Wednesday 29 June 2011

Traditional beers

From The Smithsonian:
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’ 700 B.C. 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.
I tried that beer at the Dogfish Head pub on Route 7 in Falls Church with Eli Dourado. Good times.

McGovern argues that brewing helped build civilization (previously covered by Spiegel and noted here.) From the Smithsonian piece:
McGovern, in fact, believes that booze helped make us human. Yes, plenty of other creatures get drunk. Bingeing on fermented fruits, inebriated elephants go on trampling sprees and wasted birds plummet from their perches. Unlike distillation, which human beings actually invented (in China, around the first century A.D., McGovern suspects), fermentation is a natural process that occurs serendipi­tously: yeast cells consume sugar and create alcohol. Ripe figs laced with yeast drop from trees and ferment; honey sitting in a tree hollow packs quite a punch if mixed with the right proportion of rainwater and yeast and allowed to stand. Almost certainly, humanity’s first nip was a stumbled-upon, short-lived elixir of this sort, which McGovern likes to call a “Stone Age Beaujolais nouveau.”

But at some point the hunter-gatherers learned to maintain the buzz, a major breakthrough. “By the time we became distinctly human 100,000 years ago, we would have known where there were certain fruits we could collect to make fermented beverages,” McGovern says. “We would have been very deliberate about going at the right time of the year to collect grains, fruits and tubers and making them into beverages at the beginning of the human race.” (Alas, archaeologists are unlikely to find evidence of these preliminary hooches, fermented from things such as figs or baobab fruit, because their creators, in Africa, would have stored them in dried gourds and other containers that did not stand the test of time.)

With a supply of mind-blowing beverages on hand, human civilization was off and running. In what might be called the “beer before bread” hypothesis, the desire for drink may have prompted the domestication of key crops, which led to permanent human settlements. Scientists, for instance, have measured atomic variations within the skeletal remains of New World humans; the technique, known as isotope analysis, allows researchers to determine the diets of the long-deceased. When early Americans first tamed maize around 6000 B.C., they were probably drinking the corn in the form of wine rather than eating it, analysis has shown.

Maybe even more important than their impact on early agriculture and settlement patterns, though, is how prehistoric potions “opened our minds to other possibilities” and helped foster new symbolic ways of thinking that helped make humankind unique, McGovern says. “Fermented beverages are at the center of religions all around the world. [Alcohol] makes us who we are in a lot of ways.” He contends that the altered state of mind that comes with intoxication could have helped fuel cave drawings, shamanistic medicine, dance rituals and other advancements.
I'll have to make a point of looking for more of the Dogfish Head traditional beers.


  1. I think I saw the Discovery show in question, it aired here while you were in Canadia. I was intrigued by the idea of recreating an ancient brew, but it is unlikely I'll ever get the chance to try it :( They not only combed the local spice stalls for flavour ideas, but also collected wild yeast by leaving bits of fruit exposed to the air in various locations and managed to isolate and grow cultures from them. And of course added traditional bread to the brewing process along with their selected herbs and spices.

    Hmm, it's starting to sound a bit like an alcoholic KFC drink :)

  2. Sounds a bit like this one ( I think you'd like it. Will have a look at importing a few.

  3. I saw Midas Touch at a bottle store in Wellington on Monday and was seriously considering buying it. This post is the Universe telling me what a fool I was for not getting it. I shouldn't tell you that I got a Mexican beer instead.

  4. Over here Eric, as soon as I stop drinking Vodka and I drink Chang beer my girlfriend love me again,my fluid balance ok, I agree everything you say Eric, bet you hate being back in NZ dude,

  5. @Lats: Worth trying if you get a chance.
    @Kiwi: You've channels for grey market importation? Sweet.
    @Hefe: You can always go back!
    @Paul: Nope, glad to be back. Aftershocks have been gentle thus far (arrived Friday). This is home.