The Beer Archaeologist

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The Beer Archaeologist

By analyzing ancient pottery, Patrick McGovern is resurrecting the
libations that fueled civilization
By Abigail Tucker
 Photographs by Landon Nordeman
 Smithsonian magazine, August 2011

It+IBk-s just after dawn at the Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach,
Delaware, where the ambition for the morning is to resurrect an
Egyptian ale whose recipe dates back thousands of years.
 
But will the za+IBk-atar+IBQ-a potent Middle Eastern spice mixture redolent of
oregano+IBQ-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?
 
+IBw-I want Dr. Pat to try this,+IB0- says Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head+IBk-s
founder, frowning into his glass.
 
At last, Patrick McGovern, a 66-year-old archaeologist, wanders into
the little pub, an oddity among the hip young brewers in their sweat
shirts and flannel. 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. They+IBk-ll slaughter goats to fashion fresh wineskins,
so the vintage takes on an authentically gamey taste. They+IBk-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 4,000-year-old hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess.
 
+IBw-Dr. Pat,+IB0- as he+IBk-s known at Dogfish Head, is the world+IBk-s foremost
expert on ancient fermented beverages, and he cracks long-forgotten
recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue
samples to scrutinize in the lab. He has identified the world+IBk-s oldest
known barley beer (from Iran+IBk-s Zagros Mountains, dating to 3400 B.C.),
the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5400 B.C.) and the
earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China+IBk-s Yellow
River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.
 
Widely published in academic journals and books, McGovern+IBk-s research
has shed light on agriculture, medicine and trade routes during the
pre-biblical era. But+IBQ-and here+IBk-s where Calagione+IBk-s grin comes
in+IBQ-it+IBk-s
also inspired a couple of Dogfish Head+IBk-s offerings, including Midas
Touch, a beer based on decrepit refreshments recovered from King
Midas+IBk- 700 B.C. tomb, which has received more medals than any other
Dogfish creation.
 
+IBw-It+IBk-s called experimental archaeology,+IB0- McGovern explains.
 
To devise this latest Egyptian drink, the archaeologist and the brewer
toured acres of spice stalls at the Khan el-Khalili, Cairo+IBk-s oldest
and largest market, handpicking ingredients amid the squawks of
soon-to-be decapitated chickens and under the surveillance of cameras
for +IBw-Brew Masters,+IB0- a Discovery Channel reality show about
Calagione+IBk-s
business.
 
The ancients were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of
unpredictable stuff+IBQ-olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadow+AK0-sweet,
mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy. But
Calagione and McGovern based their Egyptian selections on the
archaeologist+IBk-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 3150 B.C. (They
decided the za+IBk-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
18,000-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+IBk-s difficult to confirm,
but +IBw-it+IBk-s very likely they were making beer there,+IB0- 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+IBk-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+IBk-s base is insulated with bricks, a
suitably ancient technique.
 
As the beer boils during lunch break, McGovern sidles up to the
brewery+IBk-s well-appointed bar and pours a tall, frosty Midas Touch for
himself, spurning the Cokes nursed by the other brewers. He+IBk-s fond of
citing the role of beer in ancient workplaces. +IBw-For the pyramids, each
worker got a daily ration of four to five liters,+IB0- he says loudly,
perhaps for Calagione+IBk-s benefit. +IBw-It was a source of nutrition,
refreshment and reward for all the hard work. It was beer for pay. You
would have had a rebellion on your hands if they+IBk-d run out. The
pyramids might not have been built if there hadn+IBk-t been enough beer.+IB0-
 
Soon the little brew room is filled with fragrant roiling steam, with
hints of toast and molasses+IBQ-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. +IBw-This
probably hasn+IBk-t been smelled for 18,000 years,+IB0- he sighs, inhaling the
delicious air.
 
The shelves of McGovern+IBk-s office in the University of Pennsylvania
Museum are packed with sober-sounding volumes+IBQ-Structural Inorganic
Chemistry, Cattle-Keepers of the Eastern Sahara+IBQ-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+IBk-s also a wreath that
his wife, Doris, a retired university administrator, wove from wild
Pennsylvania grape vines and the corks of favorite bottles. But while
McGovern will occasionally toast a promising excavation with a splash
of white wine sipped from a lab beaker, the only suggestion of
personal vice is a stack of chocolate Jell-O pudding cups.
 
