Ancient brews and history on tap for Friday night Cliveden event

When it’s time for “bottoms up” at Cliveden of the National Trust this Friday night, the beverages that those gathered there will be sampling promise to give their taste buds a sensation unlike any they’ve had before.

That’s because the event – “Uncorking the Past,” presented by Dr. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archeology Laboratory – will feature beers from the dawn of brewing, with ingredients that once were staples of the brewer’s art that we simply don’t associate with beer today.

“They [participants] are going to be very surprised,” said McGovern in an interview earlier this week. “Hazelnut, pomegranate, myrrh – they’re all in there.”

The beers have all been recreated by the Delaware-based Dogfish Head brewing company from recipes that McGovern (thanks to considerable laboratory analysis) has been able to recreate from residues of ancient ales that were found in clay pots and metal containers unearthed by archeologists all over the world.

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They include:

“Midas Touch,” recreated from remains found in a tomb believed to belong to King Midas of Phrygia, on whom the legend of the Golden Touch is based. He was an actual king of part of what is now Turkey in the 8th century B.C.
Chateau Jiahu, based on a Chinese recipe that’s 9,000 years old that’s the earliest known fermented beverage in history.
Theobroma, with cocoa as one of the major ingredients, derived from chemical analysis of 3,000-year-old pottery fragments found in Honduras.
Ta Henket from ancient Egypt, using wheat, herbs, palm fruit and herbs and a native Egyptian yeast strain from Cairo.

A long history

The beginnings of beer go back a long way, said McGovern, but no containers have survived from its earliest stages because they predate the invention of pottery and metal containers that could have preserved liquids.”We don’t have the evidence because we don’t have the containers,” said McGovern.

Rather than being invented, beer was probably discovered through the observation of natural phenomena. “You could have beers very early. All the basic grains – corn, barley, – if you get water on them they start sprouting, if you taste the sprouts, you notice it tastes sweeter. Insects are attracted and they deposit yeast.”

Fruits heavy in sugars to speed the fermentation would have been added, which is why the taste of the beers at the Cliveden event will be different from modern beers made from water, grain, malt and hops.

“They really are a combination of beer, wine and mead – mixed beverages,” said McGovern. “They cross all the traditional boundaries. They’re very aromatic and have bittering agents we aren’t accustomed to.”

That’s because the use of hops, which counteracts the sweetness of sugars used in fermentation, only goes back to about 700 A.D., he said. “Before that they were using all sorts of other agents.”

And beer has never been simply a refreshing beverage, he added. It also has food value, and ancient brewers put herbs and medicines into it. “The alcohol puts the compounds that are medicinally useful into solution. Before we had all these synthetic drugs you might administer an alcoholic beverage – with herbs and fruit and tree resins.”

For example, recently, researchers at the Biomolecular Archeology Lab discovered that ingredients found in ancient Egyptian and Chinese beverages have promising anti-cancer properties that will be tested further to see if they will be of medical use.

McGovern will be talking about all this and much more following a beer tasting.

“Uncorking the Past” runs from 7 to 9 p.m. The cost is $60 per person.

For more information call Cliveden at 215-848-1777 or visit

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