There was something psychedelic going on in ancient Greece and no one can quite put their finger on it. It’s a mystery that involves a strange and exotic drink, a goddess, her daughter and even Homer, the epic poet, himself.
Kykeon (pronounced koo-kay-ohn) was an ancient Greek drink commonly referred to as “wine.” But there’s something strange about this stuff. Not just because its name is different than typical Greek wine, not just because it was served in an oddly tiny glass, but because, when you read about the effects of kykeon … well, they can only be described as psychedelic, dreamlike, strange, deeply distorted.
“Whenever it comes up, it clearly has some kind of drug induced or hallucinogenic property,” says Travis Rupp, a Boulder based beer-archeologist. He's also a special projects brewer and research and development manager for Avery Brewing. Oh right, and CU professor too.
Rupp is an interesting guy, with an insanely cool job(s). When he isn’t teaching or giving museum lectures, he travels the world to places like Turkey, Greece and Egypt, hunting down ancient recipes for beer. Then he brings them back to recreates at Avery Brewing.
Rupp says that, even though it is usually described as “wine,” Kykeon is actually, technically a beer. Because it contains barley, it cannot truly be considered wine — which is 100 percent grapes.
“When Homer starts listing off what’s in kykeon, he talks about grapes, he talks about grain, he talks about cheese, onions, honey, herbs all these weird things that sound disgusting,” says Rupp, referring to a recipe described in the Iliad.
But apparently people loved the stuff.
Kykeon was a favorite beverage among Greek farmers and peasants. And it was also a ritualistic beverage consumed during the initiation ceremony of the Eluisian Mysteries — a ritual that commemorated Demeter’s journey to the underworld in search of her daughter, Persephone. Kykeon was consumed at the climax of this event, just before the initiates entered the underground temple of Demeter to experience the mysteries of “death and rebirth”.
Which sounds outright surreal.
Many believe the psychoactive effects of Kykeon came from a fungus called ergot, that somehow parasitized the barley they used — which, if synthesized properly, can have similar effects to LSD. But no one has been able to find any hard evidence or literature to support this theory.
Rupp says that it could have been any number of things besides ergot, though. He suggests that it could have simply been a very high ABV drink (compared to the wine they always watered down). Or, it could have been a combination of the variety of herbs they included, as well.
Whatever the case, it was doing something extra funny to those ancient people’s heads. And, we know it was neither the first nor the last time that psychedelics would find their way into alcoholic beverages. Perhaps, maybe someday, they will find their way back.
Until then, Rupp might be brewing the next best thing at Avery — his own version of kykeon. And you can try it.
Just not yet.
“I don’t think I’ll be doing it this year, but early 2019,” he says, confidently. “One of the Ales of Antiquity will be kykeon and we’ll actually ferment it with honey and try to put in all these weird ass spices that Homer talks about… as long as I can get my hands on them.”