What I’m Reading: Ancient Brews

Ancient Brews, by Penn biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern, explores the alcoholic beverages our distant ancestors enjoyed and how we know that.

Dr. McGovern first explains how he uses various molecular sampling techniques to determine the ingredients found in the residue of an ancient cup, amphora, or pottery vessel. For instance, if his tests find tartaric acid in a sample, that’s an indicator that the vessel the sample if from once held grape juice or wine.

In succeeding chapters, he tells of his trips to various archeological sites around the world to discover what the ancient Iranians, Egyptians, Etruscans, Scandinavians, Incans, and others liked as a tipple, followed by his attempt, along with Dogfish Head brewery chief brewer Sam Calagione, to recreate the ancient beverage in the modern day. Each chapter includes a recipe for a homebrewer who might himself like to try to create the ancient beverage (good luck! Some of the recipes are fairly complicated and call for obscure herbs or other ingredients that might not be that easy to come by) as well as a recipe for a complementary food pairing.

Because I recently listened to the Modern Scholar lecture series on the Incan Empire by Dr. Terence D’Altroy, the most interesting chapter to me in Dr. McGovern’s book was the one on chicha, the corn beer brewed by the ancient Incans. It is still a popular drink today in modern Peru, often still made using the ancient method of chewing the corn kernels and spitting them out into a big bowl to get the fermentation started. (Yes, for Dr. McGovern’s recreation of the beverage, there’s a great photograph of him and Sam and their colleagues sitting around, chewing and spitting the red corn.) The alcohol kills any harmful bacteria in the resulting drink, by the way, so it’s perfectly sanitary, if disgusting by our modern standards.

I learned a lot from this book. My main impression of ancient beverages is that our ancestors basically mixed together everything they had–wine, mead, beer, plus lots of herbs–into one giant grog. Even when the wine culture took over in the Mediterranean, the ancients mixed it with pine resin as a preservative, and lots of other herbal additives as well. In Europe into the Middle Ages, a grog known as gruit was one of the most popular drinks. It seems our modern, purer conception of distinct drink categories that should not be mixed is a more recent phenomenon.

All in all, a fun and informative book, obviously great for beer drinkers, but really of interest to anybody who wants to know about what ancient cultures ate and drank, as well as the work of  archeologists in the subfield of cuisine archeology.

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