The scientific director of the university+IBk-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. +IBw-You want guinea pigs
crunchy, like bacon,+IB0- Vranich says. He and McGovern talk chicha for a
while. +IBw-Thank you so much for your research,+IB0- Vranich says as he
departs. +IBw-I keep telling people that beer is more important than
armies when it comes to understanding people.+IB0-
 
We are making our way down to the human ecology lab, where McGovern+IBk-s
technicians are borrowing some equipment. McGovern has innumerable
collaborators, partly because his work is so engaging, and partly
because he is able to repay kindnesses with bottles of Midas Touch,
whose Iron Age-era recipe of muscat grapes, saffron, barley and honey
is said to be reminiscent of Sauternes, the glorious French dessert
wine.
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+IBk-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+IBQ-a rather ticklish topic.
 
+IBw-We think of France as sort of synonymous with wine,+IB0- McGovern says.
+IBw-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+IBk-s the question.+IB0-
 
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+IBQ-present-day central Italy+IBQ-well before the
first French vineyards were planted on the Mediterranean coast. Until
Etruscan merchants began exporting wine to what is now France around
600 B.C., the Gauls were likely guzzling what their epicurean
descendants would consider a barbaric blend of honey or wheat,
filtered through reeds or mustaches.
 
McGovern+IBk-s Etruscan amphora was excavated from a house in Lattes,
France, which was built around 525 B.C. and destroyed in 475 B.C. 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+IBk-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.
 
Once the boiling brown pottery mixture cooks down to a powder, says
Gretchen Hall, a researcher collaborating with McGovern, they+IBk-ll run
the sample through an infrared spectrometer. That will produce a
distinctive visual pattern based on how its multiple chemical
constituents absorb and reflect light. They+IBk-ll compare the results
against the profile for tartaric acid. If there+IBk-s a match or a
near-match, they may do other preliminary checks, like the Feigl spot
test, in which the sample is mixed with sulfuric acid and a phenol
derivative: if the resulting compound glows green under ultraviolet
light, it most likely contains tartaric acid. So far, the French
samples look promising.
 
McGovern already sent some material to Armen Mirzoian, a scientist at
the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, whose primary
job is verifying the contents of alcoholic beverages+IBQ-that, say, the
gold flakes in the Italian-made Goldschlager schnapps are really gold.
(They are.) His Beltsville, Maryland, lab is crowded with oddities
such as a confiscated bottle of a distilled South Asian rice drink
full of preserved cobras and vodka packaged in a container that looks
like a set of Russian nesting dolls. He treats McGovern+IBk-s samples with
reverence, handling the dusty box like a prized Bordeaux. +IBw-It+IBk-s almost
eerie,+IB0- he whispers, fingering the bagged sherds inside. +IBw-Some of
these are 5,000, 6,000 years old.+IB0-
 
Months later, McGovern e-mails me with good news: Mirzoian has
detected tartaric acid in the Lattes samples from France, making it
all but certain they contained imported Etrus+AK0-can wine. Also, the
project+IBk-s archaeologists have unearthed a limestone treading vat from
400 B.C.+IBQ-what would seem to be the earliest French wine press, just
about 100 years younger than the Etruscan amphora. Between the two
sets of artifacts, McGovern hopes to pinpoint the advent of French
wine.
 
+IBw-We still need to know more about the other additives,+IB0- he says, +IBw-but
so far we have excellent evidence.+IB0-

McGovern+IBk-s Irish ancestors opened the first bar in Mitchell, South
Dakota, in the late 1800s. His Norwegian predecessors were
teetotalers. McGovern credits his relationship with alcohol to this
mixed lineage+IBQ-his interest is avid, not obsessive. In his student days
at Cornell University and elsewhere, when McGovern dabbled in
everything from neurochemistry to ancient literature, he knew little
about alcohol. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s; other
mind-altering substances were in vogue; the California wine revolution
had barely begun and Americans were still knocking back all manner of
swill.
 
One summer, during which McGovern was +IBw-partly in grad school,+IB0- he says
with the vagueness frequently reserved for the +IBk-70s, he and Doris
toured the Middle East and Europe, living on a few dollars a day. En
route to Jerusalem, they found themselves wandering Germany+IBk-s Mosel
wine region, asking small-town mayors if local vintners needed
seasonal pickers. One winemaker, whose arbors dotted the steep slate
slopes above the Moselle River, took them on, letting them board in
his house.
 
