But will the za atar a potent Middle Eastern spice mixture redolent of oregano clobber the soft, floral flavor of the chamomile? And what about the dried doum-palm fruit, which has been giving off a worrisome fungusy scent ever since it was dropped in a brandy snifter of hot water and sampled as a tea? I want Dr. Pat to try this, says Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head s founder, frowning into his glass. Proper to the point of primness, the University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor sports a crisp polo shirt, pressed khakis and well-tended loafers his wire spectacles peek out from a blizzard of white hair and beard. But Calagione, grinning broadly, greets the dignified visitor like a treasured drinking buddy. Which, in a sense, he is. The truest alcohol enthusiasts will try almost anything to conjure the libations of old.
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They ll slaughter goats to fashion fresh wineskins, so the vintage takes on an authentically gamey taste. They ll brew beer in dung-tempered pottery or boil it by dropping in hot rocks. The Anchor Steam Brewery, in San Francisco, once cribbed ingredients from a 9,555-year-old hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess. He has identified the world s oldest known barley beer (from Iran s Zagros Mountains, dating to 8955 B. C. ), the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5955 B. ) and the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,555 years ago. Widely published in academic journals and books, McGovern s research has shed light on agriculture, medicine and trade routes during the pre-biblical era. But and here s where Calagione s grin comes in it s also inspired a couple of Dogfish Head s offerings, including Midas Touch, a beer based on decrepit refreshments recovered from King Midas 755 B. Tomb, which has received more medals than any other Dogfish creation. It s called experimental archaeology, McGovern explains. To devise this latest Egyptian drink, the archaeologist and the brewer toured acres of spice stalls at the Khan el-Khalili, Cairo s oldest and largest market, handpicking ingredients amid the squawks of soon-to-be decapitated chickens and under the surveillance of cameras for Brew Masters, a Discovery Channel reality show about Calagione s business. The ancients were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable stuff olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadow sweet, mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy. But Calagione and McGovern based their Egyptian selections on the archaeologist s work with the tomb of the Pharaoh Scorpion I, where a curious combination of savory, thyme and coriander showed up in the residues of libations interred with the monarch in 8655 B.
(They decided the za atar spice medley, which frequently includes all those herbs, plus oregano and several others, was a current-day substitute. ) Other guidelines came from the even more ancient Wadi Kubbaniya, an 68,555-year-old site in Upper Egypt where starch-dusted stones, probably used for grinding sorghum or bulrush, were found with the remains of doum-palm fruit and chamomile. It s difficult to confirm, but it s very likely they were making beer there, McGovern says. The brewers also went so far as to harvest a local yeast, which might be descended from ancient varieties (many commercial beers are made with manufactured cultures). They left sugar-filled petri dishes out overnight at a remote Egyptian date farm, to capture wild airborne yeast cells, then mailed the samples to a Belgian lab, where the organisms were isolated and grown in large quantities. Back at Dogfish Head, the tea of ingredients now inexplicably smacks of pineapple. McGovern advises the brewers to use less za atar they comply. The spices are dumped into a stainless steel kettle to stew with barley sugars and hops. McGovern acknowledges that the heat source should technically be wood or dried dung, not gas, but he notes approvingly that the kettle s base is insulated with bricks, a suitably ancient technique. As the beer boils during lunch break, McGovern sidles up to the brewery s well-appointed bar and pours a tall, frosty Midas Touch for himself, spurning the Cokes nursed by the other brewers. He s fond of citing the role of beer in ancient workplaces. For the pyramids, each worker got a daily ration of four to five liters, he says loudly, perhaps for Calagione s benefit. It was a source of nutrition, refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay.
