The Beer Archeologist: Tasting World History

Drink Features

Dr. Patrick McGovern looks nothing like Harrison Ford.

The 66-year-old Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia has earned a few nicknames during his career, including “the Indiana Jones of alcohol,” “the beer archeologist” or “the Lazarus of libations.”

With a floppy mane of gray and a bushy white beard to match, he looks more like St. Nick than a Spielbergian cinematic hero. But when he speaks on one of his areas of expertise—ancient fermented beverages—people realize how he earned those nicknames. Although he’s a noted academic scholar on the subject, McGovern can break down chemical analysis and ancient history into terms that even Joe Sixpack can understand.

“Alcohol is the universal drug,” McGovern says during a phone interview from his office in Philadelphia. “The rise of alcohol around the world happened for a number of reasons,” he adds. “It’s a social lubricant; there are dietary issues involved when sugar and alcohol are converted into energy; and then there are mind-altering effects where you feel like you are in contact outside of yourself.”

We first met McGovern at the Getty Villa in Malibu in June, where hundreds of people packed the museum’s auditorium to hear his lecture Uncorking the Past: Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages. “Archeology, in terms of beer and wine, bridges science and the humanities,” he told the rapt audience.

To McGovern, the history and study of alcohol often tells a story about the history of culture itself.

After the program, attendees then sampled the three of the beers he discussed in his lecture—Midas Touch, Theobroma and Chateau Jihau—which McGovern helped create in concert with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, one of the top craft brewers in the country. The lecture gave the audience a taste of history—literally.

Midas Touch, their first collaboration in 1999, is a beer based on what was probably served at King Midas’ funerary feast. (In many ancient cultures, the VIPs received one heck of a send-off to the afterlife and were even buried with enough food and drink to keep them well-nourished.)

Midas’s tomb, found buried beneath a large mound in Central Turkey, was first excavated by Penn Museum workers in 1957. Inside the chamber, which dates to around 700 BC, were a number of bronze vessels and buckets used for serving the beverage. McGovern was more interested in the leftover residue than in the vessels themselves.

The chemical analysis showed that the beverage therein was a mixture of grape wine, barley beer and honey mead. At a Penn dinner honoring beer expert Michael Jackson nearly a dozen years ago, McGovern challenged the brewers in attendance to make something drinkable out of those ingredients. Calagione’s concoction won the challenge.

“He made a beverage as a honey, barley beer and used plum instead of grapes,” said McGovern. He also substituted hops—a key ingredient in beer making—with saffron. Although the thought of mixing beer and wine doesn’t seem palatable to modern drinkers, Midas Touch clearly makes it work. The beverage has won numerous awards in beer competitions, including a bronze medal in the 2008 World Beer Cup.

Calagione, who was nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional this year, has always been drawn to brewing drinks as far away from the mainstream as possible.

“Exotic ingredients…that was our focus from day one,” Calagione says during a recent phone interview. He was in New England trying to create a Medieval beer called gruit with the Portsmouth Brewery. Even before meeting McGovern, Dogfish Head had experimented with honey mead variants, such as braggot, or tej from Africa.

Since Midas Touch was released in 1999, the two have collaborated on four more brews. Theobroma (2008), a chocolate beer based on pottery shards excavated from Puerto Escondido, Honduras, dates back to 1400 BC. Described by McGovern as an “elite beverage of the new world,” Theobroma is created with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, honey, chilies and annatto (fragrant tree seeds).

Chateau Jihau, released in 2006, is based on chemical residues from artifacts excavated from China’s Yellow River valley. The analysis revealed a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit. The Chinese samples date back 9,000 years, making the fermented beverage—used primarily in religious and burial ceremonies—the earliest identified alcoholic beverages.

In 2009, McGovern and Calagione teamed up to create Chicha—an ancient Central and South American beer that used corn as its essential ingredient. The limited-edition Dogfish Head version follows the ancient Peruvian recipe and method, using organic pink Peruvian pepper corns, Peruvian purple maize and yellow maize, and U.S. strawberries. Before the beer is brewed, the most “interesting” part of the alcoholic conversion happens: They chew up the purple maize and spit it out.

The ancient brewers discovered, somehow, that human saliva produces an enzyme that converts the starch in the corn into fermentable sugar. Those grossed out by this little detail shouldn’t fear: The beer’s boiled (aka sterilized) long before it’s served in a pint.

Ta Henket, released last year, is based on ancient Egyptian brewing traditions and ingredients described in hieroglyphics. Available to the public later this fall, Calagione admits that out of all the beers he and McGovern have collaborated on, this one might just be his favorite. It contains a mixture of zatar, chamomile, the dom-palm fruit; and the two took an extra step that other brewers may have skipped.

Calagione and McGovern, as documented on the Discovery Channel’s Brew Masters show, visited the spice stalls of a Cairo marketplace to find the right ingredients. And one ingredient was literally blowing in the wind. “The yeast was isolated and captured in the night air of Cairo with the pyramids in the background,” says Calagione.

“[McGovern’s] a kindred spirit,” he adds. “His curiosity is proven—he’d go to the ends of the earth for beer ingredients.” Together, they’re a sort of odd couple—and not just physically—with McGovern’s pragmatic and analytic approach countering Calagione’s own “spontaneity” in the brewing process.

While the bulk of McGovern’s work happens in a lab, he does still manage to get out into the field. (He has been director of a site in Jordan’s Baq`ah Valley for more than 30 years.) But last fall, he visited an excavation site in Southern France that might turn French viniculture on its head.

“We are currently examining the introduction of grapes into Southern France.” Yes, the country that’s home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux—may have “imported the wine from Tuscany.”

French wines may actually be—sacre bleu!—Italian in origin.

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