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Ancient cultures used an array of ingredients to make their alcoholic beverages, including emmer wheat, wild yeast, chamomile, thyme and oregano. (Landon Nordeman)

The Beer Archaeologist

By analyzing ancient pottery, Patrick McGovern is resurrecting the libations that fueled civilization

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(Continued from page 5)

Archaeology is, at heart, a destructive science, McGovern recently told an audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian: “Every time you excavate, you destroy.”

That may be why he likes dreaming up new beers so much.

Dogfish Head’s Ta Henket (ancient Egyptian for “bread beer”) 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’ 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’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’s Shelter Pale Ale, soon paid a visit to the Delaware facility.

When he first met Dr. Pat, Calagione tells the audience, “the first thing I was struck by was, ‘Oh my God, this guy looks nothing like a professor.’” 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. “He’s one of us,” Calagione says. “He’s a beer guy.”

Ta Henket is their fifth collaboration—along with Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu, they’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. “Think citrus, herbs, bubblegum,” one reviewer writes. “Rosemary? Honey? Sesame? I can’t identify all the spices.”

“Nose is old vegetables and yeast,” 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’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’ eternal beverage of choice was served with dessert, in wine glasses that showed off its bewitching color—a warm caramel with glimmers of gold.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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