Five questions for Philly's master of ancient beer

Patrick McGovern, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist, is renowned for his study of ancient vessels that yield clues to the beverages they once contained.

Research suggests that drinking alcohol in moderation can be beneficial for the cardiovascular system, but our ancestors likely derived a much more immediate health benefit from wine and beer, says Patrick E. McGovern, scientific director of the biomolecular archaeology project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archaeology and Anthropology. The fermentation process removes harmful bacteria, so the resulting beverages likely would have been safer to drink than the source water.

In his new book, Ancient Brews Rediscovered & Re-created (W.W. Norton), McGovern explores the science of ancient beer and wine, describing how he has analyzed pottery samples to reveal the ingredients of beverages from long ago.

Penn archaeologist Patrick McGovern describes how his research led to modern-day interpretations of ancient “extreme beverages.”

He also tells how his research inspired brewer Sam Calagione to create a series of “extreme beverages” at Dogfish Head brewery in Milton, Del. Among them is the golden-hued Midas Touch, inspired by chemical analysis of vessels found in a 2,700-year-old tomb in what is today northwestern Turkey. The site was originally thought to be the final resting place of Midas, and now is believed to be his father’s.

McGovern includes recipes for historically appropriate meal pairings for each brew. For Midas Touch, he suggests a spicy barbecued lamb and lentil stew. He shared more insights in an interview.

As near as we can tell, roughly when did humans first start making alcohol, and why?

The earliest really positive evidence is the sample we did from China, from the site of Jiahu, which is, at the earliest, about 7,000 B.C. It’s not just rice that’s been fermented. Also it had grape and hawthorn fruit that had been fermented, and honey. We call them extreme beverages.

It’s a combination of the fact that it’s a whole lot safer than drinking raw water, and it does have positive medicinal effects when drunk in moderation.  And it’s more nutritious. When you ferment something, it preserves better. … The mind-altering effect was very important for social relations and religion.

When Dogfish Head creates beverages that are inspired by your findings, how close do you think they are to the originals? Would Midas like Midas Touch?

We have limited evidence, to begin with. We don’t know the processes that were involved always, though we have some inkling of it. In Egypt, from about 2,450 B.C., there are frescoes in tombs that show the beer-making process. But we don’t know what the microorganisms are. We try to reconstruct what we think is true to that region. We just have a lot of variables that we’re testing and trying to come up with a palatable drink, too. Because humans for 100,000 years have had very similar sensory organs and brain structures, what appeals to us today presumably should appeal to somebody in ancient times. That’s really what we’re shooting at.

What drew you to the field of archaeology?

I was very interested in finding out about origins. Where we came from, how we became what we are, the biological and physiological underpinnings of our existence. I wanted to get new information, not just going back through the usual historical sources that we use. Archaeology has a potential of opening up whole new vistas on where we came from.

Tell us about your first experience with alcohol, during a teenage trip to Europe.

We bicycled all throughout the German Alps, crisscrossing into Austria and France. At first I was just drinking Coca-Cola. Then I discovered that the beer was actually less expensive.

You are known for your spectacular beard. Tell us the original reason that you stopped shaving, during an expedition decades ago.

We were in the Middle East, and we were staying in places that didn’t have hot water. If you’ve ever tried shaving just with cold water, it’s not a pleasant experience. Plus, if you’re an archaeologist, you have to have a beard. It sort of goes with the territory.