A UPenn prof and a local brewery
bring the past to life, with beer
A close-up view of the bucket in the priestess’ tomb.
Photographs: courtesy of E. Nylén and Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm; National Museum of Denmark
In the bustling tasting room at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware, visitors are lined up three deep at the bar, clamoring for a few sips of the day’s brews. The four beers I’m here to taste—all part of the brewer’s Ancient Ales series—are about to send my taste buds thousands of years back through time.
I close my eyes and take a sip of my first sample: Kvasir, a re-creation of Nordic grog from the Bronze Age circa 1500 BC.
At first taste, it’s fruity and dangerously drinkable, with a bit of tartness on the finish. The cranberry and lingonberry shine brightly on the palate, balanced by the sweetness of birch syrup and honey. And at 10% alcohol, a strong brew like this must have undoubtedly helped those who first drank it weather the harsh Scandinavian winters.
Kvasir is the latest of seven Ancient Ales, reconstructions of longlost alcoholic beverages from around the world, dating as far back as the dawn of human civilization. Each is a collaboration between Dogfish Head and Penn Museum archaeologist Patrick McGovern. Known as the Indiana Jones of ancient ales, McGovern heads the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in West Philadelphia. Using residues from ancient vessels, his lab performs careful chemical analysis that reveals faint molecular traces of ingredients that once made up that era’s drink of choice—elements such as honey, chewed grains or wild fruits.
McGovern then shares his discoveries with Dogfish Head founder and president Sam Calagione, and together they brew the age-old concoctions back to life. Some may not be beer in the strictest sense and are instead categorized as “hybrid fermented beverages” due to their multiple sources of fermented sugar.
“They’re very dynamic beverages that broaden the definition of beer,” says McGovern. And their epic backstories only add to the enjoyment of sipping one.
For instance, the re-creation of Kvasir was guided by artifacts out of four archaeological sites in Sweden and Denmark. The oldest, dated around 1500 BC, contained the tomb of a warrior prince who was buried in an oak coffin with a bronze sword, a dagger and a pottery jar coated with a dark-brown residue.
Chemical analysis revealed the presence of honey, suggesting that the jar likely contained mead. Other, more recent vessels from the Scandinavian area contained traces of bog cranberries, lingonberries, bog myrtle, yarrow and birch syrup—all included as components of the modern revival, Kvasir.
The lab’s chemist, Gretchen Hall, starts with pottery that has absorbed liquid or solidified residue of the beverage. She boils a small piece with solvents that pull out the organic material from the sample. Next comes infrared spectroscopy, a process that involves shining laser light through the sample to reveal whether there’s enough organic matter to go forward with a more in-depth analysis.
If there is, Hall transfers the sample to another lab that comes up with a detailed list of its organic compounds using sensitive techniques like gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.
“We might see the compounds associated with a birch resin or beeswax or a fruit, and we’re able to use that information to piece together what the original contents would have been,” says McGovern.
Then, McGovern and Calagione brainstorm and create experimental versions together in Dogfish Head’s small-scale brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
“His analysis gives us a laundry list of botanicals and natural ingredients that he can scientifically prove were in the dig site or the crockery found, but it can’t tell us the ratio, alcohol content, was it carbonated, or what color it was,” Calagione says. “So that’s what our modern brew knowledge at Dogfish Head brings to the table.”
When the brewery releases a bottled version of an ancient ale, it has gone through numerous iterations already—dialing ingredients up or down, and lots of taste-testing. The two are working on a new release for 2016, but both are hush-hush about which era this one comes from. “We love working with Dr. Pat,” says Calagione, who has collaborated with McGovern since 1999. “He’s a very smart scientist, but also a fun guy to drink beer with.”
Their first collaboration was Midas Touch, an appropriately gold-colored drink with a sweet, smooth honey flavor inspired by the real King Midas who ruled over ancient Phrygia in modern-day Turkey. It is both the brewery’s best-selling Ancient Ale and its most awarded beer, with eight medals won in major tasting competitions. In 1957, a remarkably well-preserved tomb containing a bounty of Iron Age artifacts was uncovered by Penn Museum researchers working in the region. Dated to around 750 BC, it housed the bones of a 60-year-old male thought to be King Midas and the setup of an extravagant funerary banquet. Huge 150-liter vats, animal-headed drinking buckets, and more than 100 smaller bowls held the residue of a mystery beverage.
