The Man Who Brings Ancient Beers to Life

Dr. Patrick McGovern knows everything about the history of beer drinking—apparently fruit flies, owls, and monkeys have been getting tanked for centuries.

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Apr 30 2014, 4:52pm

Foto: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

University of Pennsylvania molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern has devoted much of his academic career to the study of prehistoric alcoholic beverages. Using some technical wizardry involving something called "Fourier transform infrared spectrometry," Dr. Pat (his preferred moniker) chemically analyzes residues found in ancient pottery from archaeological excavation sites around the world, detecting evidence of former ingredients.

In perhaps the world's first commercial application of a PhD in archaeology, the professor then passes his ancient recipes to Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery, where the drinks are brewed and bottled.

King Midas was Dr. Pat's first beer re-creation muse. Although he's better known as the protagonist of the "Golden Touch" fable, Midas was an actual monarch who ruled over Phrygia in modern Turkey in the 8th century BCE. In 1957, Penn Museum researchers excavated his tomb, in which they found the corpse of an old man, a heap of fancy textiles, and a collection of bronze drinking vessels from the funerary feast. Thirty years later, Dr. Pat studied the vessels and found that they contained a beverage that mixed fermented barley, grapes, and honey, as well as a bittering agent that was likely saffron rather than hops.

Dr. Pat wanted to re-create Midas's funerary feast, complete with the spicy barbecued lamb and lentil entrée culled from different vessels, at a fundraising dinner for Penn's molecular archaeology program. But first, he needed a brewer to make the beer.

"Owls have been known to drink bottles of Schnapps and go sort of catatonic on the side of the road in Germany."

He initially pitched the idea at a beer tasting that happened to be held at the Penn Museum in 2000. "I said if anybody among the microbrewers would like to try to do a re-creation, they could come to my laboratory at 9 AM the next morning," he said. "And so I had like 20 or 25 microbrewers show up. I couldn't believe it."

Samples began to arrive in Dr. Pat's mail. "My job was to taste them and think about the parameters of how this ancient beverage might have been made," he said. "It was a pretty tough job, but somebody had to do it." Ultimately, Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head returned the best product. It was so well received, in fact, that Calagione decided to release it to the public. Midas Touch remains Dogfish Head's most awarded beer.

When Dr. Pat discovered 9,000-year-old pottery with beer residue at a Neolithic village in central China, he decided to continue the collaboration with Dogfish Head. "I just felt very comfortable working with Sam," he said, "and he wanted to make it as genuine as possible." The resulting product, Chateau Jiahu, contains muscat grapes, rice, orange blossom honey, and wild hawthorn fruit. The world's oldest attested alcoholic beverage is also 10% alcohol by volume, suggesting that ancient Chinese villagers were no lightweights.

The partnership between Dr. Pat and Dogfish Head has since spawned a whole series of "ancient ales." There's the Egyptian Ta Henket, brewed with wheat, hearth-baked bread, chamomile, doum-palm fruit, and za'atar herbs. Theobroma—based on a drink consumed by Mesoamerican elites around 1,200 BCE—is made with Aztec cocoa, honey, chili peppers, and annatto seeds. The archaeological remains that inspired this recipe are the world's earliest evidence of cocoa consumption. They've also made an Etruscan ale with hazelnut flower and pomegranate, as well as a "Nordic grog" with birch syrup and bog myrtle.

Perhaps the most unusual drink arising from this collaboration was the limited-release Chicha, based on a traditional Peruvian recipe and production method. Dr. Pat, a fellow Penn archaeology professor, Clark Erickson, and some Dogfish Head employees gathered at the brewery and spent hours chewing and then spitting out heaps of Peruvian purple corn to jump-start the fermentation process for this beer. "We have these enzymes in our saliva that break down starch into sugar," said Dr. Pat. Pre-chewing is still practiced in South America, but "they kind of play it down now because of the hygienic issues." A little spit didn't scare off beer enthusiasts at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival, where other breweries complained that they were blocked off by the lines for the Dogfish Head booth and its Chicha samples.

Beyond mastication, Dr. Pat and Dogfish Head attempt to maintain accuracy in their re-creations by nearly any means possible. Yeast, a living organism, has evolved over time and varies over geographic distance. "You could just go buy yeast of a certain kind from one of the big companies," said Dr. Pat, "or you could try to retro-engineer your own yeast that you think might be an ancient one." For the Italian Birra Etrusca, they crossed two strains of modern yeast to approximate a common ancestor. Prior to the production of Ta Henket, the team traveled to Egypt and left petri dishes out in a date palm grove to collect native yeast.

In the re-creation projects, commercial concerns often take a back seat to the quest for historical verisimilitude. "Sometimes it's appreciated and sometimes it's not," he said. "The Egyptian beverage has a spice in it called za'atar, and it's a very popular Arab spice, but it's not to everybody's liking… they had to stop production of that because it wasn't really selling too well."

Although the history of Dr. Pat's ancient beers stretch back thousands of years, they represent only a tiny fraction of humanity's love affair with booze. We are evolutionarily primed for an inclination toward alcohol: ten percent of our liver enzymes are dedicated to processing alcohol, and consumption activates a multifaceted neurological response that suggests our brains have adapted to alcohol in a genetic way. Our animal relatives share this penchant too. Even the earliest known primate, the 60 million-year-old Malaysian tree shrew, drinks copious amounts of fermented palm nectar—"the equivalent of nine glasses of wine per night," Dr. Pat points out. Fruit flies and birds get fratty, too. "Owls have been known to drink bottles of Schnapps and go sort of catatonic on the side of the road in Germany."

Our earliest ancestors had to rely on naturally fermented fruit in order to get drunk. But when early agriculturalists stopped chasing mammoths around with spears and settled down, they began to brew beer in great quantities. "If you look at the main grains that we still consume around the world today—rice, millet, sorghum, wheat, barley, and corn," said Dr. Pat, "I think all of those were probably domesticated in order to produce more grain or cereal to make more beer." Agriculture, along with the associated adoption of a sedentary rather than migratory lifestyle, might represent the single most important innovation in human history. And we did it for beer.

Throughout human history, according to Dr. Pat, alcohol has maintained a central place in human society. It has played key roles in labor, medicine, and especially religion. Even today, devotees often pray to the Porcelain God after long nights of drinking.

Perhaps archaeologists of the future will dig through the remains of Brooklyn to find ancient cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. And if they bring that elixir back to life, Dr. Pat will smile in his catacomb.

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