The first night there, the man of the house kept returning from his
cellar with bottle after bottle, McGovern recalls, +IBw-but he wouldn+IBk-t
ever show us what year it was. Of course, we didn+IBk-t know anything
about vintage, because we had never really drunk that much wine, and
we were from the United States. But he kept bringing up bottle after
bottle without telling us, and by the end of the evening, when we were
totally drunk+IBQ-the worst I+IBk-ve ever been, my head going around in
circles, lying on the bed feeling like I+IBk-m in a vortex+IBQ-I knew that
1969 was terrible, +IBk-67 was good, +IBk-59 was superb.+IB0-
 
McGovern arose the next morning with a seething hangover and an
enduring fascination with wine.
 
Earning his PhD in Near Eastern archaeology and history from the
University of Pennsylvania, he ended up directing a dig in Jordan+IBk-s
Baq+IBk-ah Valley for more than 20 years, and became an expert on Bronze
and Iron Age pendants and pottery. (He admits he was once guilty of
scrubbing ancient vessels clean of all their gunk.) By the 1980s, he
had developed an interest in the study of organic materials+IBQ-his
undergraduate degree was in chemistry+IBQ-including jars containing royal
purple, a once-priceless ancient dye the Phoenicians extracted from
sea snail glands. The tools of molecular archaeology were swiftly
developing, and a smidgen of sample could yield surprising insights
about foods, medicines and even perfumes. Perhaps ancient containers
were less important than the residues inside them, McGovern and other
scholars began to think.
 
A chemical study in the late 1970s revealed that a 100 B.C. Roman ship
wrecked at sea had likely carried wine, but that was about the extent
of ancient beverage science until 1988, when a colleague of McGovern+IBk-s
who+IBk-d been studying Iran+IBk-s Godin Tepe site showed him a narrow-necked
pottery jar from 3100 B.C. with red stains.
 
+IBw-She thought maybe they were a wine deposit,+IB0- McGovern remembers. +IBw-We
were kind of skeptical about that.+IB0- He was even more dubious +IBw-that
we+IBk-d be able to pick up fingerprint compounds that were preserved
enough from 5,000 years ago.+IB0-
 
But he figured they should try. He decided tartaric acid was the right
marker to look for, +IBw-and we started figuring out different tests we
could do. Infrared spectrometry. Liquid chromatography. The Feigl spot
test....They all showed us that tartaric acid was present,+IB0- McGovern
says.
 
He published quietly, in an in-house volume, hardly suspecting that he
had discovered a new angle on the ancient world. But the 1990 article
came to the attention of Robert Mondavi, the California wine tycoon
who had stirred some controversy by promoting wine as part of a
healthy lifestyle, calling it +IBw-the temperate, civilized, sacred,
romantic mealtime beverage recommended in the Bible.+IB0- With McGovern+IBk-s
help, Mondavi organized a lavishly catered academic conference the
next year in Napa Valley. Historians, geneticists, linguists,
oenologists, archaeologists and viticulture experts from several
countries conferred over elaborate dinners, the conversations buoyed
by copious drafts of wine. +IBw-We were interested in winemaking from all
different perspectives,+IB0- McGovern says. +IBw-We wanted to understand the
whole process+IBQ-to figure out how they domesticated the grape, and where
did that happen, how do you tend grapes and the horticulture that goes
into it.+IB0- A new discipline was born, which scholars jokingly refer to
as drinkology, or dipsology, the study of thirst.
 
Back at Penn, McGovern soon began rifling through the museum+IBk-s
storage-room catacombs for promising bits of pottery. Forgotten
kitchen jars from a Neolithic Iranian village called Hajji Firuz
revealed strange yellow stains. McGovern subjected them to his
tartaric acid tests; they were positive. He+IBk-d happened upon the
world+IBk-s oldest-known grape wine.

Many of McGovern+IBk-s most startling finds stem from other
archaeologists+IBk- spadework; he brings a fresh perspective to forgotten
digs, and his +IBw-excavations+IB0- are sometimes no more taxing than walking
up or down a flight of stairs in his own museum to retrieve a sherd or
two. Residues extracted from the drinking set of King Midas+IBQ-who ruled
over Phrygia, an ancient district of Turkey+IBQ-had languished in storage
for 40 years before McGovern found them and went to work. The
artifacts contained more than four pounds of organic materials, a
treasure+IBQ-to a biomolecular archaeologist+IBQ-far more precious than the
king+IBk-s fabled gold. But he+IBk-s also adamant about travel and has done
research on every continent except Australia (though he has lately
been intrigued by Aborigine concoctions) and Antarctica (where there
are no sources of fermentable sugar, anyway). McGovern is intrigued by
traditional African honey beverages in Ethiopia and Uganda, which
might illuminate humanity+IBk-s first efforts to imbibe, and Peruvian
spirits brewed from such diverse sources as quinoa, peanuts and
pepper-tree berries. He has downed drinks of all descriptions,
including Chinese baijiu, a distilled alcohol that tastes like bananas
(but contains no banana) and is approximately 120 proof, and the
freshly masticated Peruvian chicha, which he is too polite to admit he
despises. (+IBw-It+IBk-s better when they flavor it with wild strawberries,+IB0-
he says firmly.)
 
