Experimental beer archaeology yields 3,000-year-old brew recipes spiked with thyme and poppy

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There's a terrific article in the Smithsonian today about "beer archaeologist" Patrick McGovern, a scholar who has unearthed millennia-old alcohol recipes by analyzing residues in ancient pottery. Now he's working with a brewer, Sam Calagione, whose pub Dogfish Head serves up beers based on recipes that are thousands of years old.

In the Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker describes McGovern and Calagione's collaboration, which took them to Egypt to find local ingredients:

"Dr. Pat," as he's known at Dogfish Head, is the world's foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages, and he cracks long-forgotten recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue samples to scrutinize in the lab. 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 . . .

The ancients were liable to spike their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable stuff-olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadow­sweet, mugwort, carrot, not to mention hallucinogens like hemp and poppy. But Calagione and McGovern based their Egyptian selections on the archaeologist's work with the tomb of the Pharaoh Scorpion I, where a curious combination of savory, thyme and coriander showed up in the residues of libations interred with the monarch in 3150 B.C. (They decided the za'atar spice medley, which frequently includes all those herbs, plus oregano and several others, was a current-day substitute.) Other guidelines came from the even more ancient Wadi Kubbaniya, an 18,000-year-old site in Upper Egypt where starch-dusted stones, probably used for grinding sorghum or bulrush, were found with the remains of doum-palm fruit and chamomile. It's difficult to confirm, but "it's very likely they were making beer there," McGovern says.


Sadly, the beer they're whipping up won't have any hallucinogens in it — but the idea of beer with thyme and carrot in it sounds intriguing.

Read more via The Smithsonian.

Photo by Landon Nordeman.