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17 October 2009
Archaeologist recreates ancient brews

Patrick McGovern, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, had just emerged from the ancient burial chamber in one of the most extensively excavated archaeological sites in China when a local scientist presented him with what he calls 'the real treasure.' It was a sealed bronze drinking vessel that resembled a teapot from 1200 BCE. With liquid still inside. McGovern whisked a sample back to his lab and the analysis confirmed what he had suspected: a yellowish wine.
     McGovern has become internationally recognized as an authority on ancient potables. This month, he released a book, Uncorking the Past, which describes his research, including his collaboration with Delaware beer brewer Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head to re-create ancient beverages with recipes he found. Last week, at an event at the University Museum, he and Calagione detailed their latest quirky foray: making an ancient Peruvian beer that required them to spend hours chewing purple corn - using their saliva as part of the fermentation process. Two months ago, McGovern traveled to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley at the behest of a Syrian Lebanese winemaker who wants to open a wine museum there.
     In 1999, McGovern began studying residue collected from drinking and eating vessels that were excavated in 1957 from what was believed to be King Midas' tomb in the ancient Turkish city of Gordion. There, researchers had found the largest Iron Age bronze drinking set to date. One of the samples was the residue of a spicy, barbecued lamb or goat stew with lentils. Another was a drink with grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead. McGovern decided to re-create the dinner that the ancients must have had, but he needed beverage help. After a beer-tasting at the museum in 2000, he invited 15 local brewers into his lab and issued a challenge: Here's an ancient recipe. Brew it. Whoever does the best will make the drink for a forthcoming dinner. One of the brewers was Calagione, who added saffron to his brew; other brewers used coriander. McGovern preferred Calagione's version. "Midas Touch" - the first brew the pair collaborated on - was served. It was 9 percent alcohol.
     After McGovern made a trip to China, the pair next collaborated on Chateau Jiahu, a re-creation of the oldest confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world, dating to 7000 BCE. Named after the ancient city of Jiahu, it contained hawthorn fruit, rice, and honey. That brew won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival last month in Denver. Dogfish donates part of the proceeds from the re-created ancient beverages to McGovern's research, in recognition of his contribution. Most of the brews are available commercially from Dogfish.
     The pair collaborated next on Theobroma, a chocolate-based ale from Central America. McGovern obtained the recipe from Honduras. Last summer, they re-created their fourth ancient beer, the Peruvian Chicha, after McGovern made a trip to Peru earlier in the year. Colleague Clark Erickson joined McGovern and Calagione at the Rehoboth Beach, Delware, brewery last summer to help chew the corn - saliva turns the corn into sugar - and make the concoction. But it was fun telling his 150 guests at the museum event about the raw research. "It may not sound appetizing," he told his guests, assuring them that a boiling process and alcohol killed off bacteria. "And it may add some special flavors." With dozens of beverages at the gathering to sample, the line for Chicha was one of the longest.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer (13 October 2009)

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