Partaking is important, he says, because drinking in modern societies
offers insight into dead ones.
 
+IBw-I don+IBk-t know if fermented beverages explain everything, but they help
explain a lot about how cultures have developed,+IB0- he says. +IBw-You could
say that kind of single-mindedness can lead you to over-interpret, but
it also helps you make sense of a universal phenomenon.+IB0-
 
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 serendipi+AK0-tously: 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+IBk-s first nip was
a stumbled-upon, short-lived elixir of this sort, which McGovern likes
to call a +IBw-Stone Age Beaujolais nouveau.+IB0-
 
But at some point the hunter-gatherers learned to maintain the buzz, a
major breakthrough. +IBw-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,+IB0- McGovern says. +IBw-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.+IB0- (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 +IBw-beer before bread+IB0-
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 +IBw-opened our
minds to other possibilities+IB0- and helped foster new symbolic ways of
thinking that helped make humankind unique, McGovern says. +IBw-Fermented
beverages are at the center of religions all around the world.
[Alcohol] makes us who we are in a lot of ways.+IB0- 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.
 
When McGovern traveled to China and discovered the oldest known
alcohol+IBQ-a heady blend of wild grapes, hawthorn, rice and honey that is
now the basis for Dogfish Head+IBk-s Chateau Jiahu+IBQ-he was touched but not
entirely surprised to learn of another +IBw-first+IB0- unearthed at Jiahu, an
ancient Yellow River Valley settlement: delicate flutes, made from the
bones of the red-crowned crane, that are the world+IBk-s earliest-known,
still playable musical instruments.
 
Alcohol may be at the heart of human life, but the bulk of McGovern+IBk-s
most significant samples come from tombs. Many bygone cultures seem to
have viewed death as a last call of sorts, and mourners provisioned
the dead with beverages and receptacles+IBQ-agate drinking horns, straws
of lapis lazuli and, in the case of a Celtic woman buried in Burgundy
around the sixth century B.C., a 1,200-liter caldron+IBQ-so they could
continue to drink their fill in eternity. King Scorpion I+IBk-s tomb was
flush with once-full wine jars. Later Egyptians simply diagramed beer
recipes on the walls so the pharaoh+IBk-s servants in the afterlife could
brew more (presumably freeing up existing beverages for the living).
 
Some of the departed had festive plans for the afterlife. In 1957,
when University of Pennsylvania archaeologists first tunneled into the
nearly airtight tomb of King Midas, encased in an earthen mound near
Ankara, Turkey, they discovered the body of a 60- to 65-year-old man
fabulously arrayed on a bed of purple and blue cloth beside the
largest cache of Iron Age drinking paraphernalia ever found:?157
bronze buckets, vats and bowls. And as soon as the archaeologists let
fresh air into the vault, the tapestries+IBk- vivid colors began fading
before their eyes

Archaeology is, at heart, a destructive science, McGovern recently
told an audience at the Smithsonian+IBk-s National Museum of the American
Indian: +IBw-Every time you excavate, you destroy.+IB0-
 
That may be why he likes dreaming up new beers so much.
 
Dogfish Head+IBk-s Ta Henket (ancient Egyptian for +IBw-bread beer+IB0-) was
unveiled last November in New York, in the midst of a glittering King
Tut exhibit at Discovery Times Square. Euphoric (or maybe just tipsy)
beer nerds and a few members of the press file into an auditorium
adorned with faux obelisks and bistro tables, each with a bowl of nuts
in the center. The words dog, fish and head in hieroglyphics are
projected on the walls.
 
