Beer archaeologist

Patrick McGovern, 66, is a beer archeaologist. An adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he's considered the world's leading expert on ancient fermented beverages. Smithsonian profiles McGovern, whose work not only gives insight into pre-biblical agriculture, medicine, and economics, but has also led to new brews at his favorite pub. From Smithsonian:
 Images Beer-Midas-Touch-Beer-9 He has identified the world’s oldest known barley beer (from Iran’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’s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago...

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.

"The Beer Archaeologist"


  1. I think most of the Dogfish Head brews are overhyped but Midas Touch is a wonderfully interesting ‘n tasty beer. Liquid history.

    1. 100% agreed. Most of their beers are overly hoppy for my tastes, but this one was delicious.

    2. Blech. I like lots of Dogfish Head beers, but I hated Midas Touch. I guess I’m in the minority here on both fronts for those opinions, though.

      I found it way too sweet, not refreshing, and lacking in yeast. I may also have been annoyed at paying $12 for a four-pack on it’s hyped awesomeness.

      I thought it unfortunate, though, as I love the idea of reconstructing recipes and of crazy recipes in general. I’m a beginner home brewer, and after a few more batches I’m going to start on some weirder recipes.

  2. “the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China’s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago…”

    But what was it made from?? Rice? Rocks???

    Enquiring minds want to know.

    1. You were guessing correctly as far as rice is concerned, not so much about the rocks^^

      “Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, used a recipe that included rice, honey, and grape and hawthorn fruits. He got the formula from archaeologists who derived it from the residues of pottery jars found in the late Stone Age village of Jiahu in northern China.”


      + you now have the name Jiahu if you want to find out more about it ;-)

      Still have to admit that while I like Dr. Pat’s attitude, I am not sure wether any archaeologist in Europe would call his work “experimental archaeology”, as he refers to it in the Smithsonian article.

      1. @bolivar13, You are correct about the yeasts, and since the “beers” are spontaneously fermented, then it’s likely a combination of yeast and bacteria are involved. I’ve reproduced this combination with a lambic culture of yeast and bacteria, and it has a pronounced change than DFH’s version. One thing that’s great about beer is that you can have variations.

        Also, Sam Caglione has laws that he has to stick to (the percent of malted grain is a requirement), so that some ancient brews cannot be produced by his equipment without 50%(?) grain, which might have been out of proportion from the original recipes. In the end, they will try to reproduce something that will sell, ultimately.

        As for “experimental archaeology” this is the basic definition of it. You research, form hypotheses, then test using experiments. The scientific method applies to archaeology, too. There were many tests of the shards trying to identify residues. When the residues identified fermented products, they started experimenting with the variables until the resultant experimental products yielded the same set of residues found in the pottery shards. It’s just a bonus that it’s a tasty beverage. :)

  3. Enquiring minds need to read the article: “a heady blend of wild grapes, hawthorn, rice and honey that is now the basis for Dogfish Head’s Chateau Jiahu.”

    Well, that was an interesting read. . .what a cool job.

    And the agricultural hypothesis of ‘beer before bread’? Makes sense to me.

    now I’m thirsty…

  4. I wouldn’t say it tastes anything like a Sauterne. It tastes odd, definitely. Not bad, but odd. Kind of mellower and sweeter than beer usually is. It’s still identifiable as beer, though.

  5. I’m also in the “not a big fan of Dogfish” but if you read the founder, Sam Calagione’s book Extreme Brewing you get a sense of where he’s coming from. He likes the outlandish (but not unreasonable). If I recall he even included the recipe for Midas’ Touch.

  6. Midas Touch is good, though a little sweet for my tastes. I had a bottle of my favorite, their World Wide Stout last night though, and it was yummy.

    The other thing I like about Dogfish Head’s brews is that they are one of the few beers out there that I can drink one bottle and not get a headache. There are other beers that I like, but, for some odd reason, if I just drink one of them, it gets painful later.

    1. I’ve got the same problem with beer and headaches (and annoyingly, I discovered it one night when I needed to walk a few miles after having several beers, then needed to be functional very early the next day).

      I’ve dug around a lot trying to get to the bottom of it, and as near as I can tell it’s a kind of yeast allergy. Most often, taking a 12 hour antihistamine before imbibing helps.

  7. I don’t drink, but I think I may have to make an exception for one bottle of this stuff, for history’s sake!

  8. Mead predates anything dating from the neolithic (beer/wine) by vast amounts of time. Some hunter gatherers were still recently preparing it by mixing wild honey with water in a bladder (or some other natural container like a squash) and let it ferment…

    Hence the very interesting theory that mankind has been getting drunk for a _long_ time and invented agriculture so that they could get drunk more often than just at ripe fruit season or honey season…

  9. I still haven’t ever had Midas’ Touch.:( Didn’t Dogfish Head do another archaeologically reconstructed alcoholic beverage? Something to do with cocoa and I’m sure I’m totally wrong here but I think it originated from the Mayans.

    1. Yup. It’s called Theobroma, IIRC, or something like that.

      It’s…odd, too. Definitely tastes a bit chocolate-y.

      (Both beers are traditions at my alma mater’s annual classics happy hour reunion party.)

      1. They also did Chateau Jiahu:

        “Let’s travel back in time again for another Dogfish Head Ancient Ale (Midas Touch was our first foray and Theobroma our most recent), this time 9000 years! Preserved pottery jars found in the Neolithic villiage of Jiahu, in Henan province,Northern China, has revealed that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit was being produced that long ago – right around the same time that barley beer and grape wine were beginning to be made in the Middle East!”

        I have had it once, and it didn’t do much for me. But then, neither did Theobroma.

        On the plus side, Chateau Jiahu has a very low IBU rating of 10, for those of you who were complaining about over-hopped beers. (For comparison, Midas Touch is rated 12.)

  10. I got loaded on some grog Plato gave me. A 12 pack later-

    Socrates is asking if I like the the chicken wings he had last night ?

  11. This article’s a bit breathless. (Also: German wines are a bit sweet unless mediated by a reliable mensch.) Please don’t let Dr. McGovern’s work result in more US state liquor control board-mediated alcohol myths. People should sit down together over * and discuss, preferably with an exquisite local seasonal meal. P.S.: Yuengling, je t’aime

  12. The midas touch and some of their other “historic” beers are decently tasty. They do, however, miss on the yeast. For those of you not particularly into the process of brewing beer – yeast is one of the major contributors to flavor.
    From what I’ve seen, read and tasted, dogfish pays no mind to what the yeast that might have been used in these brews was.
    I suspect that this is because they were wild fermented like modern lambics are and the wild yeasts of delaware are rather different from those in china, egypt or wherever else their ancient brew recipies originated.
    So let us take all this (very interesting) beer history with a bit of a grain of salt.
    I think they probably made the right decision in light of making good beer, but I do object to the idea that what they’re selling is particularly close to what the ancient folks drank.

  13. In the TV show awhile back Dogfish collected wild yeasts from all over Egypt for one of their beers. Can’t remember which one in particular, but yeast has been thought of at least in one instance.

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