Archaeology and Dogfish Head: Bringing Back Ancient Beer

Few breweries have garnered the headlines and attention that Dogfish Head has enjoyed. The brewery has a rather extensive list of innovative offerings and a penchant for doing rather unexpected things. One of those has been their continuing line of recreated ancient beers, of which their Midas Touch is only one example. Midas Touch was recreated from the residue left in beer vats found in the tomb believed to have belonged to King Midas – a golden offering that spans the long centuries.

The brewery has kept on with its drive to breathe new life into ancient vintages too. Their most recent endeavor actually has them working with one of the world’s most renowned archaeologists (no, it’s not Indy), as well as Smithsonian Magazine to cover the news.

What’s the Project Here?

While no one is sure just where beer was brewed for the very first time (the earliest evidence points to a date of 3400 BC), most people point to Egypt as one of the earliest societies to get involved with brewing. In fact, a lot of our modern beer heritage is derived directly from what those ancient Egyptians did and the methods that they developed. It’s only fitting then that the latest effort from Dogfish Head focuses on Egypt – an ancient Egyptian ale that has not been brewed in thousands of years to be exact.

Where Did the Recipe Come From?

When recreating ancient beers, there has to be something on which to base the modern recipe. In some instances, ancient cultures were thoughtful enough to record their process (at least most of it). However, in other instances, there is not so much as a jot or tittle on which to go. In these cases, it requires a very special type of expertise to get such a project started. Enter Dr. Patrick McGovern, one of the world’s leading archaeologists and the single worldwide authority on ancient alcoholic beverages.

In this particular instance, Dr. McGovern was involved with examining the tomb of Pharaoh Scorpion I, who died in 3150 BC. With the pharaoh’s body, the ancient Egyptians interred beer. While the beer has certainly dried and vanished over time, it left behind hints of how it was brewed and the ingredients that were used to create it. 

McGovern was able to identify several key ingredients used to brew this ancient draught, including coriander, savory, thyme, oregano and more. Based on those findings, the owner of Dogfish Head (Sam Calagione) and McGovern hit the ancient market of Kahn el-Khalili in Cairo where they purchased the same spices (in a combination called za’atar). They also included chamomile and palm fruit based on other findings. They even used a local yeast trapped by leaving open petri dishes filled with sugar at date farm to allow airborne yeast to collect.

The Birth of Ta Henket

After 7 weeks of aging in the brewery, the newly remade ancient beer finally came to bubbling life. Dubbed Ta Henket, which means bread beer, the brew debuted in late 2010. Fittingly, it was first unveiled at a display of King Tut’s treasures in Times Square in New York. Of course, you cannot run out and purchase your very own Dogfish Head Egyptian ale just yet – it’s set for public release in fall of this year. However, those lucky enough to sample the very first batch have reported that it’s an incredible brew with lots of spice and flavor. Flavors detected range from rosemary to honey to citrus notes and more. It’s a complex beer with a very thick, frothy head, and both McGovern and Calagione were suitably happy with the results of their efforts.

Not the First Collaboration

As mentioned, McGovern and Dogfish Head have worked together before. Midas Touch was one of their collaborations, but there were several other brews that were concocted based on the archaeologist’s research and the brewery’s skill. For instance, they were able to recreate the oldest alcoholic beverage known – a wine-like vintage first brewed in China and now dubbed Chateau Jiahu (it’s available commercially too). Other collaborations include a variety of chicha and Theobroma – a brew based on an ancient recipe first unearthed in Honduras founded on chocolate.

Why Does It Matter?

For those who have little love for history, the most pressing question here might be “why bother?” Why should one of today’s most successful breweries bother recreating beer recipes that have been dust for thousands of years? The answer is twofold. Part of it lies in the fascination with being able to taste something that hasn’t been consumed for millennia. 

However, another part of it is due to the immense role that beer (and other alcoholic beverages like mead and wine) has had on the very formation of human societies. In fact, McGovern credits alcohol with helping to make the human race what it is today. If it weren’t for brewing, chances are that far fewer ancient societies would have developed.

Brewing beer requires a sedentary culture – one that is firmly fixed in one place. Ancient hunter-gatherers were able to tap into some of nature’s bounty through wildly occurring mead (a very happy coincidence), but it was not until those people began to settle down that they were able to create their own beer and wine. Many experts believe that much of the reason that hunter-gatherers began to settle in one place was so that alcohol could be brewed in the first place.

Therefore, today’s world owes an immense debt to alcohol – without it, we would not be where we are today. Were it not for the discovery of brewing and the development of reliable means to create alcoholic beverages over and over again, where would the world be? 

Through the efforts of Dogfish Head, Dr. McGovern and others out there, the rich history and heritage of beer and brewing are finally coming to light and their role in shaping human history is becoming better understood with each passing day and each new discovery.

Posted on July 4, 2011 .