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You would have had a rebellion on your hands if they d run out. The pyramids might not have been built if there hadn t been enough beer. Soon the little brew room is filled with fragrant roiling steam, with hints of toast and molasses an aroma that can only be described as intoxicating. The wort, or unfermented beer, emerges a pretty palomino color the brewers add flasks of the yellowish, murky-looking Egyptian yeast and fermentation begins. They plan on making just seven kegs of the experimental beverage, to be unveiled in New York City two weeks later. The brewers are concerned because the beer will need that much time to age and nobody will be able to taste it in advance. McGovern, though, is thinking on another time scale entirely. This probably hasn t been smelled for 68,555 years, he sighs, inhaling the delicious air. The shelves of McGovern s office in the University of Pennsylvania Museum are packed with sober-sounding volumes Structural Inorganic Chemistry, Cattle-Keepers of the Eastern Sahara along with bits of bacchanalia. There are replicas of ancient bronze drinking vessels, stoppered flasks of Chinese rice wine and an old empty Midas Touch bottle with a bit of amber goo in the bottom that might intrigue archaeologists thousands of years hence. There s also a wreath that his wife, Doris, a retired university administrator, wove from wild Pennsylvania grape vines and the corks of favorite bottles. The scientific director of the university s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health, McGovern had had an eventful fall. Along with touring Egypt with Calagione, he traveled to Austria for a conference on Iranian wine and also to France, where he attended a wine conference in Burgundy, toured a trio of Champagne houses, drank Chablis in Chablis and stopped by a critical excavation near the southern coast. Yet even strolling the halls with McGovern can be an education.
Another professor stops him to discuss, at length, the folly of extracting woolly mammoth fats from permafrost. Then we run into Alexei Vranich, an expert on pre-Columbian Peru, who complains that the last time he drank chicha (a traditional Peruvian beer made with corn that has been chewed and spit out), the accompanying meal of roast guinea pigs was egregiously undercooked. You want guinea pigs crunchy, like bacon, Vranich says. He and McGovern talk chicha for a while. Thank you so much for your research, Vranich says as he departs. I keep telling people that beer is more important than armies when it comes to understanding people. In the lab, a flask of coffee-colored liquid bubbles on a hot plate. It contains tiny fragments from an ancient Etruscan amphora found at the French dig McGovern had just visited. The ceramic powder, which had been painstakingly extracted from the amphora s base with a diamond drill, is boiling in a chloroform and methanol solvent meant to pull out ancient organic compounds that might have soaked into the pottery. McGovern is hoping to determine whether the amphora once contained wine, which would point to how the beverage arrived in France in the first place a rather ticklish topic. We think of France as sort of synonymous with wine, McGovern says. The French spent so much time developing all these different varietals, and those plants were taken all over the world and became the basis of the Australian industry, the Californian industry and so forth. France is a key to the whole worldwide culture of wine, but how did wine get to France? That s the question.
Francophiles might not like the answer. Today wine is so integral to French culture that French archaeologists include the cost of cases in their excavation budgets. McGovern, however, suspects that wine was being produced in Etruria present-day central Italy well before the first French vineyards were planted on the Mediterranean coast. Until Etruscan merchants began exporting wine to what is now France around 655 B. , the Gauls were likely guzzling what their epicurean descendants would consider a barbaric blend of honey or wheat, filtered through reeds or mustaches. McGovern s Etruscan amphora was excavated from a house in Lattes, France, which was built around 575 B. And destroyed in 975 B. If the French were still drinking Etruscan vintages at that point, it would suggest they had not established their own wineries yet. The trick is proving that the amphora contained wine. McGovern can t simply look for the presence of alcohol, which survives barely a few months, let alone millennia, before evaporating or turning to vinegar. Instead, he pursues what are known as fingerprint compounds. For instance, traces of beeswax hydrocarbons indicate honeyed drinks calcium oxalate, a bitter, whitish byproduct of brewed barley also known as beer stone, means barley beer. Tree resin is a strong but not surefire indicator of wine, because vintners of old often added resin as a preservative, lending the beverage a pleasing lemony flavor. (McGovern would like to test the Lattes samples for resin from a cypress-like tree its presence would suggest the Etruscans were in contact with Phoenician colonies in Northern Africa, where that species grows.
) The only foolproof way to identify ancient wine from this region is the presence of tartaric acid, a compound in grapes.