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Recreating the World's Oldest Known Beers and Wines

The making and drinking of alcoholic beverages dates back thousands of years, and may be as old as the human race, itself.
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The making and drinking of alcoholic beverages dates back thousands of years, and may be as old as the human race, itself.

Which is older – beer or wine? And just how old is that? Based on the fact that some modern primates consume naturally fermented fruit juices, chances are good that the tradition of drinking alcoholic beverages is as old as the human race. But the earliest versions might best be described as “extreme beverages” made from combinations of ingredients that would seem bizarre by today’s standards.

Take, for example, the concoction consumed at the funerary rights of King Midas (of everything-he-touched-turned-to-gold fame). It may actually have been his father. There was no name inscribed on the tomb, so it’s difficult to know. But there were dozens of jugs caked with 2,700 year-old residue which archaeologist Pat McGovern analyzed.  

It was the first ancient beverage to be so scrutinized, and the results were surprising. There was barley, but also grape, and honey. McGovern describes it as a combination of beer, wine, and mead. But the ancient residue didn’t suggest a bittering agent to offset all the sugar.

“Hops were definitely ruled out because hops only started to be used probably around 1000 AD,” McGovern explained. “Why not try saffron, because the residue was very yellow, of course [Midas] had the touch of gold, and it’s a very aromatic, fragrant herb which Turkey was well known for.”

McGovern teamed up with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery to re-create King Midas’ beverage, and they did try saffron.

“The only trouble is, saffron happens to be the most expensive spice in the world,” said McGovern. “Sam ended up saying this was the most expensive beer he’s ever made.”

That may seem fitting for the drink consumed at a famous king’s funeral, but Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch has been available to the American public for almost twenty years now. Calagione and McGovern have gone on to recreate several more ancient brews, including the oldest fermented beverage for which there’s physical evidence – another extreme beverage, this one dating back to about 7000 BC in China’s Yellow River Valley.

Of course, going from a list of ingredients to a finished product without any instructions is no mean feat. McGovern says they draw on as much scientific and historical evidence as possible, but it still involves a lot of trial an error. And he’s fine with that.

In fact, his new book, Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Re-created, not only tells the stories of these ancient drinks, it provides home-brewers with recipes and suggested variations to try.

“This kind of experimentation has been going on right from the beginning,” McGovern said. “If people want to try and enter into that ancient world, this is a way to do it."

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