An­cient Brews re­veals tasty his­tory of al­co­hol

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

It’s easy to find cold brews on sum­mer days, but here’s a twist: a jour­ney back to the al­co­holic bev­er­ages that peo­ple drank thou­sands of years ago.

Patrick McGovern, a renowned sci­en­tist and pas­sion­ate lover of fer­mented bev­er­ages, brings the his­tory of an­cient brew­ing alive with this fun, tempt­ing and thought­pro­vok­ing book, An­cient Brews: Redis­cov­ered & Re-cre­ated. McGovern is direc­tor of the Biomolec­u­lar Ar­chae­ol­ogy Project at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in Philadelphia. For more than three decades he’s been a pi­o­neer in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal chem­istry — a field that com­bines old-school field­work with cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy such as mass spec­trom­e­try and DNA anal­y­sis.

The new lab tools are able to iden­tify the chem­i­cal makeup of as­ton­ish­ingly small bev­er­age traces that re­main on an­cient ar­ti­facts, such as the stains on bev­er­age con­tain­ers found in the Egyp­tian pyra­mids. McGovern and other re­searchers then match the chem­i­cal fin­ger­prints to var­i­ous grains, fruits and spices, and come up with a kind of re­verse recipe, brought to life thou­sands of years af­ter the orig­i­nal bev­er­age was orig­i­nally con­sumed.

An­cient Brews is a geeky and tasty way to learn about an­cient his­tory, and the science of booze. McGovern ex­plains the chem­istry of fer­men­ta­tion, the molec­u­lar com­po­nents of al­co­hol (two car­bon atoms, six hy­dro­gen, one oxy­gen) and how our love of al­co­hol prob­a­bly orig­i­nated more than 100 mil­lion years ago in the Cre­ta­ceous Pe­riod, when flow­er­ing plants ap­peared and fruit flies de­vel­oped spe­cific genes to process al­co­hol.

But McGovern isn’t en­trenched in the past. The book con­tains numer­ous recipes for home brew­ers, cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Sam Cala­gione, founder of Delaware’s Dog­fish Head Brew­ery. There are also food sug­ges­tions based on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal find­ings.

The recipe for the ac­com­pa­ny­ing bev­er­age has some fa­mil­iar beer in­gre­di­ents (malt ex­tract, honey and hops) but also twists: saf­fron threads and grape juice. That’s a theme in the book: McGovern shows that peo­ple had ex­otic tastes thou­sands of years ago, all over the world.

Numer­ous ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites now re­veal that an­cient peo­ple of­ten com­bined what we call beer (fer­mented grains) with wine (fer­mented grapes), and also ex­per­i­mented by adding a vast range of lo­cal herbs and fla­vor­ings.

An­cient Brews in­cludes his­tory, science and recipes for sev­eral other drinks: Kvasir, in­spired by ev­i­dence from a 3,500-year-old Danish tomb, uses mead­owsweet (or mead wort), yarrow, birch bark and lin­gonberry.

Ta Hen­ket, in­spired by an­cient African bev­er­ages, in­cludes crushed wheat, flour, hops, dried dates, Ir­ish moss, chamomile, Za’atar (a Mid­dle Eastern spice) and a touch of salt.

Chateau Ji­ahu goes far­thest back in time, to 9,000 years ago in north­ern China, where peo­ple made a bev­er­age that com­bined fer­mented rice, grape juice, honey, hawthorne and orange peel.

McGovern’s mix of gee-wiz science and thought­ful his­tor­i­cal con­text makes An­cient Brews a re­fresh­ing read, for the sum­mer or any other sea­son.


An­cient Brews: Redis­cov­ered & Re-cre­ated, by Patrick McGovern, brings the his­tory of an­cient brew­ing alive.

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