It was just past lunchtime in Jerusalem’s industrial Talpiot neighbourhood. Traffic sat at an uncomfortable standstill, and the thick smog of diesel truck fuel fogged the landscape.
In a warehouse across the roundabout of snaked traffic, Itai Gutman’s overnight shift had spilled into afternoon at Herzl Brewery, a local ale distillery that was, until recently, relatively unknown, except by microbrew aficionados.
The young Jerusalemite started creating his own unique beers in small batches some 10 years ago, a process he said grew from “necessity” during his mandatory military service when funds were low and beer was a luxury. “Brewing was a simple choice to get access to the product,” he explained.
Today, beer is not just a profession for Gutman – it’s a labour of love.
Tall and softly spoken, deep under-eye shadows hint of his tireless dedication. On his right forearm is a large tattoo of what may be the oldest known recipe for creating fermented ale. The original cuneiform – a system of writing developed by the ancient Sumerians around 3500-3000 BC – is believed to describe the protocol for turning grain into ale.
The inked symbols and markings on Gutman’s forearm were found near the Euphrates River in ancient Mesopotamia – where modern-day Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey share borders – an area that is widely known as the cradle of civilization.
Just last year, fragments of ancient pottery from this period were discovered during a construction project in Tel Aviv. According to archaeologist Diego Barkan, who directed the excavation, the large ceramic basins were used to make ale.
Early inhabitants made their beer from a mixture of grains and water that was baked and left to ferment in the sun. Fruit concentrates may have been added to the mix for flavour, before the liquid was filtered into special vessels and ready to drink.
At that time, beer was a basic commodity – like bread – to be consumed and enjoyed by the entire population, regardless of status or age. Since there was always a risk of contamination with water, fermented beer and wine were much safer to drink.
“Beer brewing is the oldest occupation in the world – aside from the other one,” Gutman joked. “This is what I do, this is the tradition I took on to continue.”
Following this tradition has led Gutman to create what might be the closest thing to the very first man-made ale, using a genetically modified strain of wheat that dates back to the beginning of human agricultural cultivation, around 10,000 years ago.
Gutman’s interest in the early manufacturing of beer started after he read a story in a local newspaper about Assaf Distefeld, a Tel Aviv University professor and a leading expert in wild wheat genome research. The Haaretz story highlighted Distefeld’s work with an Israeli start up that successfully mapped the complex genome of wild emmer wheat – the precursor to modern wheat that originated in southern Turkey and flourished throughout the Fertile Crescent, the fecund stretch of land that arcs from the Persian Gulf through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and northern Egypt.
Scientists who collaborated on this project believe that mapping the gene can lead to accelerated production of wheat at a lower cost; ultimately helping ease a potential world food crisis.
Gutman felt compelled to reach out.
“I contacted the guys in the newspaper [and] we met a week later,” he said. “I took a few kilograms of grains and we started working on it.”
Once he obtained the seeds, Gutman waited several months to sprout them for optimum results. He produced the beer using the same traditional method he uses with other products at Herzl Brewery – milling the grains and mixing them with hops, water and yeast to create the final product.
The experimental brew yielded some 16 litres, of which about a dozen bottles remain.
The taste of ancient ale, you may wonder?
“Thick, with kind of raspberry and red fruit notes,” Gutman said.
The ale’s thickness and low, 3% alcohol content is likely a result of the ancient wheat’s molecular qualities, which contain lower starch levels and higher protein concentration, he explained.
Although the beer might be an acquired taste, Gutman has been fielding numerous requests to reproduce the ancient ale. In the meantime, he has no intention of selling – or even sharing – the remaining beers.
“Suddenly it has become too special to drink,” he said.
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