Friday, November 06, 2009

Tippling through the Ages

Among the few cultural traditions shared by human populations across time and geography is the abiding urge to make and consume alcoholic beverages. Alcohol was also one of the first medicines as well as a component of many early religious practices. But modern humans' choices are limited to a few alcoholic staples -- beer, wine, and "hard" liquor. Many of the beverages enjoyed by cultures past have been lost to the historical record.

Patrick McGovern, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who describes himself as a biomolecular archeologist, and Sam Calagione, founder and president of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, aim to rescue some of these forgotten brews using a mixture of science and craftsmanship.

The story of their collaboration began, McGovern said at a recent lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, with the discovery of a burial mound -- called a tumulus -- marking the eternal resting place of one of history's most famous kings. "Right upstairs, the debris from the Midas tumulus was waiting for me in small paper bags," he said. Fifty years ago University of Pennsylvania archaeologists had excavated the tumulus, located in eastern Turkey, and stored debris from vessels upstairs at the Philadelphia museum.

"[I was interested in analyzing] the intense yellowish residue in a sort of reverse engineering to try and resurrect old ingredients," McGovern explained. Using mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography, he determined that the ancient residue was a mixture of barley, honey and grapes. Since the subject of ancient beverages is dear to his heart and his palate, he explained, the next step was obvious -- "Why not try to recreate some of these ancient beverages?" For help, he turned to Calagione, who used equal proportions of the ingredients with saffron as the bittering agent to brew Midas Touch, which approximates the drink that likely flowed at celebrations or funerals during the time of the ancient king. McGovern suggested the use of saffron because hops would not have been used in Midas' time, and he thought the spice might account for the intense yellow in the residue. Midas Touch is an ale beautiful to behold and with a complex set of flavors; King Midas would have found it more than acceptable.

This first success merely whetted McGovern's thirst for reconstructing ancient fermented beverages. "The story of early mankind is humans figuring out how to chew all kinds of carbohydrates: stems, grains, roots, fruit, [looking for] what's fermentable, and that's led to a whole slew of beverages around the world," he noted. Specifically, it led McGovern to chicha -- a corn beer that's been consumed in South America for centuries -- which Calagione has also recreated at Dogfish Head. Chicha is brewed with corn that's first been chewed, human saliva acting as a fermenting agent in the brewing process. (The brewing process destroys harmful bacteria.)

McGovern and Calagione have also recreated a 3,200-year-old cacao-based ale called Theobroma, the recipe for which McGovern unearthed in Honduras. It does not taste chocolatey; rather it has an earthy flavor, a good fall brew that would pair nicely with stews or soups.

Calagione has recreated McGovern's earliest discovery (so far) of humankind's affair with alcohol. At its Delaware brewpub, Dogfish Head offers Chateau Jia Hu, which is based on a 9,000-year-old Chinese drink whose ingredients McGovern deciphered by analyzing ancient pottery sherds from an area called Jiahu, in China's Yellow River basin. He determined that Chinese rice, honey and hawthorn fruit had made the beverage.

So many ancient drinks have been resurrected by McGovern and Calagione that the researcher has written a book that takes readers all over the world in his search for man's earliest fermented beverages. McGovern places his research in the cultural context of each civilization and in doing so reveals arcane gems. For example, "the human foot, it seems, is ideally configured to extract the juice [of the grape] without breaking the seeds that introduce bitter tannins," McGovern writes in one chapter.

Uncorking the Past: The quest for wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages Patrick E McGovern, University of California Press, 348 pp. 38 illustrations, ISBN: 978-0-520-25379-7. $29.95.

No comments: