If there’s one thing that puts a crimp in Sam Calagione’s underwear, it’s the Reinheitsgebot. The German Beer Purity Law, as it’s otherwise known, was enacted in Bavaria in 1516. “In essence, the Bavarian government mandated that beer could only be made with water, hops, and barley,” Calagione told the Museum tasting crowd in September. “This was before Louis Pasteur, so yeast wasn’t included in that equation, but it was implied. And now, 99 percent of the commercial beers brewed in the world somewhat reference the Reinheitsgebot.”
When Dogfish Head opened 15 years ago, with the motto “Off-centered stuff for off-centered people,” the Reinheitsgebot dominated not just brewing behemoths like Anheuser-Busch, but the microbrewery scene as well. The notion of using ingredients like pumpkin, chicory, and St. John’s Wort had, to put it mildly, not occurred to most brewers. “We were looked upon as heretics, or freaks, or weirdos—even by some of the folks within our craft-brewing community in that era,” Calagione said. “We were looked upon as untraditional brewers for making beers that didn’t reference the Reinheitsgebot. And our brewery’s opinion is that the Reinheitsgebot is a relatively modern form of art censorship.”
Working with McGovern has strengthened his claim to a deeper brewing tradition. “We did some of these before we met Doctor Pat,” says Calagione. “Him trying one of our Medieval braggots was kind of what got our first conversation going. But when we met, it sort of solidified my belief that our path to convince people to embrace beers beyond the Reinheitsgebot was more backwards-looking than forwards-looking—meaning that long before the Reinheitsgebot existed, beers around the world were way more colorful. They embraced the local indigenous ingredients of whatever culture they were made within, and there was this breadth of color and diversity.”
The benefits of the partnership have flowed both ways. “For an archaeologist, it gives you a chance to play around with some of the variables in your findings,” says McGovern. “I mean, you think to yourself: I’ve got this ingredient and that ingredient—and sometimes they sound like a combination that would never taste good. That was my original impression with Midas. But [in craft brewers], you have a group of people who are willing to try all kinds of different possibilities to see what might work and make a drinkable beverage—the assumption being that what tastes good to us probably tasted good to our ancestors, since they had a lot of the same sensory apparatus. That’s what really came out of the Midas study: there were ways to make these beverages quite tasty. We still don’t know exactly how they were all made, but at least we’ve got some better idea now.”
In 2004, McGovern and several colleagues published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing an “extreme beverage” that pushed back the clock on human-controlled fermentation all the way to 7000 B.C. To the surprise of many, the organic residues in question this time came not from the Near East, but from a Neolithic Chinese site called Jiahu. They pointed toward a grog made from rice, grapes and/or hawthorn fruit, and honey.
Chateau Jiahu, as Dogfish Head dubbed the second vintage they reconstructed at McGovern’s urging, spills from the bottle in a honey-hued haze scented with chrysanthemum flowers. Its off-dry profile pairs well with spicy food. It’s also probably the only beer on the market to which a shrine has been erected in an academic archaeochemistry lab; McGovern keeps an unopened bottle of it on a side table, with a gold medal from the 2009 Great American Beer Festival draped around its neck.
Yet what really fires McGovern up about the Jiahu grog are some of the other artifacts unearthed from the same site, particularly a suite of about two dozen flutes crafted from a specific bone found in the wing of the red-crowned crane. They have been called the earliest playable musical instruments in the world, with a seven-hole layout capable of generating the same pentatonic scale that characterizes traditional Chinese music today. Some have been found in burial pits interpreted to be the resting places of “musician/shamans.” Additionally, the site has yielded some of the oldest pottery in China, as well as some of the oldest rice. “Jiahu also has, putatively, some of the earliest writing,” McGovern adds.
He believes it’s no coincidence that fermented beverages appear to have predated or accompanied these early cultural flowerings. “The Jiahu musicians were probably much more like our concept of the Paleolithic shamans or their modern Siberian or Amazonian counterparts,” McGovern posits in Uncorking the Past. “Besides being musicians, they would have been the idea men, highly facile with signs and art, technically proficient, and, most important, with a mystical bent, stimulated by a fermented beverage, that brought them into contact with the gods and ancestors.”
When historians and archaeologists talk about the stirrings of civilization, they often use phrases like spiritual ferment and cultural ferment to describe the transformation. For McGovern, fermentation is more than a metaphor.
“The real trump card when it comes to alcoholic beverages, I think, is this mind-altering effect,” he said during his Museum lecture. “And when you couple that with the process of fermentation, which the ancient people wouldn’t have understood but was like a magical thing,” beer and wine start to seem even more consequential. “They would see the carbon dioxide coming off the fermenting beverage, throwing up all sorts of gases, almost like an external spirit at work. They couldn’t see the yeast—that’s microscopic, we’d have to wait for Louis Pasteur for that—but they could see the results.”
With mounting exuberance, he projected a slide of an Iranian jug dating to around 5400 B.C. “This happens to be the most ancient wine vessel that we’ve yet identified chemically,” he went on. “And if you carried out the fermentation in that vessel, you could actually expect it to start to rock back and forth. So it’s like there’s some sort of mysterious force at work! And then you can start to see why people would place fermented beverages right at the center of their cultures. In Judeo-Christian cultures, wine is at the center, but if we look in other places we can see the same thing. Africa, for instance, is a continent awash in fermented beverages. There are millet and sorghum beers, honey mead, banana and palm wines…”
Circling back to Jiahu and playing off McGovern’s contagious zeal, Calagione hopped up to the podium. “There’s a pretty strong school of thought that says the reason we settled down and formed these villages was to watch our grains and crops grow so that we could make beer and fermented beverages,” he said. “So as a brewer, it gives me a lot of pride that as far as I know, our industry is responsible for civilization as we know it.
“That might be argued,” he added in the trough after the crowd’s laughter. “But the fact that this one dig site had not only the oldest fermented beverage, but also the oldest musical instrument that we know of, tells us that this was, like, the original hootenanny.”
Jan|Feb 2010 contents
Man, The Drinker By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo
Beverage residue from the Midas tumulus in Gordion, Turkey circa 700 B.C. McGovern’s chemical analysis enabled Dogfish Head Brewery’s reconstruction, Midas Touch.