Ay, These Ancient Ales
Dogfish Head Brewery has created new ales based on brewing residues dug up from ancient ruins.
Beer holds a special place in European culture: from the steppes of Russia to the British Isles every region has its own distinct style of beer, so it may seem there’s always something new to try — or rediscover. In the latter category is a new offering from Dogfish Head Brewery, a company based in Milton, Delaware than opened in 1995 and produces 175,000 barrels of beer annually. This micro-brewer is creating an ambitious line of brews that just might become the next big thing – ancient ales.
As the name suggests, the ancient ales lineup at Dogfish Head are brews that were enjoyed hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years ago by early human civilizations. The point of interest, however, is not that these beers were brewed in ancient Egypt or pre-Viking Age Scandinavia, but why how their ingredients were discovered; enter Dr. Patrick McGovern, a molecular archaeologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
During an archaeological dig in Turkey, archaeologists uncovered a tomb believed to belong to King Midas, the king who became the source for the Greek mythological figure who turned whatever he touched to gold. Inside the tomb were pots containing a kind of gold, namely trace amounts of beer brewed in the early 7th century. Though the beer had long since evaporated, its residue remained, allowing for samples of the beer to be collected and analyzed in 1999 by Dr. McGovern on behalf of Dogfish Head Brewery. His molecular analysis revealed a brew that was a cross between wine, beer, and mead. The findings provided the basis the first of many ancient ales to be unveiled by Dogfish Head over the next decade and a half. This seemingly bizarre concoction would become known as “Midas Touch” for its golden color and the legend surrounding the ancient king.
Several years after the debut of Midas Touch, Dogfish Head again tapped Dr. McGovern to inspect another beer sample, this time originating from a pot found in the Hunan province of China dating back to the Neolithic era, making this the oldest alcoholic beverage on record. McGovern found that the ancient Chinese brewed their beer with sake rice, honey, hawthorn berries, and barley. After a lengthy and complicated research and development process, the beer of the ancient Chinese was unveiled as Chateau Jiahu in honor of the village in which the samples were discovered. Chateau would go on to earn a gold medal at the Great American Brew Fest.
Clearly the brewers at Dogfish Head knew they had something special on their hands, for even before winning their gold medal in 2009, a third ancient beer was unveiled. This time, the brew hailed from 1,400 B.C. Honduras and was found to have been made from honey, annatto, chillies, and cocoa. The latter ingredient set a new record for earliest recorded use of cocoa by humans.
The same year as their victory at the Great American Brew Fest, Dogfish Head unveiled two more ancient ales, though without the need of Dr. McGovern’s expertise. Sah’Tea, a Finnish rye and juniper ale dating back to the Viking Age, and T’ej, a classical Ethiopian beer made from honey and an assortment of tree bark, were both crafted from traditional recipes. Ta Henket, the sixth ancient ale that arrived in late 2010, followed a similar path, though this time the recipe came from hieroglyphs left behind by the ancient Egyptians. So to make the ale authentically Egyptian, a saccharomyces yeast strain native to Cairo was captured in the field and used to ferment the brew.
2012 saw the return of Dr. McGovern with the unveiling an ancient Italian brew created from residue left behind in drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs dating back 2,800 years. The resulting brew, Birra Etrusca Bronze, is a somewhat more traditional beer, though made of honey, wheat, pomegranates, hazelnuts, and Ethiopian myrrh.
2013 saw the unveiling of the most recent ancient ale in the Dogfish Head line. Coming from pre-Viking age Scandinavia courtesy of a birch drinking vessel once belonging to a high priestess, this 3,800-year-old is one of the earliest European beers on record. Made from wheat, lingonberries, cranberries, myrica gale, yarrow, honey and birch syrup, this brew is not only similar to modern beers, but quite similar to the gruit ales that would later appear in ancient France and Britain.
While some may see the use of scientists to discover the correct ingredients of ancient beers as gimmicky, the success of Dogfish Head says otherwise. For one, Sahti has seen something of a revival in Finland and is slowly making its way overseas to the United States and Canada. Though Dogfish Head is unlikely to be the sole reason for this once unknown style crossing the ocean, it’s likely the brewery’s national popularity is drawing attention to ancient styles. The success of Dogfish Head may encourage other micro breweries looking to gain attention to unveil an ancient brew of their own. In the meantime, we’ll have hope that Dogfish Head extends its product distribution into Wisconsin. Perhaps it might take some ambitious home brewer to craft a few of these recipes and share his thoughts with his fellow Milwaukeeans to kick off the ancient brew craze. If any home brewer does try this, let me know the results. And I’ll keep readers posted on any new developments in the newest oldest beers of all.