Those who know me may be aware that I’m a big reader. I’ve always been a bibliophile and likely always will be.  I focus mostly on Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror genres, but will from time to time read some non-fiction–especially if it fits into one of my hobbies!  This particular book report is on the recently released Ancient Brews Rediscovered & Re-Created by Dr. Patrick McGovern: a biomolecular archeologist specializing in the alcoholic drinks of prehistoric mankind.

I went to a talk given by Dr. McGovern at the most recent Homebrew Con held in Minneapolis this past summer and was intrigued enough to buy the book there.  Unfortunately I wasn’t in time to get him to sign my copy, so I’ll have to hold on to it for future opportunities of stalker fandom.  The lecture “Liquid Time Capsules” was basically a concentrated version of many of the themes discussed in more detail in the book, but with more pictures.  The focus of both the talk and the book was on using modern technology to search out biomarkers of different ingredients used in ancient human fermented beverages.  By using these new shiny machines and industrious lab work one can ferret out the secret histories hidden within ancient drinking vessels and storage containers.  There is much speculation about how long our race has lived with, created,  and even evolved alongside alcoholic beverages.

Before moving forward, I wanted to give a little more background on myself.  I’ve been a homebrewer for about 27 years and have been much involved in the hobby, beer judging, and of course beer blogging since I started on that long path.  I also have a Bachelor of Science degree in Anthropology from Emory University in Atlanta.  No, I’m not some modern day Indiana Jones racing across the globe looking to punch out nazi’s and unearth antediluvian artifacts…but I probably could if I wanted to!  During my time at Emory I had the pleasure to do some lab assistant work with the late George Armelagos, who discovered that ancient Nubians (circa 500 BC in what is modern Sudan) were getting periodic doses of tetracycline antibiotics–likely from their beer!  So basically, this is my kind of subject matter to the extreme!  Perhaps more mummy curses and snakes (why’d it have to be snakes?) would make it cooler though…

 

Moving back to the book, we learn more about how alcohol affects the body, about animals drunk on naturally fermented fruits, and about the potential that very early humans could have discovered this effect and worked to recreate it themselves.  In many (if not most) cultures, alcoholic beverages or other intoxicants have a strong impact on religion, myth, and cultural development.  Beyond this interesting background information, we move forward to the nuts and bolts of the book: the Ancient Ales.  Dr. McGovern and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewing have been making beers together since the release of Midas Touch in 1999, and the bulk of the book really focuses on the research and development of these projects.  Since Minnesota has only very recently started importing Dogfish Head, I have not been able to taste many of these intriguing concoctions, but reading about them can make one quite thirsty!  I have managed to get my hands on a bottle of the previously mentioned Midas Touch, and really liked the complexity and sweetness of this golden beer/wine/mead hybrid.  I’ve also tried the Chateau Jiahu: a beer based upon research from a 9000 year old neolithic Chinese site.  I had that one a couple of years ago and can’t remember much in detail other than than it was high in alcohol and tasted of strangely flavored hawthorn fruit.  I would love to try it again after reading in depth about it’s inception!

Each chapter talks about one of these special brews and gives lots of information about the area’s historic evidence as well as cultural milieu from the archeologic record.  There is some overlap and recurring themes in each chapter that perhaps get a little redundant by the end of the book, but things are set up so readers may read a single chapter as a chunk rather than have to dig into this tome front to back like I did.  At the end of each chapter McGovern has included a homebrew recipe so one can try to recreate these beers at home, as well as a suitable and period appropriate meal recipe to share with the beverage.  As a seasoned homebrewer (and cook), these recipes look pretty complicated and involved but I appreciate their presence.  I’m half tempted to brew up one of these ancient ales and invite a group of beer geeks over for a pairing event…

My overall impressions of the book are quite favorable, though I do run into some minor gripes.  I feel that Dr. McGovern struggles a bit between making this relevant to the lay person, while still including enough historical record and hard science to make this a legitimate academic work.  At the risk of sounding like a grade-schooler, I wish there were more pictures!  The descriptions of potsherds and strangely unearthed burial sites are interesting, but without being able to see them, I find it hard to visualize the differences and similarities.  I would also have loved some maps to go along with these chapters:  McGovern goes into exhaustive detail about the spread of wine culture across the Mediterranean and beyond, but some visual cues would have made this easier to follow.  Despite the aforementioned concerns, as I read this remarkable treatise, I’m personally reminded of why I have a degree in anthropology and why the study of our ancestors is still important to understand ourselves and where we may go in the future.  This is a unique book and one that hits me right in my inner primitive soul.  That being said, let’s raise a nitre encrusted drinking amphorae in the air and make a toast to the entire history of the fermented beverage!