Flocking to free (ancient) beer

The label for Chateau Jiahu, one of the Dogfish Head brews available to sample at tonight's event

Who knew, in a world of Natty Light, Budweiser and PBR, that we have actually demonstrated an improvement in the area of beer making… in the last 10,000 years, that is.

Tonight, students, professors and community members alike piled into an auditorium to hear “Uncorking the Past,” a lecture about ancient beverages from the Director of the Penn Museum’s Biomolecular Archaeology Lab, Patrick McGovern, and to await their turn to sample recreations of the ancient brews made by Dogfish Head. When you say “free beer,” people come a’running. Literally every seat was filled.

McGovern’s work uses a combination of archaeology, ancient texts and art, and scientific experimentation to analyze vessels that once held food or drink to determine exactly what ancient peoples were eating and drinking. He kept things punchy with jokes about the supreme importance of alcoholic beverages and inebriation. He even showed an adorable video of animals drunk from having eaten fermented fruit.

But as the lecture continued and McGovern’s jokes about the audience’s growing thirst became more frequent, the thought in everyone’s minds was how they were going to get to the GCB before all the samples of these rare beverages were gone. It was an all out dash from MacMillan to the GCB, as students edged around each other, climbed over auditorium rows and scurried across Thayer to be one of the first ones in.

Once you finally made it through the mob scene at the bar, four different samples awaited you — Midas Touch, Sah’tea, Chateau Jiahu and Theobroma — all modeled or directly based on ancient fermentations from around the world. McGovern worked with Dogfish to create the beverages (though he expressed distaste for their often somewhat racially provocative labels).

Midas Touch uses the exact same ingredients as were used 2,700 years ago from remains on a vessel found in King Midas’s tomb in Turkey. A light blend of beer, wine and mead, it tasted wine-y at first, but with a distinctly yeasty aftertaste. Although unusual, it was by far the most drinkable of the choices. It is also the only one available year round, for those of you who might wish to purchase.

Sah’tea was based on a Finnish proto-beer, and features a wide array of spices including cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and black tea. The result is still light, but with an interesting herbal flavor. But it’s certainly not for everyone.

Chateau Jiahu was the hardest to like for me. It comes from evidence in preserved pottery jars found in a Chinese village from 9,000 years ago. The fermented blend of rice, honey and fruit smacks you back with its sweetness, and would be come extremely grating after more than a couple of sips.

Many in the audience were most eagerly anticipating Theobroma, a brew inspired by Central American cocoa-based concoctions. But this bore no resemblance to your typical chocolate beer. Although it was supposed to have chilies, I tasted no discernable spice. It also lacked a strong cocoa flavor — a disappointment considering it uses Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs. Again, it had a different flavor, one that most beer drinkers would not like to tolerate for a whole bottle.

The last three beers have limited availability on the shelf, so good luck finding them. But given the ah, uniqueness of these ancient brews, perhaps you’re better sticking with your old stand-bys.

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