Northwest Philadelphia residents learn about and taste ancient brews during Cliveden event

“We’re here to prove that history needn’t be dry,” said David Young, executive director of Cliveden of the National Trust to the 75 or so people inside the organization’s carriage house. Cliveden and Dr. Patrick McGovern did just that at “Uncorking the Past,” a discussion and beer tasting event held last Friday night.

McGovern – scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum – had an attentive audience for his introduction into the ancient history of brewing. The group was just as enthusiastic afterwards as they sampled four beers brewed by Dogfish Head Brewery, a Delaware-based operation.

These weren’t just any beers. They all came from recipes that were thousands of years old.McGovern, a specialist in Middle Eastern archaeology and ancient cultures, worked with Dogfish Head to recreate the ancient suds.

A 2,700-year-old prizewinner

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McGovern said that the recreation of the first of the ancient ales – Midas Touch – began with an excavation of King Midas’ tomb that the museum had done in 1957. About 2,700 years ago, Midas, known in legend for the story of the “Golden Touch,” was a real-life ruler of the kingdom of Phrygia in what is now Turkey.

In addition to the bronze drinking vessels (which McGoven said had a high zinc content that gave them a golden hue that travelers might have mistaken for actual gold), museum excavators brought back the remains of the food and drinks that were inside them.

“The real gold was what was inside those cups,” said McGovern. “When I was told we had those residues in the museum it was the easiest excavation I ever did. All I did was go up a couple of flights of stairs and get them.”After meeting with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, the pair decided to see if they could recapture the beverage served at Midas’ funeral feast.

Laboratory analysis showed that it had been brewed with barley, grapes and honey, but it needed a “bittering agent” – something to counteract the sweetness of the honey and grapes. McGovern suggested using saffron, for which that part of Turkey is famous.

Calagione followed that suggestion and later told McGovern that Midas Touch was the most expensive beverage he’d ever made – not surprising since saffron retails for thousands of dollars per pound.

It was money well spent. Midas Touch, first brewed in 2000, has gone on to win prizes at beer competitions featuring beers from all over the world.

The world’s oldest recipe

In the course of his talk and slide presentation, McGovern also covered some of the ways in which fermented beverages might have been discovered by long-ago peoples.

Although the beginnings of brewing have been lost in the mists of time, there’s no doubt that the craft has a long history. One of the beers that attendees sampled was Chateau Jiahu, recreated from residues found in ancient Chinese pottery.

When McGovern’s laboratory first began analyzing the pottery and its contents he didn’t know how old they were. “I thought it was old but not as old as the Middle East,” he said.

But, he said, “The pottery vessels turned out to be from around 7,000 B.C. Pottery wasn’t invented in the Middle East until around 6,000 B.C.”

Thus, the recipe for Chateau Jiahu – which features a mixture of rice, fruit and honey – is the oldest known recipe in the world.

Strange brews

After McGovern’s presentation, attendees circulated around the Carriage House and sampled the various beers, which also included Ta Henket, based on an Egyptian beer brewed about 3,100 B.C., and Theobroma, recreated from remains of pottery from Honduras that were about 3,000 years old.

Everyone among those polled afterward seemed to like Midas Touch, which Cliveden board member Damian Jackson, for one, described as “very nice, just right for a summer day.”

Opinions were more mixed on Theobroma , which contains cocoa as one of the main ingredients. Patrick Rotundo liked it, saying “It’s a little bit of bitter chocolate and finishes with the chocolate taste,’ while another sipper described it wryly as “interesting.”

The tastes on tap certainly weren’t like today’s beers since many of the ingredients are no longer used in beers and ales. McGovern described them as “hybrid beverages” – definitely beer, but with fruits, wines and honey added to provide sugars to aid the fermentation process.

Path to the Past

McGovern didn’t set out to become an expert in fermented beverages when he began his career. He originally intended to study medicine as his parents had urged him to do, which is why his bachelor’s degree is in chemistry. But, he said, “I could never really resolve whether I wanted to do science or humanities.”

He eventually decided to focus on Middle Eastern archaeology, much to his parent’s chagrin. The University of Pennsylvania, he said, was the best place to do that in the Northeast.

“I was able to get a fellowship in the radiocarbon lab and at the same time I could take a lot of languages and archeology courses. I always thought archeology was basic to discovering new things.”

One of his projects involved the analysis of clays used in pottery found in an excavation in Jordan that he participated in.

Then I got interested in what was inside the vessels, that’s where my organic chemistry background came into play,” said McGovern. “The beverage samples turned out to be what excited people the most.”

Those beverage samples still interest McGovern and Dogfish Head. The next bottle in the brewery’s series of “Ancient Ales” will be an Etruscan beverage that includes pomegranate and hazelnuts, followed by what McGovern called an “ancient Scandinavian beer.”

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