Event Recap: “Archaeology Of Beers” At China Institute (New York)

Dr. Patrick McGovern Of The University Of Pennsylvania “Uncorks The Past” At China Institute

Dr. Patrick McGovern discusses Ancient Ales at the China Institute

Dr. Patrick McGovern discusses Ancient Ales at the China Institute

Last Friday, Jing Daily attended the second part of the China Institute’s “Archaeology of Beers” series, featuring “the Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages,” Dr. Patrick McGovern (Uncorking the Past). Following up the first installment of the program, at which Dogfish Head Brewery founder and president Sam Calagione discussed his partnership with Dr. McGovern and their joint recreations of ancient beverages discovered at archaeological sites in places like Turkey, Honduras, and China, Dr. McGovern covered the legacy of alcohol and brewing from prehistory to today.

Beginning the evening, audience members were treated to the first beer developed by Dr. McGovern and Dogfish Head, Midas Touch (first released in 1999), a recreation of the 2,700-year-old beverage found in drinking vessels discovered in the tomb of King Midas in Turkey. Discussing the history of beer and winemaking, Dr. McGovern said that brewing traditions around the world have been shaped by the natural resources most readily available to civilizations, from the time when homo sapiens first emerged in Africa to its outward migration into Asia, Europe and the Americas.

As a result, over the last several thousand years, we have seen alcoholic beverages created from materials as diverse as millet and sorghum (Africa), corn (the Americas), rice (Asia) and of course grapes (Middle East, Caucasus, Europe). Dr. McGovern went on to point out that Egyptian frescoes dating to 2500 BCE feature highly detailed depictions of the beer and winemaking processes, indicating the importance of these beverages in ancient Egyptian culture.

Giving insight into the process of recreating ancient beverages, based on chemical analysis of residue found on shards of pottery, Dr. McGovern said that he and his team look for certain chemical fingerprints to identify the compounds used to create the beverage. For example, the presence of tartaric acid indicates grape wine, while beeswax indicates honey mead and beer stone indicates barley (e.g., beer). In the case of Midas Touch, Dr. McGovern said all three compounds were present, indicating this early beverage was something of a mix of wine, mead and beer. While chemical analysis couldn’t find the exact proportion of ingredients, following several test versions the team was confident it had approximated the flavor of the original. The addition of saffron added both a spicy bite and the golden color befitting a brew made for King Midas.

The label for Dogfish Head's Chateau Jiahu, designed by New York artist Tara McPherson

The label for Dogfish Head's Chateau Jiahu, designed by New York artist Tara McPherson

Next, Dogfish Head’s second Ancient Ale, Chateau Jiahu, was poured. Based on chemical analysis of resins discovered in the 1960s at a 9,000-year-old Neolithic tomb at Jiahu, China (modern-day Wuyang, Henan province), Chateau Jiahu is a reinterpretation of the oldest non-grape-based fermented beverage ever discovered by archaeologists. Dr. McGovern said he first traveled to archaeological sites in China in 1999 upon the invitation of Chinese scientists who, at that time, had comparatively little experience with molecular archaeology. At that time, Dr. McGovern said, he was stunned to find that examples of pottery in China dated back as far as 15000 BCE, whereas pottery found in the near East dated back only as far as 6000 BCE. In the case of Chateau Jiahu, Dr. McGovern said that the residue found on the 9,000-year-old pottery found at the Jiahu site was found to contain hawthorn fruit, rice, honey, and an early form of Chinese grape — making it the earliest example of a grape-based alcoholic beverage ever discovered.

Working with Dogfish Head on the recreation of the beverage found at Jiahu, Dr. McGovern said choices were made to replace the “proto-grape” used in the original with Muscat grapes, but otherwise, ingredients were kept as true to form as possible. Since its original release in 2006, Chateau Jiahu has been one of Dogfish Head’s most celebrated beers, winning the Specialty Beer Gold Medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival and becoming the subject of a profile by National Public Radio last summer.

Next, as glasses were filled with Theobroma, or “Food of the Gods” — the latest in Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ale series — Dr. McGovern discussed the discovery of the cacao-based beverage that would become Theobroma at a site in Honduras. Dated to 1200 BCE, the residue found in Honduras is the oldest example of an alcoholic chocolate beverage in history, and actually predated the previous record-holder by 500 years. Brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, honey, chilies, and annatto, Theobroma — first released in 2008 — balances deep chocolate aromas with the subtle bite of chilies and annatto seed, finishing with a hint of dark chocolate and honey.

Wrapping up, Sah’tea — based on a 9th century Finnish “proto-beer” that is still produced today — was served, as Dr. McGovern discussed other recent discoveries in the world of molecular archaeology, such as the 1,000 gallons of wine found in 700 vessels in the tomb of the early Egyptian pharaoh Scorpion I. With discoveries like these taking place seemingly every year, the most recent example being the “soup” found in a 2,400-year-old bronze pot last week in China, Dr. McGovern and his team look to have no shortage of research subjects any time soon.

The Jing Daily team would like to thank Dr. Agnes Hsu of the China Institute, Dr. Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania, and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery for organizing this two-part event and sharing their knowledge (and craft beer) with us.

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Culture, Food, Wine, & Spirits