Brewing Relics: Archaeologist Patrick McGovern uncovers the secrets of ancient ales and wines

Dr. Patrick McGovern (left) with Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery // Photo courtesy Penn Museum

The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” While this sounds like an adage uttered by an 18th century figure like Ben Franklin, it is in fact an inscription found in Dendera, Egypt, dating back to 2200 B.C.

Egyptians drank beer on a daily basis. Furthermore, getting drunk was the norm during religious festivities (this sounds familiar). And beer was often used throughout Egypt as compensation for labor (sadly, this does not sound familiar). 

“Fermented beverages clearly eased the difficulties of everyday life” and “lubricated the social fabric by bringing human groups together,” explains Dr. Patrick McGovern, who is a pioneering figure in the field of molecular archaeology. 

Often called the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages,” uncovering the history of fermented drink is a normal day on the job for Dr. McGovern, whose official titles include Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the Penn Museum.

McGovern testing a sample // Photo courtesy Penn Museum

For at least 20 years, Dr. McGovern has been decoding ancient fermented recipes with biomolecular archaeological science, using techniques such as infrared spectrometry, mass spectrometry, and gas and liquid chromatography.

Dr. McGovern first encountered the complexities of fermented beverages through his experiences of wine when he toured Europe and the Middle East during grad school. While passing through Germany, he acquired a seasonal job as a grape picker near the Moselle River. On his first night there, the owner would not stop bringing up bottles of wine from the cellar. Dr. McGovern awoke the next morning with two very strong, but very different impressions: the weight of a massive hangover and a fascination for fermented beverages. 

By 1980, he had earned his Ph.D.—and nearly a decade of experience with excavations—when he was approached by a colleague who was studying Iran’s Godin Tepe site. She showed Dr. McGovern a vessel from the site dating to  around 3100 B.C., which had staining she thought could be wine. As a fairly new science, chemical tests were available to determine if tartaric acid, a compound found in grapes, was present in the leftover residue. They were both skeptical that they would find evidence of wine, but gave it a go anyway and, much to their surprise, indeed found tartaric acid in the vessel. Dr. McGovern published on the discovery, and the rest is history—ancient history to be more precise.

In the late 1990s, Dr. McGovern was asked to test a feasting set discovered within the tomb of King Midas in central Turkey, and which had been sitting in the Penn Museum since 1957. His analysis revealed that the king was drinking what seemed to be a mixture of wine, beer, and mead (Now that’s some gold!).

Dr. Patrick McGovern examines the inside of a wine vessel dating from 5400–5000 B.C., from Hajji Firuz (Iran)—at one point considered the earliest grape wine vessel ever known // Photo courtesy Penn Museum

And, why have that kind of knowledge and not share it? In March of 2000, that is just what he did, challenging a room full of brewers to replicate the drink shared at the funerary feast of King Midas circa 700 B.C. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head  answered the call and teamed up with Dr. McGovern to brew the appropriately named Midas Touch, which has gone on to earn multiple medals from Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Cup, and other beer competitions. 

With Midas Touch gleaming with success, Dr. McGovern continued to collaborate with Dogfish Head on its Ancient Ales series. He traveled to Jiahu, China, and came back with another ancient beverage for the brewery to replicate. The drink, which McGovern identified as being made of rice, honey, hawthorn, and grape, is—thus far—the oldest chemically confirmed alcoholic beverage in the world at a healthy 9,000 years old. Dogfish Head and Dr. McGovern translated it into Chateau Jiahu, a favorite of the archaeologist, who swears it is “an ideal complement to Asian foods.” Dr. McGovern’s work with the Ancient Ales series has yielded other beers, such as Ta Henket, an ale made from ingredients and traditions plucked from Egyptian hieroglyphics; Birra Etrusca Bronze, inspired by drinking vessels found in 2,800-year-old Etruscan tombs; and Theobroma, the earliest known alcoholic cocoa-based drink that dates back to 1200 B.C. in Honduras. 

McGovern presents a bottle of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery’s “Midas Touch” beer // Photo courtesy Penn Museum

While these collaborations are fun experiments in modern brewing, the research that led to them suggests something more profound—namely, that brewing and drinking alcohol has shaped human civilizations since our earliest days. “Fermented beverages likely have much to do with the development of the human species.  They contributed in many different ways—medicinally, socially, religiously, economically, artistically, and likely linguistically,” says McGovern. The ubiquity of fermented beverages across cultures gives credence to the theory that alcohol was one of the primary factors behind the start of crop domestication, which led to the development of permanent settlements and complex societies. 

With each new discovery, Dr. McGovern and his colleagues give us a better understanding of just how important a role fermented beverages play in human culture. One could certainly say that it’s a coveted role in the realm of archaeology.

Dr. McGovern maintains his collaboration with Dogfish Head. They are currently in the process of reviving a new ancient blend. When I asked what we could expect next from their efforts, he was in no hurry to unveil the mystery. The latest project is “still a secret,” lost to the annals of history, until the time the brewery and Dr. McGovern bring it back to life.