Biomolecular archaeologist and Penn Museum researcher
Patrick McGovern Gr’80 has found some of the oldest alcoholic beverages known to history, and he wants you to take a glug.
 They might just be responsible for civilization as we know it.  
(Not to mention your next hangover.)

BY TREY POPP

 

Jan|Feb 2010 contents
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COVER STORY:
Man, The Drinker By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo

 

 

 
The scrum around Sam Calagione’s keg measured 10 deep, and everyone was angling for a cup laced with the brewer’s saliva. It was not a secret ingredient. The drinkers had just heard all about it in the Penn Museum’s Upper Egyptian Gallery. They’d seen slides. But for fans of extreme fermentation, this was the highlight of the night: the final few liters of a very limited edition inspired by a theory of the invention of beer itself.

Calagione is the founder of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. A trim and tanned 40-year-old with the jaw line of a Gillette model and a ready laugh, he doesn’t seem like someone who would spit in your drink. But then neither does Patrick McGovern Gr’80, who had provided the scholarly justification for it. The mild-mannered archaeologist is a picture of harmlessness. His flaring white beard and snowdrift of hair make him look like a man poking his spectacles through a pile of wool. Yet there was no getting around it. This brew contained “six or seven hours’ worth” of his own saliva as well.

McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the Penn Museum, has spent the last two decades on the trail of ancient wines and beers. Scraping the gunk out of old cauldrons and pottery sherds, he has found evidence of alcoholic beverages as far apart in space and time as Iron Age Turkey and Neolithic China. Some of his discoveries have been surprising. Some have been bizarre. Using tools like mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography, McGovern has deciphered, with unprecedented exactitude, the ingredients of fermented beverages brewed as far back as 9,000 years ago.

Calagione has helped him put some of that evidence to a literal taste-test. Together they have reverse-engineered four archaic grogs. Each started out as an academic exercise, but the project has taken on a commercial life of its own. Two have won medals at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado. One, a mixed wine/beer/mead concoction reconstructed from McGovern’s analysis of a drinking set buried with the legendary King Midas circa 700 B.C., has won more awards than anything else Dogfish Head makes.

Tonight’s quaff, though, promised to make its predecessors look tame. It was a South American-style beer called chicha made with the help of Clark Erickson, associate curator of the Museum’s American section. To transform its base of purple Peruvian corn into a mash amenable to yeast fermentation, the men had chewed every last kernel and spit the cuds into the brewing kettle.

“We think that chewing is probably the earliest way that humans would have transformed starch into sugar” in order to get fermentation going, McGovern explained in his lecture. Modern beer relies on the enzymes released by sprouted and malted barley to get this job done, but malting barley can be a little tricky. Our saliva contains an enzyme called ptyalin that does the same thing. “It may not sound very appetizing to think of people preparing their beverages this way, but once you get an alcoholic beverage, it does kill off any harmful bacteria.”

He paused for a beat. “And it might add some special flavors, too. You never know.”

Well, not until you slug it down, anyway. Compared to the saffron-kissed honey of Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, or the chili-tinged chocolate notes of its Maya- and Aztec-inspired Theobroma, the special flavors in the spit-primed Chicha ran more toward funky pink peppercorns with a hint of fraternity basement. But this particular vintage was an unlikely candidate for large-scale production to begin with. It would wear out too many jaws. For Calagione, a limited run ending at the Museum—which got the last remaining keg—was part of the fun. “When we opened in 1995,” he told the tasting crowd, “our goal was to brew the antithesis of what dominated the commercial brewing landscape then and now.”

That contrarian ethos practically leaps out of every bottle Dogfish Head caps, corks, or seals with a plastic screwtop (as in its semi-ironic 40-ounce Liquor De Malt, which came with a hand-stamped brown paper bag). The ones stemming from McGovern’s biomolecular assays, though, have a special significance for Calagione. To fans and critics alike, his brewery has a way of coming off like a high-school hooligan who’ll rip up any page with a rule printed on it.  But working with “Doctor Pat,” as the brewer refers to his professorial partner, has strengthened Calagione’s conviction that Dogfish Head isn’t so much trampling on beer history as resurrecting the full breadth of it.

McGovern has his own reason to relish bringing tastes of the deep past to present-day tongues. He thinks our fondness for alcoholic beverages has been a profound force in human history. One of archaeology’s most fascinating unsettled questions concerns which foodstuff was more consequential in civilization’s early stages: bread or beer? With each ancient grog he has uncovered—particularly a 9,000-year-old specimen from China’s Yellow River Valley, which represents the earliest known alcoholic beverage—McGovern has added evidence to the tipplers’ side of the ledger. He believes the quest for fermented beverages was mankind’s primary motivation for domesticating grain-bearing plants. It isn’t his only conjecture. Once he gets rolling—even without the aid of one of his and Calagione’s left-field libations—McGovern can make alcohol seem like the master key that you can’t understand human culture without.

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