Working with modern brewers to recreate a beer that hasn’t seen since the Neolithic period is just another day at the office for Patrick McGovern, beer archaeologist.
As a professor of archaeological chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaology’s been analyzing pottery fragments to find what type of beer our ancestors drank, and even more interestingly, what ailments they used them to cure.
In his 2010 study, he looked at the anti-cancer properties of fermented beverages. As it turns out, alcohol kills parasites and bacteria in contaminated water and relieves pain. Drinking beer is also an ancient way of delivering other medicines.
Beer is universal to most of Earth’s ancient cultures. Egyptians made beer from barley, Chinese made rice wine in the same fashion that beer is brewed, and the Incas brewed beer made from corn called Chica.
History you can taste
Over the past few years, McGovern has been working with Dogfish Head Brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware to recreate ancient brews based on recipes constructed using residue left on pottery, first investigating a recipe from Egypt with native spices purchased from an ancient market in Cairo and this year concocting a Chinese one gleaned from the inside of a brass urn. He’s also recreated the world’s oldest barley beer from Iran and Earth’s earliest known booze, a Chinese grog from 9,000 years ago. Dogfish’s Midas Touch, its most award-winning brew, is based on McGovern’s analysis of King Midas’ tomb from 700 B.C.
‘Midas Touch’ is sweet and dry, and made with the same recipe discovered by McGovern when he himself sampled the residue from brass pots in King Midas’ ancient Turkish tomb. A bit like beer, mead, and wine, but not technically classified as any of them, it’s made from honey, barley malt, white muscat grapes and saffron.
More than just finding out what ancient beer might taste like, recreating long-lost beer recipes is a study in world agriculture, ancient technology, and an exploration into potentially new ways of fighting illness. McGovern calls it “experimental archaeology,” and we can’t think of a better way to bring history to life.