabolic products that contribute to sour beer's unique flavor. But the brewers don't always know exactly which compounds end up in the final product or how it will impact the overall flavor profile. "That is the quandary of the sour beer brewer," said co-author David Soulsby during a virtual press conference .

"Sour beer tastes very different from regular beer, but it's a very complex and rich flavor experience. These different flavors come from the complex processes that are occurring during aging," said co-author Teresa Longin, who also happens to be married to Soulsby. "These processes are hard to control and can be hard to reproduce. Our research focuses on understanding what these processes are, what's happening over time, so that the brewer can ultimately understand them and make better beer."

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    Archaeologists find a way to look for ancient beer / ArsTechnica · Friday, 5 June, 2020 - 20:10 · 1 minute

Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan.

Enlarge / Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan. (credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Over the last few years, archaeologists have learned a lot from ancient people’s dirty dishes. Microscopic residues clinging to the inside of potsherds contain chemical traces of ancient food and drink, which have revealed remarkable details of ancient people’s diets. But as much as we now know about when people started eating certain grains or fermenting milk to make cheese, we’re still not sure when people first started brewing beer. It’s hard to tell a container used for beer from one that was just storing plain old grain.

But by looking at the remains of ancient grains under a microscope, archaeologists can tell whether the grains had been malted—the first step in the process of brewing beer.

When grains start to germinate, or sprout, they release an enzyme called diastase, which converts the grain’s stockpile of starch into sugar. The whole point of malting is to make the grains release diastase, but then stop the process before the starch gets turned into sugar. Once the brewer adds yeast to the malted grain, then, the diastase can produce more sugar to feed the yeast—and that produces carbon dioxide, alcohol, and a sweet taste. To make this happen, brewers soak grains in water so they start to germinate, then stop the process by air-drying the grains and heating them in an oven.

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