The technology at the time of the discovery wasn’t sophisticated enough to identify specific ingredients of the feast or drink. But 60 years later, McGovern snagged some of the remaining residue to unlock the meal’s secrets. While the food sounded just delectable—spicy barbecued lamb or goat with lentil stew—he didn’t know quite what to think of the regal drink.
“When we first got the Midas [beverage] formulation, it sounded pretty weird,” he recalls. “Midas was a mixture of honey, barley and grapes—so it’s like a mead, a beer and a wine mixed together.” But he figured that if an ancient king could like this beverage, then modern man should theoretically be able to enjoy it too. McGovern invited microbrewers to take up the challenge of reverse-engineering the regal drink, and samples starting arriving at his doorstep.
Some chose to literally mix whole batches of mead, beer and wine together. Others threw honey and grapes into a more traditional beer-brewing process. The biggest variation between samples was the bittering agent, which wasn’t known from the lab’s chemical analysis. When brewing beer, the process of malting grains is needed to develop the enzymes that modify starches into sugars. Then, a bittering agent is used to offset the sweetness of malt.
“The usual bittering agent today is hops, but it only really came on the scene in 800 AD—a thousand years later than Midas,” he explains. Possibilities included herbs and spices found in the Middle East such as coriander, cumin or thyme. McGovern suggested that Calagione try using saffron, a popular seasoning in ancient Turkey that also happens to be the most expensive spice in the world.
In the end, Dogfish Head’s pricey concoction reigned supreme.
After some more tweaks, the final bottled version of Midas Touch kicked off a 15-year-long collaboration that includes reverse-engineered beverages from ancient Egypt, Italy, Honduras and China. McGovern’s personal favorite re-creation is Chateau Jiahu, a ricebased fermented drink inspired by findings at a Neolithic site in China’s Yellow River valley. Pottery from this site contained remnants of a hybrid grog made of rice, honey, grapes and hawthorn fruit. Dated to around 7000 BC, or some 6,000 years before Midas, the Neolithic grog took the title of the world’s oldest chemically verified fermented beverage, according to the brewers and researchers working on the project.
The Jiahu site produced a bounty of artifacts, including still-playable flutes made out of the wing bone of a crane, evidence of early writing, and tortoise shells used for fortune telling. These were likely all parts of an elaborate, ritualistic ceremony involving music, mystics and alcohol. “We keep seeing how these fermented beverages played a very important role in many different cultures all around the world,” says Mc- Govern. “They go back as far as you can go, but once you get back before pottery, we don’t have good samples to work on.”
Although concrete evidence is lacking, he believes man was already making fermented drinks since his very origins in Africa. Early man could have chewed figs or dates to break down the carbohydrates into sugar, then spit it out and waited for insects to bring the yeast in. Or beverages could have been grain-based—rice, barley, wheat—with their own yeast already in the mix.
“We are set up to process and enjoy fermented beverages,” he says. “Many animals consume alcohol or are attracted to it, and have the physiology to process it.”
Elephants and monkeys have been known to partake in alcohol, whether it be fermented sweet fruits from a tree or fermented flower nectar. Tree shrews, little squirrel-like mammals native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, imbibe the human equivalent of eight alcoholic drinks per night—yet show no signs of being tipsy.
I couldn’t necessarily say the same for myself after finishing my four Ancient Ale samples (Kvasir, Midas Touch, Theobroma and Birra Etrusca Bronze) due to their high ABVs, ranging from 8.5% to 10%. But each was wonderfully distinct with surprisingly intricate, elegant flavors—a far cry from what I was expecting, since the word “grog” to me inspired thoughts of pirates and harsh, bitter swill that would be tough to swallow.
“I like the history behind it, but what’s awesome to see is that they taste good,” says Calagione. “It would be a one-dimensional story if they didn’t.”