Onstage beside McGovern, Calagione, swigging an auburn-colored ale,
tells the flushed crowd about how he and the archaeologist joined
forces. In 2000, at a Penn Museum dinner hosted by a British beer and
whiskey guidebook writer, Michael Jackson, McGovern announced his
intention to recreate King Midas+IBk- last libations from the excavated
residue that had moldered in museum storage for 40 years. All
interested brewers should meet in his lab at 9 the next morning, he
said. Even after the night+IBk-s revelry, several dozen showed up.
Calagione wooed McGovern with a plum-laced medieval braggot (a type of
malt and honey mead) that he had been toying with; McGovern, already a
fan of the brewery+IBk-s Shelter Pale Ale, soon paid a visit to the
Delaware facility.
 
When he first met Dr. Pat, Calagione tells the audience, +IBw-the first
thing I was struck by was, +IBg-Oh my God, this guy looks nothing like a
professor.+IBkgHQ- The crowd roars with laughter. McGovern, buttoned into a
cardigan sweater, is practically the hieroglyphic for professor. But
he won over the brewer when, a few minutes into that first morning
meeting, he filled his coffee mug with Chicory Stout. +IBw-He+IBk-s one of
us,+IB0- Calagione says. +IBw-He+IBk-s a beer guy.+IB0-
 
Ta Henket is their fifth collaboration+IBQ-along with Midas Touch and
Chateau Jiahu, they+IBk-ve made Theobroma, based on an archaic Honduran
chocolate drink, and chicha. (All are commercially available, though
only five barrels of the chicha are made per year.) McGovern is paid
for his consulting services.
 
Now the inaugural pitchers of Ta Henket are being poured from kegs at
the back of the room. Neither Calagione nor McGovern has yet tasted
the stuff. It emerges peach-colored and opaque, the foam as thick as
whipped cream.
 
The brew, which will be available for sale this fall, later receives
mixed reviews online. +IBw-Think citrus, herbs, bubblegum,+IB0- one reviewer
writes. +IBw-Rosemary? Honey? Sesame? I can+IBk-t identify all the spices.+IB0-
 
+IBw-Nose is old vegetables and yeast,+IB0- says another.
 
As soon as he has sampled a mouthful, McGovern seizes a pitcher and
begins pouring pints for the audience, giving off a shy glow. He
enjoys the showmanship. When Midas Touch debuted in 2000, he helped
recreate the ruler+IBk-s funerary feast in a gallery of the Penn Museum.
The main course was a traditional lentil and barbecued lamb stew,
followed by fennel tarts in pomegranate jus. Midas+IBk- eternal beverage
of choice was served with dessert, in wine glasses that showed off its
bewitching color+IBQ-a warm caramel with glimmers of gold.

In his laboratory, McGovern keeps an envelope containing Neolithic
grape seeds, which he wheedled out of a viticulture professor in
Georgia (the country, not the state) years ago. The man had six
desiccated pips in good condition, ideal for DNA analysis.
 
+IBw-I said, +IBg-Maybe we could take some of those back and analyze
them,+IBkgHQ-
McGovern recalls. +IBw-He said, +IBg-No, no, they+IBk-re too important.+IBkgHQ-
+IBw-This
would be for the cause of science,+IB0- McGovern persisted.
 
The Georgian left the room for a moment to agonize, and returned to
say that McGovern and science could have two of the ancient seeds.
Parting with them, he said, was like +IBw-parting with his soul.+IB0- The
scholars raised a glass of white Muscat Alexandrueli to mark the
occasion.
 
But McGovern has still not tested the seeds, because he+IBk-s not yet
confident in the available DNA extraction methods+AK0-. He has just one
chance at analysis, and then the 6,000-year-old samples will be
reduced to dust.
 
One day I ask McGovern what sort of libation he+IBk-d like in his own
tomb. +IBw-Chateau Jiahu,+IB0- he says, ever the Dogfish Head loyalist. But
after a moment he changes his mind. The grapes he and his wife helped
pick in the summer of 1971 turned out to yield perhaps the best Mosel
Riesling of the last century. +IBw-We had bottles of that wine that we let
sit in the cellar for a while, and when we opened them up it was like
some sort of ambrosia,+IB0- he says. +IBw-It was an elixir, something out of
this world. If you were going to drink something for eternity you
might drink that.+IB0-
 
In general, though, the couple enjoys whatever bottles they have on
hand. These days McGovern barely bothers with his cellar: +IBw-My wife
says I tend to age things too long.+IB0-
 
Staff writer Abigail Tucker last wrote about Blackbeard+IBk-s treasure.
Photographer Landon Nordeman is based in New York.
 
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mentioned an
Egyptian ale recipe that dates back hundreds of centuries. The article
now says the recipe dates back thousands of years.


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