BY TREVOR HEWITT
Humans love getting drunk – in fact, we’ve been doing it for around 12,000 years. Now Patrick McGovern, one of the foremost authorities on early beer and the ancient art of getting wasted, is taking our infatuation for the drink one step further.
Combing ancient drinking vessels for residue, the 70-year-old University of Pennsylvania professor has discovered countless lost alcoholic recipes, including the oldest-known barley beer, the oldest grape wine and the earliest-known intentionally-fermented beverage of any kind – a Neolithic-era brew from Northern China made some 9,000 years ago.
Now, with the help of Dogfish Head, a Delaware-based brewery known for its inventive and experimental offerings, McGovern brings these ancient recipes to life. In 1999, the team began the brewery’s Ancient Ales line to replicate the techniques and recipes of the world’s oldest brewers and beer styles. Along with McGovern’s theoretical knowledge, Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione brings over 20 years of brewing and know-how to the table.
Their first beer, Midas Touch, was made from honey, barley malt, white grapes and saffron. The recipe was based on residue found in a tomb believed to belong to King Midas. Drinking vessels were analyzed for chemical markers that were then used to determine the drink’s original ingredients.
In an interview with Slate, McGovern described the recreation process in detail. “People give me either samples of pottery or residues from ancient vessels … I identify the markers of specific natural products: Tartaric acid is a fingerprint compound for grapes in the Middle East, for example, while calcium oxalate points to the presence of barley beer.”
Another one of Dogfish’s offerings, Chateau Jiahu, is based on the oldest-known fermented beverage in the world. Made with hawthorn fruit, sake rice, barley and honey, McGovern designed it based on sediment excavated from a 9,000-year-old tomb in China.
But for McGovern, it’s not just about resurrecting thousand-year-old brews. The biomolecular archaeologist (someone who extracts and analyzes molecules from really, really old stuff) says further understanding and respecting the place alcohol has had throughout human history remains a large inspiration.
“For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five litres. It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they’d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn’t been enough beer,” McGovern told Smithsonian magazine.
More recently, McGovern and Calagione made a batch of chichi, a Latin American corn-based beer. To follow the method as authentically as possible, the team had to mill and moisten the corn in their mouths. In other words, they added their own saliva to the beer.
“You need to convert the starches in the corn into fermentable sugars,” Calagione tells the New York Times. “One way is through the malting process. But another way — there are natural enzymes in human saliva and by chewing on corn – ancient brewers learned through trial and error that the natural enzymes in saliva would convert the starch in corn into sugar, so it would ferment.”
For their latest addition to the Ancient Ales line, McGovern and Calagione made a batch of Scandinavian-style herbed ale. The recipe was sourced from a drinking vessel, found in a 3,500-year-old tomb in Northern Europe. Chemical analysis determined the ingredients used for the drink, including lingonberries, honey and birch syrup. The offering, Kvasir, was meant to imitate Nordic-style grog drunk from centuries past.
I’ll drink to that.